Typologies: Melancholic May Versus Choleric Boris

Published: 28 September 2017

Typologies are fun but can they be trusted?

With typologies, taxonomies and classifications becoming increasingly popular in business literature, it's important to investigate why and whether such conceptual frameworks can always be trusted.

Apply the four temperaments typology to big names in Brexit and you might go with Phlegmatic Phil, Melancholic May and Choleric Boris. (I couldn’t find a suitably Sanguine candidate). Calm, unemotional Philip Hammond avoids riling the right with talk of a “soft Brexit” and argues for a long transition in which Britain might stay within the customs union. Meanwhile, extroverted, strong-willed Boris Johnson self-publishes an essay designed to appeal to hard-line enthusiasts pressing for a clean break with Europe. Ever-logical, let’s-do-it-right, Theresa May refuses to publicly criticise him for it, despite its release just six days before she was due to set out her own Brexit blueprint.

Well, that was certainly a fun exercise – but was it a useful one?

With typologies, taxonomies and classifications becoming increasingly popular in business literature, I’ve been investigating why and whether such conceptual frameworks can always be trusted.

Let’s take a well-known example. Psychologist Ivan Pavlov classified people into ‘thinkers’ and ‘artists’ some thirty years before his idea found anatomical confirmation in Robert Sperry’s work on the split brain. Sperry discovered that by cutting the corpus callosum – the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain – he could reduce or even eliminate epileptic seizures. He also found that, following the operation, patients were unable to recall certain words, resulting in a secondary discovery that our right and left brains perform different functions.

The left hemisphere is connected with speech and mathematical abilities, and the right with spatial and visual comprehension and musical talent. Sperry figured out that, though the right brain can visually understand an object, the left brain is needed to name it. Cut the pathway between them and their ability to communicate with one another fails.

As a result of Sperry’s work, it’s become normal to describe left-brain and right-brain thinkers. The logical ones and the creative ones. As Pavlov predicted: the thinkers and the artists.

Problem is, the brain is nowhere near as dichotomous as Pavlov’s typology might lead us to believe. Neither side has a monopoly on specific tasks. The left side specialises in picking out sounds that form words, but the right side processes the emotional features of language, carried by speed, intonation and tone. It’s the most intimate working relationship of all.

Sperry’s science describes a more nuanced reality and yet Pavlov’s typology persists because it appeals to our brain’s tendency to categorise so we can process huge volumes of information. We fall for nicknames like “Spreadsheet Phil” and “Beano Boris” in the same way.

Typologies classify people or things by certain similarities or differences and are found in almost every field. In a business setting, companies increasingly use them – sometimes expressed as quizzes or diagnostic tools – to group complex information into easily digestible form, while providing simple ways to act on those distinctions.

So, are such typologies to be avoided?

A single person cannot be trusted to create one based on what they know and observe because, as individuals, we tend to overvalue our own experience, assuming everyone else thinks the same as us, while categorising groups of thoughts and actions that do not follow any reliable pattern and are often arbitrary.

Typologies, on the other hand, (the good ones at least) have years of research supporting them, scrutinising characteristics that are typical and repeat with a high probability for each group. So, though no single typology is empirically right, they remove biased personal experience and act as a useful predictor of behaviour. They are also a phenomenal tool of communication.

That said, there are two instances in which typologies can become risky and should be used (and created) with caution.

First, typologies should only ever act as a starting point. Fixing people into types too rigidly or permanently falsely denies that the human psyche is infinitely complex and mobile. A person may be dominant in a particular type, but it’s foolish to assume they’re completely devoid of traits characteristic of another or that they won’t change over time.

In antiquity, for example, ‘eros’ meant a passionate physical and emotional love, whereas ‘pragma’ described a love driven more by the head than the heart. How you love will depend in large part on your character but it will also be affected by your past and present relationships.

Second, typologies that are not based on study, research and review can be misleading. It’s become fashionable in communications to segment audiences into types or tribes and to organise content in the same way. This can be an extremely effective where categorisation is based on compelling evidence. However, go through anything less than a robust and objective process, and not only will true information struggle to compete for our attention, but people and businesses may act on false direction.

Use responsibly.

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant
Linstock Communications

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