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By Mark Kendall
Psychologist David Keirsey ’47 believes there are four kinds of people
in this world.
You’re an Artisan, Guardian, Idealist or Rational.
You’re born that way.
And you’re OK.
Keirsey’s “Temperament Sorter” is wildly popular with those disposed to
self-analysis. Reader reviews for his book, Please Understand Me,
on amazon.com run from “if I had just known this earlier, it would have
saved me so much trouble” to “if everybody had the chance to read just
one book …”
“Over the decades, I have received hundreds of letters from people who
say, ‘You changed my life,’’’ says Keirsey, who published his first tome
on the subject in 1978. Since then, Please Understand Me (written with
Marilyn Bates) has sold more than two million copies and Keirsey has
published a more detailed follow-up, Please Understand Me II, and
several other books. A few years back, the Duluth (Minn.) News
Tribune asked candidates for City Council to take the test and
published the results.
Today, at age 84, Keirsey carries on his quest to hone and propagate his
ideas. He types away at his next book, Brains and Temperaments,
six days a week, eight hours a day, or until his eyes give him trouble.
“I cannot not do it” he says. “I’m obsessed with it. Besides, it’s fun.”
Psychologist David Keirsey '47, seen above
and below, is ever-expressive with his
hands as he explains temperament theory.
The Keirsey Temperament Sorter is a 70-question inventory that
identifies key character traits. Certain combinations of traits define
the four temperaments and what Keirsey calls the 16 “role variants”:
-- Cheerful, fun-loving, excitable Artisans, are born with tactical
brains, and gradually become efficient in playing the role of promoter,
crafter, performer or composer.
-- Serious, dutiful, cautious Guardians, are born with logistical
brains, and steadfastly become efficient in playing the role of
supervisor, inspector, supplier or protector.
-- Dramatic, romantic, enthusiastic Idealists, are born with diplomatic
brains, ever seeking to increase their efficiency in the role of
educator, adviser, advocator or conciliator.
-- Pragmatic, scientific, technical Rationals, are born with strategic
brains, systematically increasing their efficiency in the role of
mobilizer, planner, remodeler or designer.
The sorter is meant to help people understand their mates, family
members, friends, and co-workers rather than trying to change them.
“It’s OK to be different,” Keirsey says. “That’s the message.”
The people who appreciate his theories the most are Idealists, the group
that makes up less than 10 percent of the population. Keirsey says the
conciliators within this group often grow up seeing themselves as ugly
ducklings. “But they’re swans,” he says. “They just don’t know it.”
Kelley Hunt, a reference librarian in Conroe, Texas, first took the
Keirsey Temperament Sorter more than a decade ago when she worked for a
state agency. Learning about the different kinds of personalities was a
very validating experience for Hunt, who turned out to be a rare
“It just kind of makes you feel included in the human race, rather than
a pariah,” said Hunt, who later took the Sorter a second time as part of
her library job. “I always felt there was something wrong and I needed
to change to be like other people. Now I feel like ‘this is the way I
The arena where Keirsey’s ideas get less acclaim is in academia. “It’s
people out on the streets who have paid rapt attention,” he says.
“Psychology departments have totally ignored it. Maybe they don’t like
mavericks like me.”
Keirsey traces the origins of temperament theory back to the Greeks
Hippocrates, Aristotle and Plato, who each outlined four basic
temperaments. Later, 20th-century researchers such as Ernst Kretschmer,
Eric Fromm and Isabel Myers also delved into what is now called “personology.”
Keirsey was turned on to the topic after a friend introduced him to the
now widely-used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Upon taking the indicator
he said “wow, that’s me.”
But Keirsey wanted to take it farther. He went to work elaborating on
Isabel Myers’s model, (which itself was influenced by the earlier work
of Carl Jung), to create his Temperament Sorter. The major difference,
says Keirsey, is that while Myers focuses on what people “have in mind,”
he focuses on “what people say and do.”
Keirsey, who scores as a Rational on his own temperament sorter, is more
likely to watch someone’s hands than try to probe their mind. “Nobody
can observe thoughts and feelings, so I’m no longer interested in
guessing what they might be,” he says. So Keirsey has turned away from
psychology and toward sociobiology, his current inspirations being
sociologist Erving Goffman and communication analyst Jay Haley.
Being interviewed, Keirsey often answers questions by getting up from
his desk, pulling a book from his library and expounding on its
contents. He holds up a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of
Mental Disorders, the primary diagnostic reference used by mental health
professionals in the U.S., and dismisses it as “drivel.”
The former fighter pilot often trains his sights on modern
psychotherapy. He contends that there’s no such thing as mental illness.
He considers the label “attention deficit” to be silly, and calls the
widespread use of Ritalin a tragedy. He appears to relish his
self-described role as a “maverick.”
Keirsey’s oldest daughter, Janene, a Rational like her father, fondly
recalls the dinner-table discussions they had growing up, using salt and
pepper shakers as props in their discussions of whether a set can be a
subset of itself. Her father can be aggressive in making his arguments,
Janene says, but she took this as a sign of respect, that he believed
she, a child, was capable of defending her ideas. “He’s a formidable
man,” she says, adding that he also was a “really good dad.”
Keirsey’s son, David Mark, also is a Rational with a Ph.D. in computer
science. The father and son are both into science, technology and
personology, and “argue with each other endlessly,” according to Keirsey.
