Historical Personality Assessment: Humorism, Phrenology & Physiognomy

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  • 0:28 Ancient Greek Humorism
  • 1:33 Phrenology
  • 2:21 Blood Type
  • 3:08 Physiognomy
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Balik
Freud wasn't the first person to try to figure out why people do the things they do. All throughout history, scientific and philosophical brainpower have been devoted to figuring out how we end up the way they do. Find out more about the history of the study of personality in this lesson.

Why do different people have different personalities? This question has always fascinated mankind, and over the course of history, there have been many attempts to explain it. In this segment, we'll consider four different attempts.

The first comes from the ancient Greeks. They believed that the body is made up of four different types of substances, or humors. The four humors are black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. The theory, which was endorsed until around the nineteenth century, was that various personalities, as well as various diseases, could be explained in terms of different mixes, excesses and deficiencies of the four humors. Blood was associated with a sanguine, or optimistic disposition; yellow bile, a choleric, or easily irritable, one; black bile, a melancholic temperament; and phlegm was associated with a phlegmatic, or calm disposition.

Physician Franz Joseph Gall helped to originate the practice of phrenology.
Franz Joseph Gall

Around the same time as humorism was falling out of fashion, another method of associating personality and character with specific physical characteristics was being practiced. It was developed by Franz Joseph Gall, a physician who wrote a book with an impressively long title: The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular, with Observations upon the possibility of ascertaining the several Intellectual and Moral Dispositions of Man and Animal, by the configuration of their Heads. The practice he helped to originate is known as phrenology, or the practice of associating measurements and features of particular areas on the human skull with certain personality and character traits.

While humorism and phrenology are both historical approaches within the Western tradition of explaining scientifically why different people have different personality types, let's look now at an idea from Japanese culture. If you're familiar with Japanese anime, you may have noticed that many characters give their ABO blood types. This is because, in Japan, some people believe that different blood types are associated with different personalities. People with type A blood are supposedly serious and meticulous; type B, optimistic and curious; type AB, rational and discriminating; and type O, sociable and hard-working. Little scientific evidence exists to support this idea, but surveys indicate that a large percentage of Japanese people believe in it, anyway.

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