Posted by: Joyce Linnet | October 26, 2015

The (Supposed) Link Between the Body and Personality

One of the aspects that especially interested me in the Sekula piece, The Body and the Archive, that we read for last class was the idea coming forward in the Victorian era and beyond that with a few pieces of information we can put together what a criminal looks like. Based on shape of a person’s head or their skull (the taking and examining of which is an ethical gray area that I will not even begin to get in to for the sake of time), we can tell that this person is a criminal or just a bad person who isn’t fit to live in a society that believes in wholesome activities like not murdering and stealing (and collecting body parts for scientific inquiry without any consent from the deceased. Sorry, last time, I swear). In today’s society, calling someone a criminal based on appearance is usually a form of stereotyping and would generally be frowned upon. Not to mention the fact that presenting a picture of a suspect’s ear to witnesses in court would sooner get you laughed at in modern society than it would win your case. Most every one knows that, for the most part (barring an prejudices that everyone holds within themselves), there is no real link between appearance and likelihood to commit a crime. Still, like most “science” from the past, we like to have a good laugh about how silly everyone was in the past and move on with our lives in the much more advanced present.

Still, using the body as a way to determine a person’s personality is not merely an antiquated Victorian ideal done away with by new science. Because the personality has always been so difficult to pinpoint and to define a person and predict their tendencies would be useful, it has always been particularly interesting to try to sort people into “types” because apparently accepting the fact that every human being is a special snowflake is completely unacceptable and human beings are only happy if there are “types” of people that exist. For example, phrenology (which is definitely considered a pseudoscience, not just on account of it being super incorrect and more than a little bit racist) was accepted as a way to determine a person’s personality based on the idea that the brain was made of 27 smaller organs and using certain measurements but mostly by having a doctor run his hands over a patient’s skull, they could tell what type of person you were. By the 1840s, phrenology mostly fell out of fashion but up until then it was used to determine things like whether a child would need to be held back in school or saying women were inferior to men or that whites were more beautiful and far superior to literally every other race, no questions asked because this is science, you guys.

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Still, that wouldn’t be the first or the last time that a faulty link between the body was made with one’s personality. For example, humorism was a popular practice that found its way into the very serious field of medicine by which a person suffering from a certain temperament (and there were four of them: sanguine, choleric, melancholic and phlegmatic) was thought to have too much or too little of a certain body fluid resulting in an imbalance that threw off the whole body’s ability to function. Sanguine corresponded with blood, choleric corresponded with yellow bile, melancholic was black bile and phlegmatic was, you guessed it, phlegm. These humors were given personality characteristics and so a person described as sanguine was generally considered to be “courageous, hopeful, playful and carefree”, for example. One thing I will bring up that is tangentially related to the humors is the idea that blood type determines a person’s personality. This was apparently very popular in Japan for awhile with the theory being that you can determine one’s personality based which of the four blood types that they have: A, O, B or AB, taking our Type A and Type B personalities to a whole different level. Science has found that there is no link between personality and blood type but like everything from the Myers-Briggs test (which is super not accurate in predicting personality, even according to one of the people who created it) and astrology, it is pretty fun to think about and then use to tell people about yourself even though it doesn’t really mean anything at all in a scientific sense.

The last personality by body typing idea that I want to bring up is called somatotype psychology developed by a psychiatrist William Herbert Sheldon and like phrenology ended up being used to further things like racism and eugenics and is not considered to be based on any actual science at all. Somatotype psychology presents us three body types: ectomorph, endomorph and mesomorph. Each one is associated with a certain set of personality traits. For example, an endomorph was considered to be round, short and essentially, overweight, which led to them also being considered slow and lazy and an ectomorph was too skinny and too tall and was considered fragile and quiet. Mesomorphs were essentially built like Superman being muscular and considered active, assertive and vigorous. Of course, most of this research was done mostly for men so what would be considered best for women is mostly unknown. Apparently, this was also created to pinpoint what a criminal looked like (both surprisingly and not so much, it was the competitive but muscularly built mesomorph who fell into this category). While this version fell out of popularity, it is not uncommon to see forms of a type of somatotyping under a different name using a different set of adjectives.

Still, in a world where Facebook posts and newspaper reports can tell me what the size difference between my middle and pointer finger show about my personality, this kind of pop psychology personality by body type link can and probably will not disappear any time soon even just in a way to amuse us.


Works Cited

Blood Type and Personality

Humorism – Wikipedia

Phrenology – Wikipedia

Sekula, Allan. “The Body and the Archive.” October 1986: 3. JSTOR Journals. Web. 26 Oct. 2015.

Sheldon’s Personality Theory

Somatotyping – Wikipedia


Responses

  1. A great post! I am fascinated by the connection that you make to contemporary forms of popular knowledge.


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