Why You’re So Screwed Up

Rating the explanations.

Let’s stipulate that you are unique, unfathomable, singular, sui generis. Now, let’s find out how to categorize you, classify you, and sort you into a group that explains your temperament, your career choices, the strength of your immune system, and your ability to make up puns.

Here follows an admittedly random guide to four popular methods designed to explain who you really are. I deliberately picked systems that purport to pinpoint something intrinsic in our natures. I judged the ease of use and applicability of each system, and since all of them illustrate their points with the lives of famous people, I also gauged how successfully each one explains the process by which Gandhi became Gandhi.


Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Would your friends and family say you are more like: a) Carlos the Jackal or b) Martin Luther King Jr.?; a) Phyllis Schlafly or b) Florence Nightingale?

According to Frank J. Sulloway, author of Born To Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, if your loved ones chose a), you are a typical firstborn–an achieving, status conscious, defensive, incipient fascist terrorist. If you’re a b), you are certainly a “laterborn”–a bold, compassionate iconoclast.

Sulloway is hardly the first to extract personality distinctions from birth order. His twist is to use Darwinism to show how the familial struggle among siblings for parental attention accounts for everything in society from social rebellions to scientific revolutions. In Sulloway’s universe, firstborns are dictatorial types who just don’t get it, but they’re happy to oppress freedom-loving laterborns who do. So how does Sulloway explain that the greatest scientific revolutionary of the 20th century, Albert Einstein, is a firstborn? He doesn’t.

Sulloway (surprise! he’s the third of four) also thinks his findings should be applied to selecting corporate leaders. In a nutshell: Oldests need not apply. As devoted as he is to birth order as a personality determinant, Sulloway allows other variables to creep into his theory to account for those rare firstborn revolutionaries. “Whenever one encounters a firstborn radical (and family life does occasionally produce them), such individuals are likely to have experienced substantial conflict with a parent. Parent-offspring conflict makes honorary laterborns out of some firstborns.” This is a little like saying all men prefer dogs and all women prefer cats. So a man with a cat is either an honorary woman, or the cat is an honorary dog.

Ease of Use: Excellent. You already know your own status and it’s easy to ask others, “Do you have siblings?” Sulloway also provides a 10-variable formula to measure “Your Own Propensity To Rebel.”

Applicability: As a method of understanding yourself and others, Sulloway’s theory seems rather limited, except if you’re in charge of hiring for Slobodan Milosevic.

Gandhi Explanation: He was the youngest of four.


Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Why do people act like that? Hippocrates believed the answer was in the balance of four bodily fluids, or humors–blood, black bile, phlegm, and yellow bile. This notion lives on in our language today. We all know people who are essentially hotblooded, or melancholy (which literally means “black bile”), or phlegmatic, or who view the world with a jaundiced eye. Plato, less interested in humans’ inner states than in their behavior as members of the state, redefined the four humors in social terms: as artisans, guardians, rationals, and idealists. According to psychologist David Keirsey, you are one of Plato’s four types, you were born that way, you will always be that way, and you can find out which one you are by taking the temperament sorter quiz on his Web site. Sample questions: When the phone rings do you: a) hurry to get it first? or b) hope someone else will answer? Do you find visionaries and theorists: a) somewhat annoying? or b) rather fascinating?

Keirsey does not muck around in your excretions in order to determine your personality. His criteria come from Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung by way of an American mother-daughter team named Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The two women translated Jung’s idea that personality is composed of four pairs of preferences–the most famous being extroverted and introverted–and created a systematic test to discern people’s types. Keirsey has redefined these four pairs this way:

Expressive (E) or Reserved (I)

Observant (S) or Introspective (N)

Tough-minded (T) or Friendly (F)

Scheduling (J) or Probing (P) [Probing might better be defined as looking for alternatives]

The four sets of pairs can be matched up 16 different ways–with Keirsey organizing these into those Platonic groups of four. For example, I’m an NT, which makes me a Rational, therefore naturally curious, restless, and doubting. More specifically I’m an ENTP. As Keirsey writes: “A rough draft is all they need to feel confident and ready to proceed into action. … [They] have been known to engage in brinkmanship with their superiors. … [ENTPs] like to spar verbally with their loved ones.”

OK, he nailed me. As an example of how uncanny the type sorter can be, take Bill Clinton, who Keirsey classifies as an ESFP. In Keirsey’s book Please Understand Me II, ESFP’s are described as “inclined to be impulsive and self-indulgent, which makes them vulnerable to seduction. … Pleasure seems to be an end in itself … they will do what they feel like in the moment rather than what is good for them in the long run … blaming someone else if things don’t turn out well. … Intent on pleasing everybody, [ESFPs] can appear fickle, even promiscuous, to other types.” On the other hand, maybe Clinton is just too hotblooded.

Ease of Use: Good. I recommend taking the Temperament Sorter II and ignoring the Character Sorter, which I found confusing and not particularly accurate.

Applicability: High. I feel I now understand better why I keep acting that way. It’s also given me the sly sense that I know why other people are acting their way. Of course, that’s very ENTP of me.

Gandhi Explanation: According to Keirsey, Gandhi is an Idealist (an NF), what else? More specifically, an INFJ. “INFJs have an unusually strong desire to contribute to the welfare of others. … INFJs are scarce, little more than one percent of the population, which is too bad, considering their usefulness in the social order.”