His younger daughter, Tamara, is busy raising four of Keirsey’s eight
Keirsey’s own childhood was quite different. He grew up on a ranch in
the then-rural town of Tustin, not far from his current home on the
coast in Orange County. “I was in fantasy most of the time daydreaming,”
he recalls. “There were no playmates. I was just isolated, so I read and
At Santa Ana Junior College, he met his future wife, Alice. She was the
first person he had met who would discuss philosophy with him. (After
graduating from UCLA, she became an elementary school teacher.)
But college and courtship were interrupted by World War II, where he
served a stint as a fighter pilot on a carrier in the Pacific theatre.
With little tolerance for bureaucracy, Keirsey says his military years
were a boring waste of time, except for the practices in aerobatics,
rocket firing and dog-fighting, and the perilous combat missions at
Okinawa, Borneo and the Ryuku Islands.
Out of the service, he married Alice and transferred to Pomona College
for his last year and a half of college. He was determined to make up
for lost time. “I read, read, read, read and read about psychology,” he
said. From there he went on to earn his master’s and doctoral degrees at
The Claremont Graduate School, where Professor Francis Theodore Perkins,
a devotee of Gestalt psychology, was a major influence on him.
Keirsey began his work life as a counselor at a reform school for
delinquent boys, and later worked for school districts helping “troubled
and troublesome” kids stop being troubled or troublesome. In these
roles, he developed his focus on changing what kids, parents, teachers,
and administrators say and do, through the years collecting methods of
correcting “deviant habits that children acquire in self defense.”
In 1970, he returned to academia as a professor at California State
University, Fullerton, where he developed a program for training
marriage, child, and family counselors and school psychologists in
corrective counseling. He chaired the Counseling Department before
“retiring” in 1981.
“I really didn’t retire,” he says. “I started writing in 1981 and have
been writing ever since.”
Keirsey publishes through his family-run Prometheus Nemesis Books. This
way, Keirsey says, he can focus on writing without having to worry about
finding a publisher. And write he does, day after day, surrounded by
books in his study. “He’s never quite satisfied that he’s got it
completely,” says daughter Janene, who works for Prometheus Nemesis.
At the moment, he’s hammering away at his next book, tentatively titled
Brains and Temperaments: An Inquiry into the Division of Labor in
Civilization. This tome will put a twist on his temperament theory,
presenting it as four kinds of brains—strategic, tactical, logistical
He scrolls down on his computer screen to reveal bar charts that show
the relative strength of these four brains. “I have a strategic brain,
so my logistical brain doesn’t work very well,” he says. “And, besides,
I’m not interested in logistics, that is, collecting, stashing, and
distributing wares, goods and commodities.”
These differing kinds of brains, Keirsey says, trace back to caveman era
roles of hunter, gatherer, shaman and toolmaker. He sees the different
temperaments as necessary for the division of labor in society today.
“You’re born with a certain kind of brain, so go with it,” he says. “Do
what you do best. Find that niche that suits your best suit.”
That ideology serves Keirsey well as he reaches his mid-80s, with his
brain still focused on refining his work. Along with the
nearly-completed Brains and Temperaments, Keirsey already has
written more than 400 pages of a book on madness and temperament. After
that, he plans a book on logic, and then one on how to reshape education
to accommodate the different brains.
“My goal,” he says. “Is to stay alive long enough to get my books
Know the types:
Pragmatic, scientific, technical, born with a strategic brain, with
Einstein as the classic example.
The Idealist: dramatic, romantic, enthusiastic, born with a
The Artisan: cheerful, fun-loving, excitable, born with a
Example: Ernest Hemingway.
The Guardian: serious, dutiful, cautious, born with a
logistical brain. Example: Mother Teresa.
Psychologist David Keirsey ’47 finds that two of his four personality
types are far more common than the others. He estimates that Guardians
make up 40 to 45 percent of the population while Artisans account for 35
to 40 percent. Idealists make up no more than 10 percent of the
population and Rationals fewer than 7 percent.
Recently, an unscientifically selected sample of Pomona alumni,
students, faculty and staff took the test in response to a request from
PCM. Not surprisingly, the steadfast, logistical-brained,
institution-protecting Guardians make up an even larger percentage (52
percent) of those who agreed to take the test than Keirsey’s averages:
Idealists made up 16 percent, Rationals 8 percent and Artisans 8
Several of our respondents commented on the difficulty they had in
choosing answers at many points in the sorter, and one, Professor James
Likens, actually took the test three times, recording different results
each time, so that he enters the books as an
Idealist/Rational/Artisan—or maybe he would be best described as an
anti-Guardian. At least, until he takes the test for the fourth time...
For what it’s worth, here’s a sample of Pomona personality types:
Bill Keller ’70, executive editor, The New York Times, trustee
Jan Gore Venolia ’50, author
Leonard Pronko, professor of theatre
Mary Schmich ’79, columnist, Chicago Tribune
Margo True ’86, executive editor, Saveur
Mark Wood, executive editor, PCM
Kathleen Howe, director, Pomona College Museum of Art
Bruce Poch, dean of admissions
Ann Quinley, dean of students
Cecilia Conrad, associate dean of the college, professor of
Lori DesRocher ’06, ASPC president
Jennifer Doudna ’85, professor of chemistry, UC Berkeley; trustee
Neil Gerard, director of Smith Campus Center
Gary Kates, dean of the college
Dan O’Leary, associate professor of chemistry
David Oxtoby, president
Gregg Popovich, former basketball coach; head coach, San Antonio Spurs
Jill Walker Robinson, managing editor, PCM
Cynthia Selassie, professor of chemistry
Jim Taylor ’84, screenwriter
Nancy Treser-Osgood ’80, director of alumni relations
Sam Yamashita, professor of history