The four temperaments: phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine and melancholic.
I own a whippet. There are times when I feel that she owns me. Having read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I keep a close eye on her behaviour and I resolve from time to time to reassert my mastery but I have to admit without much success. I never liked dogs. As a child I was frightened of them and my distaste barely lessened into adulthood. My Damascene moment came on my 60th birthday, which coincided with retirement. My children presented me with a whippet for my birthday present (one that I had to pay for, by the way) so that I would have take her out for a daily walk and thus ward off the onset of decrepitude and senility. It was not long before this beautiful animal had insinuated herself into my heart.
Apparently, whippets are good at this. I soon discovered that there were other personality traits common to this breed of dog. They are incorrigible creatures of comfort, one reason perhaps that they were the favoured pet of those other creatures of comfort, royalty and nobility. They seek out the cosiest spot in the house – bed, sofa, fireplace, suntrap – and take possession with an air of haughty entitlement. It is as well to check any suspicious lump in a duvet before collapsing onto the bed for a cheeky afternoon snooze. They are amazingly agile and are born to run; in full flight they are a breath-taking sight. But the burst of energy does not last long. Having broken the land speed record, they are content to rest on their laurels for the remainder of the day and sleep. In fact, their proclivity for a bit of shut-eye exactly matches my own. They hate the rain and will simply put their paws down – back and front – to resist any suggestion of walkies when it is wet, once again exactly mirroring my own sentiments. They crave human contact and love nothing better than a comfy lap to lie in, yet again……. but I labour the point.
So, are all whippets the same? Not exactly. They have their own personalities but they are indubitably of a type. The similarities are uncanny and often bring a wry smile to their admirers. I wonder if whippets think the same about humans. Do they look at us, nod their heads and with a knowing smile say, well, yes, all Germans are humourless, all French are amorous, all Italians are excitable, all Dutch are big, all Irish (or Poles, or Belgians, or Afrikaners, depending on who are their neighbours) are thick? They may well do but they would be wrong; we all know the dangers of racial typecasting.
All of which leads me on to a subject about which I feel strongly. Towards the end of my time in gainful employment, I became increasingly aware of what I took to be a fad but which soon became manifestly a credo, the trust bestowed on personality testing in the recruitment and appointment of potential employees. I can cite examples – anecdotal, I know, but others too have expressed scepticism – where a wholly unsuitable person has been promoted to a job outside his or her capabilities. Why on earth didn’t someone ask those of us who knew the person concerned what we thought? When the appointment went horribly wrong, I would try not to mimic my whippet’s supercilious look of ‘I told you so’. It seems that the practice of personality profiling, or psychometric testing, is being more and more widely adopted in HR departments and recruitment companies to assess applicants and employees. What does ‘psychometric’ mean? The word splits easily into two: ‘psyche’ meaning human soul, mind, spirit, and ‘metric’ meaning a system of measurement. So psychometric tests measure intelligence, aptitude and personality traits. And behaviour? We will come to that anon.
Let us go back a few years, to Greco-Roman times. It was believed that the four humours in the body – sanguine (blood), phlegmatic (phlegm), choleric (yellow bile) and melancholic (black bile) – made up the workings of the body, including the mind, and an excess or deficiency in any combination of these humours determined health and temperament. The theory held credence throughout mediaeval times and only fell out of favour with the advance of scientific knowledge in the early 19th Century. So much quackery, we now know. The new gospel, as far as personality goes, is psychological assessment. Charles Darwin first explored the individual differences in animals in his seminal work The Origin of Species. Soon it was humans and their behavioural differences that interested scientists and then it became simply a matter of how to measure these differences, in effect, how to measure intelligence. From there was a logical step to use assessment of personality and intelligence as a means of evaluating suitability for this or that. I know I am over-simplifying a very complex subject but sometimes experts can lose themselves (and us) in jargon.
My question is this - is psychometric testing any more accurate in assessing personality than the learned doctrines of mediaeval quackery? I never had to take an IQ test. Just as well, Dad, cry my children. I did pass my 11 Plus but if God didn’t lend a hand, I’m sure the Catholic Church put in a good word. As a means of assessing academic potential, it was a blunt instrument but are the more sophisticated methods much better? It is believed by the apostles of psychometric testing that one’s personality is fixed at birth. But what about all the experience garnered during the process of growing up, all that knowledge and understanding gained during a life fully lived? Psychological profiling is designed to ensure the right people get the right jobs. Others might call that pigeon-holing. It is designed to make the human personality predictable. But we are not predictable. We are human, with all the complex, infuriating paradoxes that humanity incorporates. None of us is a ‘type’. We are all different.
How often have you had to fill in a form or questionnaire that drives you nuts, so much so that you hurl your pen in frustration? Which is your favourite colour a) green b) blue c) red d) yellow e) purple? Orange, for God’s sake. Which of the following best describes your personality a) optimistic b) pessimistic c) cheerful d) angry e) carefree? Depends which side of the bed I get out of, stupid! Would you a) phone the police b) make a cup of tea c) take a photo on your mobile phone d) quote the Highway Code e) drive away? Depends on the context. Which is your favourite soap a) Eastenders b) Coronation Street c) Brookside d) Hollyoaks e) Crossroads? I hate soaps. You see, we all dislike being pigeon-holed. We like to think we are different. We believe we have an identity. Here I go again. The ‘id’ in identity refers to that part of the mind in which instinctive impulses are manifest. The crucial word there is instinctive. We are capable of acting differently at different times. That is what makes us, well, different to everybody else.
There is no way to gauge accurately character and personality. If there were, there might be fewer divorces. We humans are always likely to throw up a surprise or two. Interviewing someone face-to-face is not a fool proof way to assess the suitability of a candidate for a job but it is surely better than relying on a written test. The human brain is unknowable, even on occasions to the subject himself. “I would not open windows into men’s souls,” announced Queen Elizabeth. Neither would I. Neither should employers.