Until Harvard professor Howard Gardner came along, intelligence was like the Soviet Union: It was large, permanent, and unified. Then in 1983 he published his book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which cleaved intelligence into seven components. Recently, like a breakaway republic, Gardner has added an eighth intelligence and is considering a ninth.

Gardner rejects the notion that intelligence is a “single, general capacity” that can be measured by taking a test. He believes an intelligence is the ability to “solve problems or create products” in a way that society values–that having it must have conferred an evolutionary advantage to us, and that there is biological evidence for it. That is, an intelligence can be destroyed due to brain injury, which could be called the “man who mistook his wife for a hat” criterion. Gardner says if you excel at one type of intelligence, it has no bearing on whether you’ll be skilled at another. Instead of burdening people with eight ways to be inadequate instead of one, multiple intelligence advocates says the theory liberates people to find their own set of strengths.

The seven original intelligences are: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (my favorite, since I have a genius for self-absorption). The latest addition is naturalist intelligence. Gardner defines it as “the ability to recognize and classify plants, minerals and animals.” Gardner says you can see it in action in people who know every kind of dinosaur, or sneaker, or automobile. He is also considering adding existential intelligence, which, he says, refers to the inclination to ask: “Who are we? Where do we come from? What’s it all about? Why do we die?” This could also be known as the “Oy gevalt” intelligence. Since I felt that his theory left out people who are skilled at the use of the senses of taste and smell, I lobbied him to add culinary intelligence. Gardner wasn’t biting. I decided to forgo making a pitch for my own area of brilliance: procrastination intelligence.

One of Gardner’s missions is to apply his work to the classroom, since he believes schools are designed by people excelling in linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences to reward people who share those intelligences. He also believes that while our propensity toward certain types of intelligence is inborn, our abilities are not fixed. Understanding our areas of strength and weakness, he says, can provide more self-awareness and help users move to a “higher level of skill.”

Ease of Use: Fair. Gardner says, “Common sense, self-observation, and talking to others should suffice to tell you what is distinctive about your mind.” But we want a quiz, Dr. Gardner! One is available in the book 7 Kinds of Smart: Identifying and Developing Your Many Intelligences, by Thomas Armstrong, which offers choices such as, “I enjoy entertaining myself or others with tongue twisters, nonsense rhymes, or puns” and “I find it difficult to sit still for long periods of time.” The MIDAS Web site provides descriptions of the intelligences, links to other multiple intelligence sites, and sells multiple intelligence testing materials (prices range from $10 to $35).

Applicability: Assessing multiple intelligences probably has most value for schoolchildren or people who feel they have made a wrong career choice.

Gandhi Explanation: In Frames of Mind Gardner writes that Gandhi exemplified interpersonal intelligence.


What would Hippocrates think of a recent best seller that asserted that our health, diet, and even our personality are determined by our blood type? He would probably get to work on The Bile Bible. But if Hippocrates were Japanese, he wouldn’t be at all surprised. They’ve been obsessed with blood type and personality for almost 30 years. They also choose mates with “compatible” blood types and their corporations assemble work teams based on blood type. Luckily, the Japanese economy died in time to save us from the corporate bloodletting fad. Until now.

In Eat Right for Your Type, naturopath Peter J. D’Adamo writes that our ancient genetic heritage is represented today in the four human blood groups–O, A, B, and AB–and that we must follow the nutritional dictates that evolution laid down. He says Type O is the most ancient blood group, the one of the carnivorous big-game hunter, the self-reliant, risk-taking optimist. A later mutation is Type A, he writes, that of people adapting to an agrarian diet, who were cooperative, law-abiding, yet high-strung. Next came Type B from the Mongolian nomads, the most flexible and creative of the blood types. Finally, a modern quirk, is the rare AB, people who are somewhat confused, edgy, sensitive, yet charismatic. According to D’Adamo, eat the right foods for your type and your immune system will be strengthened and you’ll lose weight.

Unfortunately, D’Adamo’s understanding of human origins is, according to Dr. Eric Meikle of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University, “completely worthless.” According to Meikle, there is no evidence that Type O is the earliest blood type–quite the opposite since A and B occur in chimpanzees. Nor is it likely that humans went from being primarily carnivores to omnivores. Among living hunter-gatherers, he says, most of their calories come from vegetable matter, because bagging game is difficult. “People who are able to eat the most meat are agriculturists,” says Meikle. “They keep [animals], raise them, and eat them.”

Not surprisingly, this kind of information is of little interest when you’ve got a new companion volume (Cook Right for Your Type) to your best seller. Greg Kelly, a naturopath who works in D’Adamo’s practice says, “It’s not a productive way for me to spend my time debating with people who have a different belief system. We try to help sick people get better.”

Ease of Use: Ouch. If you know your blood type, it is easy. If you don’t, march down to the Red Cross, donate a pint, and they’ll tell you.

Applicability: Scientific questions aside, I’m an AB (OK, OK, I am charismatic), and I’m not following any diet that encourages me to eat a lot of snails.

Gandhi Explanation: None. But D’Adamo’s promotional materials do quote Elizabeth Hurley (Type O), in a Cosmopolitan interview, saying she read D’Adamo’s “absurd book,” followed his plan, and “lost an astounding amount of weight.”