‘Surrounded by Idiots’ by Thomas Erikson

A review

In Surrounded by Idiots, the ‘behavioural expert’ or ‘communication expert’ Thomas Erikson argues there are four types of human behaviour, and that, in order to understand other people, we need to understand which of the four behaviours governs their outlook. Different people will have very different outlooks and that’s why some of us will struggle to communicate with others.

The development of the theory is attributed to William Moulton Marston (among others), the creator of Wonder Woman. Marston plots behaviour along two axes: passive vs active attention; and the individual’s perception of their environment as either favourable or antagonistic – whether or not they feel they have control. By placing the axes at right angles, he creates four quadrants which are labelled Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance (DISC).

The concept was later picked up by a father and son, under their company, TTI Success Insights. Somewhere along the way, the two axes changed to introversion vs extraversion, and task / issue-oriented vs relation-oriented; and two of the four behaviour types also changed, most significantly, the C of Compliance became an A for Analytical.

This is the version of the theory Erikson has adopted as the basis for his book. It creates four fundamental types of behaviour, each identified by a primary colour. Erikson suggests these four ‘behaviours’ form the basis of four fundamental personality types, and that most of us are a mix of two or three types. The quality of communication between people varies depending on the compatibility of personality types, so we should take their type into account when trying to understand someone else’s point of view.

Erikson has met with obvious success with the model. He has worked with some significant corporates, training their employees in the application of the DISA model, and the blurb on the back of my copy of his book boasts sales of 1.3m copies.

The approach and the book itself are not without their critics, however. In fact, the Swedish Skeptics Society went so far as to name Thomas Erikson ‘fraudster of the year’ in 2018, and Dan Katz from the Society wrote a funny, if very caustic, critique of the book.

He searched the records for evidence of Erikson’s academic qualifications and drew a blank. Apparently, however, in Sweden, anyone is free to call themselves a behavioural expert. This sets up the sharpest line in the review – Erikson “has just as much right as my poodle to call himself a behavioural scientist,” Katz jokes.

While Erikson himself refers to his own background in banking and in consultancy, two very data-driven sectors, Katz’s conclusion is that he was a salesman in these sectors, not a quantitative analyst as you might have expected.

It is certainly true that the ‘evidence’ in the book is more anecdotal and subjective than it is data-driven and analytical.

Erikson reportedly self-published the book originally, presumably because he didn’t have the qualifications or experience to give publishers the confidence it would sell. It was picked up by Forum in Sweden only after the self-published edition had achieved some success.

Katz argues that the theory itself is based on a circular argument – ‘these behaviours mean you are this colour, therefore this is the sort behaviour you can expect from this colour’. Not especially insightful, in other words.

The reviewer highlights a number of contradictions in the book. If Erikson is red, blue and yellow, then he “must, based on his own claims, be both fast and slow in his reactions; both maximally and minimally interested in relations; and both careful and impulsive. Moreover, his lack of greenness implies that Erikson lacks patience, calm, stability, kindness and many other basic characteristics!”

His most firm criticism, however, is that there is no scientific support for the DISC / DISA theory. Although it was introduced some 50 years ago, there has been little or no research or experimentation to establish whether the theory holds true.

Psychologists have coalesced around the Big Five Trait theory, the critic concludes. The Big Five Trait Theory is based on data and analysis, not the anecdote and personal observation of Erikson’s book.

I have to agree with Katz. The four fundamental personality types at the heart of the theory seem problematic. Erikson suggests there is a long list of characteristics associated with each colour, but it is not at all clear how many of these attributes are explained by the ‘introvert v extrovert, task v relations’ structure – if a person is ‘introverted and relation-oriented’ (Green) does it necessarily follow that they will be ‘patient, relaxed, reliable, lengthy, producer, persistent etc.’?

Having said all that, there is something I like about the book. I think the framework is an interesting start point, and that there is a kernel of truth to the four colours, not as personality types certainly, but maybe if they can be translated into attributes or traits that we find to a greater or lesser extent in all of us. Finding any link, however, between the four quadrants and the Big 5 is still a significant stretch (with the exception of blue / analytical = conscientiousness; and introversion-extroversion, of course).

Anyway, despite the criticism, no one could deny that the ‘packaging’ of Surrounded by Idiots is very slick. It is the product of a good marketing mind – the use of the four primary colours, the accessibility and apparent practical applications of the theory, and the straplines. As for the title, who hasn’t pondered why many people around them seemed to be some sort of idiot!

The book doesn’t tell us so much about personality theory as it does about Erikson himself, perhaps. He is not one for detailed analysis or rigorous logic, but he is clearly a very good salesman. He has taken a slightly shaky concept and blown it up into something much more substantial than it really is. As with all good salespeople, it is presentation over content. And he appears to be making a lot of money from it.

– end –


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Published by Peter Runkel

"Work hard and be nice to people." Anthony Burrill

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