David Keirsey divides personality into 4 dimensions, each of which has 2 extremes. He compares the dimensions to the rings of a tree, highlighting that there is a hierarchy and sequence to the 4 dimensions. Thus the inner ring, dimension 1, is the most important; it is the starting point, your initial orientation to the life.

In the descriptions below, the 2 extremes for each ring are shown. We do not wholly exist at one extreme but we will tend to spend most of our time there.

Inner ring

  • abstract/introspection: introspective people are more ‘head in the clouds’, interested in theory and principles.


  • concrete/observation: observers are ‘down to earth’ and practical, preferring the concrete, the here-and-now.

Ring 2

  • cooperative/complying: these people are concerned about what others think and doing the right thing. They obey social boundaries.


  • pragmatic/adaptive: more attention is paid to one’s own thoughts and doing what works, makes most sense (to them at least), irrespective of social conventions.

These first 2 rings constitute a person’s temperament. Keirsey’s view is that temperament is fundamental, lifelong, unchanging; it is visible, and consistent, in the child and the octogenarian. It is our starting point and predisposes us to think in particular ways.

From the 2 inner rings there are 4 possible temperaments:

The 4 Temperaments

artisans – concrete and pragmatic, they are action-oriented, spontaneous and risk-taking. They take pride in being unconventional and bold, seeking stimulation and opportunities to master action skills. They are most at-home with tangible things and are likely to be adept in using their hands. Artisans trust their impulses, fixing problems and responding to what is happening right-now; they are tacticians, not afraid to break conventions in pursuit of their goals. Famous artisans include: many US presidents: JFK, Johnson, Reagan, Clinton, GW Bush; Clint Eastwood, Tiger Woods, Woody Allen

guardians – concrete and cooperative, they are cautious about change, humble, dependable, down-to-earth, hard-working, traditional and concerned with responsibility and duty. They excel at logistics and are good organizers and facilitators. Famous guardians include: US presidents: Truman, Nixon, Ford, Bush; Warren Buffet, Rosa Parks, Vince Lombardi

idealists – abstract and cooperative, they are trusting, enthusiastic, intuitive, imaginative and sensitive. They seek meaning and significance.

Idealists take pride in being loving, authentic and kind, often developing intense relationships. Diplomatic, they are able to discover the essence of a matter and can be inspirational. Famous idealists include: Gandhi, Mandela, Gorbachev, Oprah, Buddha, Orwell, Margaret Mead.

rationals – abstract and pragmatic, they are investigative, sceptical, ingenious problem-solvers and efficient. They take pride in their independent thinking and seek mastery, always concerned about their level of knowledge and self-control. Rationals are strategists, with a drive to bring together concepts and principles in a unified, logical, grand theory. Famous rationals include: Einstein, Rosalind Franklin, Hillary Clinton, Jobs, Allen, Gates, Darwin, Newton

  • Which of these best describes you – and those around you?
  • Think back over your life, can you identify moments when your temperament asserted itself?
  • Can you identify the impact of temperament on your relationships with others?


The 4 temperaments offer a simple, accessible approach to understanding ourselves and others. Whatever temperament you are, it does not mean that you do not sometimes exhibit the thinking patterns and behaviours of the others. However, for most of the time, and particularly when challenged or feeling stressed, you will think and act in accordance with your temperament. It is your starting point.

Your temperament, composed of the inner rings, is your core.

Outer Rings

The next 2 rings are more susceptible to change than your temperament. They are the result of experience or nurture. Although the debate is still on-going, recent research would seem to suggest that around 50% of your personality is inherited, temperament, with the remaining wiring, character, being put into place during early childhood, although researchers have also noted changes much later in life.

Keirsey distinguishes temperament and character in this way:

“Temperament is a configuration of inclinations, while character is a configuration of habits. Character is disposition, temperament pre-disposition … Thus temperament is the inborn form of human nature; character, the emergent form.”[1]

The outer ‘character’ rings relate to how we act and interact and communicate with others:

Ring 3

  • directive/proactive – communicate by directing, telling


  • informative/reactive – communicate by informing

Ring 4

  • expressive/impetuous – tend to act before observing


  • attentive/cautious – observe before acting

We can again create a 2 x 2 matrix with these character dimensions, just as we did to create the 4 temperaments.

This 4-box matrix could then be placed in each of the 4 temperament boxes, creating a total of 16 boxes, each containing a personality type.

Each of these personality boxes has been given a descriptive name. The table below shows the build-up from inner to outer rings. You will notice that there are letters in parentheses next to the descriptions. These letters correspond to the 16 Myers-Biggs types, which were based on the earlier work of Carl Jung.[2]

The relationship between Keirsey personality roles and Myers-Briggs types is confusing to say the least. So much so that Keirsey has a page on his website devoted to explaining the differences.[3] The critical one, I believe, is that Keirsey sees the inner rings as influencing the outer rings whereas  Myers-Briggs dimensions are treated as independent. For Keirsey, temperament always comes first; so the Proactive Expressive behaviours will be different for each of the 4 temperaments.

“The lower level is constrained by the configuration above it.”[4]

In Figure 5 below, the personality roles are superimposed on the Temperament Matrix.



Realistically, even if you had the inclination, you are unlikely to remember the thinking styles and behaviours of all 16 styles. As far as understanding and interacting with other people, the 4 temperaments offer a simple, practical starting point. However, you are probably keen to understand your own personality in more depth. I will therefore direct you towards the Keirsey Temperament Sorter II, a free online questionnaire that will provide you with a short overview on your temperament. There is also the possibility of buying more in-depth reports.

Keirsey Temperament Sorter II

The ‘type’ approach to personality is used extensively in corporate training programs and recruitment. The attraction is that each ‘box’ comes with a fairly concise description of likely thoughts and behaviours together with recommendations on how to motivate, influence and get along with this type. As  practical tools to provide workable insights into other people, these models have value and certainly most people are happy that their type description accurately portrays them.

There are issues though with the ‘type’ approach.[5] We know that there are more than sixteen models in the human portfolio and while people of a type may have many similarities, they will also have many differences. The main criticism with ‘type’ models is that they combine independent traits. Thus a type may be described as ‘meticulous and hard-working’. But it is possible to be ‘meticulous and lazy’; meticulous and lazy are independently variable.

[1] David Kiersey, Please Understand Me II

[2] The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based on the work of the mother and daughter team of Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. For a basic overview: http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/

[3] http://www.keirsey.com/difference.aspx

[4] http://www.keirsey.com/difference.aspx

[5] Oliver Burkemann comments on the Myers-Briggs tool:

“In the decades since it was invented in the 1940s, serious scientists have queued up to demonstrate the ways in which Myers–Briggs may be so flawed as to be hopelessly inaccurate.”

HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done by Oliver Burkeman