Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Freudian Psychology

How Many 'Types' of People Are There?

Trying to understand us.

Key points

  • Everybody is the same—human—but everybody is different. The question is how different, and whether there is a set number of types.
  • Different authorities have varied widely in terms of how many types of people they believe there are.
  • Estimates vary from one to four, seven to 12, and too many.

Obama, Trump, and Biden—such different types of personalities, presidents, and people. Likewise in the U.K.: Cameron, May, Johnson, and Truss. Considering other world leaders from the militaristic Putin to the dancing Marin—two extremes—one might wonder how many "types" of people there are. Humanists say just one. Others suggest two, three, four, seven, or 12—or, some say, don’t bother to count them.

Homo sapiens

We are all one species, and all the differences of personality or culture, gender or age, are simply superficial. All have the same rights under their national constitutions, if they have one (the U.K. does not), and under the 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights. Not all rights are observed everywhere: they are prescriptive, not descriptive, and they stand as ideals. This unitary conceptualization of humanity has political but little explanatory value.


Dualism, in contrast, has been the dominant theory of human nature in both Greek and Judeo-Christian culture (i.e., in the "Western." tradition). This dualism originated in the metaphysics of the Pre-Socratics in the 10-point Tables of Opposites of Parmenides and Pythagoras and is primarily of historical interest, but of immense philosophical importance as setting the stage for how we (well, "Westerners") think. They reached their apogee in the 10-point Table of Christian Opposites. The primary opposition is good/evil, but this extends to God/devil, sheep/goats, left/right, up/down, light/dark, and truth/lies. St. Paul added male/female, law/sin, and will/body. Not that he equated female with sin or body, but others did, notably Tertullian. Christ’s teaching reflected Judaism and was reflected in the Koran, but such dualism has also created the us/them, right/wrong, and friend/foe dualisms of the different faiths, creating both ideological and military conflicts which persist today both between and within the different sects and religions. This is one downside of dualism.

Philosophical and religious dualism were reinforced by centuries of religious conflict, and military and political conflict. Then Friedrich Nietzsche came forward to assert a reverse dualism: the death of God and that he was the Antichrist. He condemned Christianity and democratic egalitarianism as unrealistic ethics: better to be predator than prey, Superman and above the herd, winner not loser, hammer not anvil. Unpopular in Germany in the 19th century, his work became extremely popular in Europe and the U.S. in the 20th century as compatible with Social Darwinism and racism.

Following on from the cosmic dualism of the early Greek cosmologists, the moral dualism of Christianity, and the reversed moral dualism of Nietzsche, the American anthropologist Ruth Benedict discussed cultural dualism in Patterns of Culture (1935). She compared the cultural restraint of the Pueblo Indians of the Southwest to the excesses of the Plains Indians, including the Sioux and the Lakota. She described the former as Apollonian, after the Greek god of the sun and reason, and the latter after Dionysius, the god of wine (the Roman god was Bacchus).

Such a cultural dichotomy bears some relation to the current stereotypes comparing the English with the Irish or French. The English traditionally were reputed to be reserved, stoic, and calm; but the Irish, not so much: wild and occasionally requiring paddy wagons. This is, or was, described as the difference between the Saxons and the Celts (or perhaps oppressors and oppressed for centuries). Likewise, the English, who created Puritanism, are not noted for their “joie de vivre.”

Another dualism, more amusing, is the English class dualism shown by the anthropologists Nigel Barley in Native Land (1989) and Kate Fox in Watching the English (2004). Arthur Koestler, a Hungarian intellectual, wrote a perceptive critique of the English in The Lion and the Ostrich. The English, he wrote, buried their heads in the sand as danger approached in the 1930s, like the proverbial ostrich, but when it arrived, they fought like lions—as in the 1940s.

In her later book, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (1946:2), Benedict described the Japanese:

Both the sword and the chrysanthemum are part of the picture. The Japanese are … both aggressive and unaggressive, both militaristic and aesthetic, both insolent and polite, rigid and adaptable, submissive and resentful of being pushed around, loyal and treacherous, brave and timid, conservative and hospitable to new ways (1946:2).

So, a mass of contradictory dualisms, at least at that particular time. One might wonder if most were not somewhere in the middle, especially since she had no firsthand experience of Japanese people and culture due to the war. But certainly, the delicacies and beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony, the art of flower arranging, the poetry of haiku, and the erotic art of Shunga, seem contradictory to the brutality and ugliness of the atrocities before and during World War II. But then war does bring out the worst in people, not just the Japanese.

As interesting as the polarity within Japanese culture is the polarity between Japanese and American culture, which Benedict also described throughout her book. They seem like reverse images of each other.

Three types

In the Republic, Plato suggested a trichotomy of three types of people: gold, silver, and bronze. These were fitted, by merit, for different roles in the republic: rulers or philosopher kings, the military, and the tradesmen, farmers, cobblers, builders, etc. at the bottom. These were in turn ruled by different parts of the body: the head; the heart, the symbol of bravery and not love in those days, separated from the head by the isthmus of the neck; and the belly, separated from the heart by the waist. The three types were characterized by their different goals, personalities, and values: respectively wisdom and virtue, valor and bravery, and physical pleasure and sensory gratification. He used the analogy of a charioteer trying to control two horses that wanted to run in different directions, metaphorically one up and one down. This was a brilliant synthesis of political hierarchy, minerals, psychology, and biology. It squared with the idea that everything is connected, and that all is one, which prevailed until the Industrial Revolution and the atomization of the world.

Germaine Greer famously criticized this view that merit and gold are at the top in a debate at the Oxford Union, asking if the audience had visited any marinas recently and seen what floats to the top: turds. Though which are Plato’s meritorious men and women of gold, and which are the other, narcissistic sociopaths, can be difficult to distinguish until the latter are arrested and charged.

Sigmund Freud also favoured three personality types, but very different ones, by two different stages: stages of psychic development (id, ego, super-ego) and stages of psycho-sexual development (oral, anal, and phallic). Freud liked his trinities, but also his dualisms, as here: id to ego is instinctive to civilized, unorganized to organized, pleasure to reality, and emotional to rational. The third stage, the super-ego is the critique of the emergent ego, associated with reflection and guilt

Despite their subtlety, complexity, and erudition, often based on Freud’s pioneering couch therapy, I do not know if most psychoanalysts follow Freud in these theories; they do seem a bit fanciful. Jung seems more popular with his four types.

Finally, the old typology says that there are three types of people: those who can count and those who can’t. (1)

Three is a magical, even mystical number in Graeco-Roman and Christian culture. (See Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.) More recently, three re-appears in Marx’s dialectic resulting in the synthesis, he thought, of the classless society, Emile Durkheim’s three main types of suicide, and Max Weber’s three types of authority. Alan Dundes has demonstrated its popularity in American culture in Interpreting Folklore (1980).

More from Anthony Synnott Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today