Four Basic Temperaments

Beyond these personality types of an introvert, extrovert, and ambivert lie the four basic temperaments as observed by the Greek physician Hippocrates (460–370 BCE), often called the father of medicine. Through acute observation, Hippocrates noted temperamental differences in individuals and came up with a theory to explain these differences. He determined there were four basic temperaments and named them choleric, sanguine, melancholy, and phlegmatic. Biochemically based, his theory involved the body “humors” he believed influenced the differences. These humors were blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm. Today, instead of humor, we think in terms of hormones or other biochemical substances that affect human behaviors. The complete content of Hippocrates’ theory has disappeared, yet the basic four categories remain. Many different takes on the four basic temperaments have been published over the years, with some writers comparing them to different types of animals and others to various colors. Preferring to give credit where credit is due, I will use the classic terms coined by Hippocrates.

Temperament is what makes one person, for example, a sports enthusiast and another a lover of the fine arts. These hard-wired strengths and weaknesses will motivate an individual’s behavior for the rest of their lives. However, the strengths can be further developed and the weaknesses can be diminished. Knowing your temperament mix provides guidelines by which you can evaluate your behavior on any given day. Although a great deal of effort and concentration is involved in overcoming weaknesses, they can become learned behaviors. As you learn and grow, you will begin to catch yourself in positive and negative behaviors peculiar to your temperament blend. You can learn to affirm the positive and correct the negative, such as “I really heightened my ability to listen well when I remembered to focus on that person’s concern.” Your self-talk could turn into something like this: “I need to be more aware of other people’s problems and give them my full attention.”

Before I explain each of the four temperaments, studies in human development and behavior have concluded that we are not only one temperament but a composite. We have a primary and secondary temperament and some degree of the other two within us as well. These traits are hardwired in us, having a genetic component. Moreover, each temperament has its strengths and weaknesses. Hopefully, once you determine your primary and secondary temperaments, you will resolve to walk in your strengths and learn to mitigate or overcome your weaknesses. Along with what I talk about below, I encourage you to go online and choose one of these tests so you can get to know yourself better: The Four Temperaments Test (, Temperament Test (, and Four Temperaments Test (

Willingness rather than willfulness is the major criteria for change as well as putting away chronic subjugation. You cannot be who you were created to be when you continue to say yes when you mean no. You must be willing to own your temperament weaknesses as well as your strengths in order to grow and develop. I believe we should be taught these foundational truths as young people. Teenagers armed with the knowledge of how they are wired temperamentally, how they can build on their strengths and diminish/overcome their weaknesses are way ahead in life. This knowledge could prevent them from having to go through the torment of comparing themselves to their peers and wondering, What is wrong with me? Why can’t I be like ______ ? A good example might be the proverbial female bookworm who looks at the cheerleader and condemns herself for not being the popular, bubbly classmate she envies. Little does the bookworm know that perhaps she will become the envy of the cheerleader when she is ensconced in a New York office as an editor working for a high-powered publishing firm.

Let’s look at each of the four temperaments.


Cholerics are extroverts, and their strengths are considerable. They are natural-born decisive leaders full of confidence. They are strong-willed, independent, productive, and optimistic. Having minds full of objectives, plans, and practical ideas, which they most often accomplish, they can achieve a great deal. You will see them in action shining as CEOs, activists, producers, and military people of high rank, for example.

The weaknesses of the choleric are also considerable. Their wiring lacks the capability to empathize with others so they often come across as cold, judgmental, angry, harsh, and even cruel. Moreover, a proud and self-sufficient attitude is often seen in the choleric’s tendency to dominate.


Equally extroverted as the choleric is the sanguine. Unlike the choleric, the sanguine temperament is wired with empathy, compassion, warmth, and friendliness. Sanguine individuals are so outgoing in their personable, talkative way that people are naturally drawn to them. The carefree enthusiasm they possess, added to their optimism, is hard to resist. They are often described as charming. Many actors, professional speakers, and salespeople exhibit the sanguine temperament.

Unfortunately, if not corrected, their weaknesses can undermine their strengths. The carefree element of the sanguine can include an undependable, unstable, and undisciplined lifestyle. Unwilling to adopt a self-disciplined approach to life, the restless mode of the sanguine can result in many business and personal projects left incomplete. In their exuberance, it is easy for them to cross the line from realistic description to exaggeration to lying. In their enthusiasm, they can be loud and enjoy talking about themselves more than listening to their companion.


Introverted melancholics are bright yet so quiet you may misunderstand them and view their value as less than the extrovert. This would be a serious mistake, for the melancholy individuals have much to offer. The analytical, often gifted melancholy can see the potential problems in a proposed plan and prevent loss of time and effort for friends or colleagues. Their idealistic and perfectionistic standards request the best from themselves and those around them. Aesthetics can greatly affect the melancholy individual. A pleasant home or work environment has a positive effect on the productive output of this temperament. Melancholics are also naturally loyal and self-sacrificing with their friends.

On the downside, melancholy individuals can be quite self-critical as well as critical of others. Their standard is generally rigidly perfectionistic, and their push to attain it for themselves and others can become brutal. Having such a high bar regarding expectations can set them up for disappointment and discouragement. With a tendency toward negativity, their moodiness can default to self-defeating beliefs and distortions in their thoughts, which can bring on depression. Isolation, which they tend to prefer especially in difficult times, is not a healthy place for them. This propensity toward depression can often be tempered by choosing to bounce their thoughts off of a trusted friend, regaining balance in their thinking. In relationships, if a melancholic individual is hurt in some way, perhaps betrayed, for example, they are capable of holding a grudge and even becoming revengeful.


The phlegmatic individual is laid back, appearing calm, cool, and collected. Not easily upset, excited, or angered, phlegmatics are composed in unpleasant or difficult situations. In their quiet, non-attention-seeking manner, they exhibit dependability, efficiency, diplomacy, practicality, and leadership. They can be surprisingly humorous and conservative at the same time. According to experts in the field, the phlegmatic is often seen as a stand-up comic, diplomat, teacher, accountant, or technician.

With these strengths, strong weaknesses also exist. Desiring to conserve their energy, phlegmatics can be hesitant to get involved, taking time to calculate how much effort or money they want to expand on any given project or person. This can be seen as selfishness and stubbornness. Often unmotivated, they become spectators in life rather than choosing to push through their complacency to fulfill their potential.

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