The Fake Science behind the DiSC Personality Assessment
By 2012, Thomas Erikson had already established a reputation as a renowned speaker and author in Sweden. With a strong background as a communication specialist and in sales, he presented himself as a leading expert in behavioural psychology — one that had already helped hundreds of salespeople achieve new heights. Nonetheless, even despite his growing popularity at the time, when he approached a Stockholm publisher with the manuscript of his new book during that same year, they immediately shut down his idea. Why? Well, first of all the title he suggested was extremely provocative: “Surrounded By Idiots” was the main title he chose for his book. Furthermore, the publisher wasn’t exactly infatuated with the general theme of the book either: the cover art, designed by Erikson himself, featured four silhouettes in blue, green, yellow and red, symbolizing the four personality types he identifies and elaborates on in his book.
However, Erikson didn’t let that rejection bring him down. Two years later, he self-published Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behaviour. Erikson literally drove around the country begging bookshops to buy copies of his book. Those who did, saw the copies fly rapidly of the shelves. The book was an instant success and demand grew rapidly. It captured the imagination not only of the Swedish public in general, but it even became an international success and has sold millions of copies, including those which have been translated from the original Swedish into 40 different languages. Soon Erikson was invited to speak on popular Swedish television programs, and his work has even impacted the way Swedish people now talk about the behaviour of others.
But there is one key problem with Erikson’s work: it is simply and plainly absolute nonsense. It is pseudoscience. It is ludicrous to think one can classify people’s personalities into colours. In fact, his very notion of characterizing people into different personality types lack any and all scientific evidence whatsoever. Yet, he managed to mislead millions of people with his fake, made-up notion of four personality types. Around the world, schools and human resources departments started testing people for the so-called colour of their personalities and sneaky opportunists made a fortune selling these tests based upon Erikson’s work. Partners and departments were broken up because they were misled to believe that the “colour combination” wasn’t working. Entire companies were completely restructured on the basis of this pseudoscience. Even the screening of candidates and job appointments were made on the basis of fake, made-up and non-existent personality types. Despite Erikson’s success, his theories, or rather his fantasies, have of course rightly been discredited by psychologists and the broader scientific community. In fact, in 2018, he was awarded the title of “Fraudster of the Year” by the Swedish Skeptics Society.
Erikson has ultimately revived an early 20th-century pseudoscience first promoted by the American psychologist Wiliam Moulton Marston, to whom he also appeals as authority. Marston had, without any actual evidence to back it up, proposed four personality types — yellow, green, blue and red — as variations in people based on their level of some kind of fictional “psychonic energy.” Marston indeed had quite the imagination. In fact, he was also the inventor of the superheroine Wonder Woman — whom he believed to be a model of the liberated, feminist woman of the 1930s.
Following Marston, the industrial psychologist Walter Clark then went on to invent a personality test known as the DiSC test, based on a four-colour model. According to the DiScC Personality Assessment, all human personalities can be divided into four different types:
- Red, that is: Dominant and focused
- Blue, that is: Analytic and careful
- Green, that is: Patient and nice
- And Yellow, which apparently makes you extroverted and creative [[laugh!]]
Clark expressly promoted his test as a means of vetting potential job candidates. But of course, classifying people into different kinds of “personality types” is nothing short of abominable junk science. This is not to say that there aren’t certain identifiable personality traits common among human beings. In fact, there are five main categories which many psychologists identify as generally applicable to human personality and temperament. These can generally be memorized by means of the acronym OCEAN and are:
• Openness to experience: People are generally either curious or cautious;
• Conscientiousness: People are generally either organized or careless;
• Extraversion: People are generally outgoing or reserved;
• Agreeableness: People are generally either compassionate or critical; and
• Neuroticism: People are either nervous or confident.
While these are widely recognized as innate personality traits or predispositions common among human beings, they aren’t proposed as being exhaustive of the human personality or as a complete explanation of human behaviour by any stretch of the imagination.
There simply aren’t a set number of basic personality types among human beings either. Since personality is essentially nothing other than repeatable patterns of behaviour on the part of an individual, personality is not something that exists independently of the person. It is not something that can be abstracted and categorized. For example, say someone is rude to you and then later excuses their behaviour on the basis that their personality type made them do it. I mean, this is neither an excuse nor an explanation for their behaviour. It is like shifting responsibility away from yourself and unto some imaginary gremlin inside your head. When people attribute behaviour to their personality, they are essentially attributing it to themselves. It is absurd to view someone who acts in a certain way in terms of “the colour of their personality” Doing so means the actual reasons for or causes behind any problems are simply ignored. It is hard to imagine a more counterproductive way of dealing with a problem than by simply attributing it to the fact that the person in the centre of a conflict “is blue,” for example.
Our environment also impacts our psyche and shapes our behaviour, regardless of what our natural dispositions or innate personality traits may be. Clark and Erikson’s unscientific model, in falsely attributing all behavioural patterns to the “colour” of our personality, completely disregards the very significant cultural element to being human. Humans aren’t simply isolated individuals: we are “pack animals” so to speak, meaning our behaviour and mindset is also shaped by the mindset and behaviour of the people around us. The culture we live in impacts our humour, our small talk, the elements of our social gatherings, the way we relax and spend our leisure time, the books we read, the music we listen to, the talents we choose to cultivate, as well as the timing of our most important life decisions relating to things such as education and marriage.
It is this influence of the environment upon behaviour often allows us to generally predict people’s behaviour with relative accuracy. For example, if I were to arrive in the Bahamas and smile and wave at a local, they’d almost certainly smile and wave back. However, if I were to arrive on North Sentinel Island in the Indian Ocean, we can predict that the locals would attack and kill me. These are two very different types of behaviours which are culturally shaped and informed, and it would be absolutely ludicrous to attribute this to the Bahamas being populated by people with exclusively “green” personalities, whereas the Sentinelese all randomly happen to have exclusively “red” personalities.
As people, we want to and need to improve ourselves, but these completely unscientific personality tests simply classify entire segments of the population as this type or that type of person with set and immutable strengths and weaknesses. Labelling someone as “Green” or “Yellow,” essentially means telling them you will never be able to become anything else.
Ultimately, personality is simply far too complex to simply categorize the personalities of the entire planet’s population into four colours. There are innumerable contributing factors when it comes to our personality, including environment, culture, genetics, experiences, and hundreds of others. We should never allow ourselves to be limited or caged in by artificial categories imposed upon us by unscientific personality tests. True psychology should much rather aim at aiding the unique potential of each human being to come to full fruition.