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A friend of mine recently came across the Gutenberg Project on the internet. In case you haven’t heard of it, this is something of a movement seeking to upload and disseminate as many free eBooks as it can on the web. One of the eBooks my friend stumbled across was entitled, ‘How to Analyse People on Sight’, by Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict. Penned in 1921, it’s a bizarre piece of text which seeks to categorise people into five different types: the Enjoyer, the Thriller, the Worker, the Stayer and the Thinker.

While each of these different categories are supposedly related to a particular ‘body type’ – the Worker, for example, has a bigger physical build compared to the Thriller who is tall and thin – the authors believe that these categories can also tell us about the types of people they are, their emotions, their likes and their dislikes. As they note, “Through this latest human science you can learn to read people as easily as you read books.” For example, The Enjoyer is a fat man who is a “brilliant conversationalist” and who “seldom dislikes anybody for long”. On the other hand, the Thriller – that is, the man who is tall and thin – tends to be temperamental, but is also keenly sensitive and can put himself “in the role of another”. It is argued that these and other insights can be used to improve the way we interact with others, including who we choose to marry and who we decide to employ.  

Although the authors say this form of segmentation is grounded in scientific fact, their sources are clearly more likely to be found in ungrounded generalisations and superficial stereotypes. It’s obvious to most people reading this book today, as hopefully it was to those reading it at the time, that this is a fairly useless analysis of human beings and what makes them tick. To classify people into categories based on their body type, and then to be so assured that you can elicit information about their personalities and tendencies just from one glance is not only farfetched but also arrogant.

Yet what is concerning is that even now we continue to fall back on many rudimentary forms of classification, manoeuvring people into boxes that can rarely hold them. Like the child who can’t seem to find a way of slotting a triangle into the circle-shaped hole, we seem pretty persistent at hammering away anyway. Take the plethora of magazine questionnaires which try and identify our personality-type, the matchmaking websites which help us figure out our ideal type of partner, or the many attitudinal surveys which enable us to see what our true political tribe is.

Many of these examples would seem rather trivial if it wasn’t for the detrimental consequences which even seemingly minor forms of segmentation may have. The first issue concerns how we view and interact with others. One of my colleagues in the Social Brain team believes certain models of segmentation are at risk of establishing a new form of hierarchy, whereby certain ‘types’ of people are come to be seen as superior to others. Although I think there is some truth in this, the issues of segmentation appear far more subtle. Concerns over hierarchy would only make sense if everybody was aware of their ‘type’ and if certain groups were willing to be subservient to others; something which doesn’t lend itself neatly to current models of segmentation.

A more likely source of tension will be the way in which people use personality types, conscious or not, as a means of creating dividing lines and causing rifts between others they fail to get on with. Though this too might seem fanciful, it is not hard to imagine someone complaining about another person’s behaviour on account of their particular personality ‘type’. For instance, if someone is having difficulty getting their boss to take on an idea of theirs, they may begin to cite their manager’s ‘settler’-like personality as an explanation for why the risk wasn’t taken (see Seven Transformations of Leadership by Rooke and Torbert for an example of segmentation in the workplace). Not only does this divert attention from the real problem (i.e. perhaps it was just a bad idea), but it also sets the tone for future interactions between the people concerned.

The second problem of segmentation lies in how we see ourselves. At a recent lecture here at the RSA, author and social psychologist Timothy Wilson spoke about how our self-constructed narratives can often be powerful predictors of the way we actually behave. In short, we tend to live out our own stories for the future. The more we see ourselves as being involved in our communities or as free from drug and alcohol abuse, the more likely it is that it will happen. In the same way, such placebo effects are also likely to arise from our habit of self-segmentation. To return to the 7 leadership styles in the workplace, a manager identifying themselves as being a ‘Diplomat’ may end up stuck in that role, fulfilling their ‘story’ as a people-pleaser instead of somebody who isn’t afraid of taking unpopular decisions. Bound up in a pithy and catchy ‘type’, such unhelpful narratives can only end up being cemented further.

Not all models of segmentation will lead to such pernicious effects. The ‘Value Modes’ approach, for instance, might be one example of a model which is changing the face of politics and policymaking for the better. By understanding people’s different value modes (settler, prospector or pioneer), the aim is to promote pro-social behaviour by designing policies and initiatives which better reflect people’s different value systems. That said, the level of faith that many are putting in this approach echoes much of the self-assured tone which is present in the book mentioned earlier.

While getting to know ourselves better can often be a route to empowerment and greater autonomy, we should be careful that it is the rich complexity of human nature that we are acknowledging rather than simply trivial categories which we can all too easily find ourselves falling back on for quick and easy answers.


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