Book Review: Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types

Please Understand Me:  Character & Temperament Types, by David Keirsey & Marilyn Bates

This is the sort of book that some people will absolutely love, some people will loathe, and few people will read in its entirety, cover to cover, as I did.  As someone with a deep interest in personality theory (for the record, I am an ENTJ, the most militant of rationals), I found the book intriguing, if a bit on the “fuzzy” side.  The book was probably written by a humanistic NF with a desire for everyone to live in peace and understanding with the knowledge that everyone is different and sees the world in their own way and should be valued in their own way, according to their own language.  Some people are likely to respond extremely positively to such an approach, while others will find it offensive.  I find it of some intellectual value but deeply troubling in its conceptual framework and approach, a matter I would like to reserve for my next post, as it is too lengthy to discuss in the context of a book review.

The book begins with an appeal for the validity of different personality approaches, going through a brief history of the Jungian approach of personality theory (as opposed to one-factor approaches like Freud) and provides a short test for people who do not already know their personality type so they can find out theirs, giving a very basic introduction to the four pairs of qualities within the Myers-Briggs system.

The second chapter is by far the weakest one of the book, for a variety of reasons.  For one, the chapter tries to do too much, tying in the traditional theory of the four humours (sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, and melancholic–I happen to be a melancholic) with the four core Myers-Briggs temperaments (SP, SJ, NT, and NF), a match which is far from exact.  This error is then compounded by the fact that the author decides to describe each of those four core personality types by using Greek mythology and defining each core type as having a different “god,” which crosses the line from irritating to blasphemous.  If there is one chapter of this book worth skipping entirely, the second chapter is it.

After the book leaves the misty areas of pagan religion behind, and enters the more solid realm of how personality types act in different aspects of life, the book greatly improves.  The third chapter examines how the various temperaments behave in “mating,” which is a somewhat insulting way of looking at it, but shows that most often people choose complementary personalities to marry and then try to remake them in their own image (in another nod to Greek mythology, this tendency is called the Pygmalion Project).  The fourth chapter examines how temperaments affect children (with a particular focus on public schools, where children mostly run into traditionalist SJ teachers).  The fifth chapter deals with temperaments in leading, showing the strengths and weaknesses of all of the core personality types as teachers and managers/supervisors.  The main part of the book ends with a plea for acceptance of all personality types, as could be expected from a book like this.

The best part of the book, though, is the appendix, which examines the sixteen personality types in a few short and enjoyable pages.  If you have an idea of what personality you are or want to see how the various personality types are described, this is an enjoyable and relatively short read (it’s about 36 pages total), and it’s well worth it.  In fact, this section alone would make the book worth looking up for someone interested in personality theory, as it gets to the nitty gritty details of how different personalities interact with and see the world around them. in a somewhat broad context.

I would like to close with a revealing quote from the book about my own personality type, which gives some flavor of its useful insights:  “Although ENTJs are tolerant of established procedures, they can abandon any procedure when it can be shown to be indifferent to the goal it seemingly serves.  Inefficiency is especially rejected by ENTJs, and repetition of error causes them to become impatient.  For the ENTJ, there must always be a reason for doing anything, and people’s feelings usually are not sufficient reason.  When in charge of an organization, ENTJs more than any other type desire (and generally have the ability) to visualize where the organization is going and seem able to communicate that vision to others.  They are the natural organization builders, and they cannot not lead.  They find themselves in command and sometimes are mystified as to how this happened.  As administrators, ENTJs organize their units into a smooth-functioning system, planning in advance, keeping both short-term and long-term objectives well in mind.  They seek and can see efficiency and effectiveness in personnel.  They prefer decisions to be made on impersonal data, want to work from well-thought-out plans, and like to use engineered operations–and they prefer that others follow suit. ENTJs will support the policy of the organization and will expect others to do so[1].”  Yeah, that sounds exactly like me.  The odds are pretty good that you’ll find something in here that sounds a lot like you as well.

[1] David Kiersey & Marilyn Bates, Please Understand Me:  Character & Temperament Types (Del Mar, CA:  Prometheus Nemesis Book Company, 1984), 178-179.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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