You’re not surrounded by idiots, but please, don’t be the idiot

The book Surrounded by Idiots tries to explain human behavior by dividing people into four color-coded categories, but completely lacks validity. You are not surrounded by idiots, and let’s now also make sure you are not being the idiot yourself.

This post is also available in Dutch.

A few years ago a friend of mine gifted me ‘Surrounded by Idiots’ by Thomas Erikson. I was skeptical, as I am of all personality tests, but gave it a chance since it was very popular. The book describes the DISC-model, which is based on a text from 1928 by William Marston. It claims that there are 4 personality types; blue, red, yellow, green, and everyone has one dominant color. There is no scientific support for this system, however, in Surrounded by Idiots, this isn’t considered a problem. The main arguments used to convince the reader of its validity are instead personal anecdotes from the author, implying that the model is true because it has been used a lot, and is sprinkled with statements like ‘some scientists think’ without references.

I want to highlight two problems with this; the lack of scientific support, and the problem with the kinds of arguments used in the book (and in interviews where Erikson responds to the criticism).

Starting with the lack of scientific support, this is important because our own experiences are not enough to prove that something works. Because of cognitive bias, we are more likely to notice and believe things that align with what we already believe. This includes Erikson, only mentioning things that fit this DISC-model with claims like ‘the red person is always in a hurry’, or ‘the analytical blue person is always calm, collected, and thinks before they do’. Scientific support instead comes from systematically testing what we think. Scientists themselves also have cognitive biases of course, we all do, but research helps us overcome this. That the DISC-model still does not have scientific support after 100 years, shows it’s not a good system for categorizing human behavior.

The second problem is the kinds of arguments that are used. This links to the problem of lack of scientific evidence, because the arguments used brushes off the importance of research and instead emphasizes personal anecdotes. This is also how arguments for conspiracy theories, such as the anti-vax movement, present personal experience as more important than research. It is important to be able to spot these kinds of arguments to avoid being swooped into thinking patterns based on personal anecdotes, when collectively, we know better.

Something that also struck me while reading this book was that people’s behaviors are explained just from being a certain color, and that is it. There are even examples of people doing potentially harmful things, like driving dangerously, without any accountability, it is all just ‘because he is red’. This is not a useful way of understanding people’s behavior. 

Personality tests are not all bad, and there are times where good ones can be useful, but that does not mean they are all created equal. The DISC-model, and ‘Surrounded by Idiots’, however, is not a valid method, and the book is not particularly scientific for a popular science book. Scientists and psychologists know better, and now you do too, so you don’t need to be the idiot in the room. 

Author: Viola Hollestein
Buddy: Elena Markantonakis
Editors: Swantje Neil
Translation: Eline de Boer
Editor translation: Lucas Geelen
Header image by Margarida CSilva via Unsplash

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