DISC Origins & History

Style Analysis (DISC) – A Brief History

Blood, Bile and Phlegm

The ancient Greeks believed that a person's general style of behaviour was an integral part of their general health. They believed that the body contained four fundamental liquids (called humours) based on the four elements of fire, air, water and earth. When one of these humours became dominant over the others, it was thought to effect the person's mood and general approach.

They believed that four humours – blood, yellow bile, phlegm and black bile – were each responsible for a different type of behaviour. An excess of blood made a person sanguine, yellow bile resulted in a choleric nature, phlegm, naturally, produced a phlegmatic outlook, and black bile was associated with melancholia.

These theories were first set down in a systematic way by Hippocrates, and remained in use until the middle ages. We now know, of course, that they have no basis in medical fact, but what the Greeks had almost incidentally achieved was the first systematic method of describing individual types of people. So successful was their approach that, even today, the words 'humour' (meaning 'mood'), 'sanguine', 'phlegmatic' and 'melancholic' are still in common use.

Modern profiling does not rely on measuring the amount of yellow bile in a person to determine their style, but the ideas behind it can, indirectly, be traced back to Hippocrates’ theories.

Carl Jung

There are many modern theories of personal behaviour based on four individual factors. Perhaps the most influential of these is in the work of the Swiss psychologist, Carl Gustav Jung. In 1921, Jung spoke of four "types" oriented by four psychological functions: thinking, feeling, sensation and intuition. He then further divided the types into "introversion" and "extroversion." These groups of four (technically called tetralogies) underlie a very large number of assessments available today.

The definitions of these types are rooted in Jung's lifelong work on the unconscious mind.  They are important because they represent one of the first serious attempts to map the human personality by a modern psychologist. Tests based on Jung's work are still available today.

William Moulton Marston and "The Emotions of Normal People"

In the early 1920's, American psychologist William Moulton Marston developed a theory to explain people's emotional responses. Until that time, work of this kind had been mainly confined to the mentally ill or criminally insane, and Marston wanted to extend these ideas to cover the personalities of ordinary individuals.

The Style Analysis instrument (which forms the basis for the DISC Assessments) and its various uses are all derived from Marston's work. Born in Cliftondale, Massachusetts, in 1893, Dr. Marston was educated at Harvard University. He received three degrees from that institution, an A.B. in 1915, an LL.B in 1918 and a Ph.D. in 1921.

Most of Dr. Marston's adult life was spent as a teaching and consulting psychologist. Some of his assignments included lecturing at The American University, Tufts, Columbia and New York University. A prolific writer, Dr. Marston was a contributor to the American Journal of Psychology, The Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the Encyclopaedia of Psychology, all while authoring and/or co-authoring five books.

Marston's most well-known contribution was his success in lie detection. His work was done at Harvard University and in 1938 his book, "The Lie Detector," was published.  Lie detectors, including Dr. Marston's, have been used by law enforcement and crime detection officials in various countries of the world for many years.

In 1928, Marston published a book, "The Emotions of Normal People," in which he described the DISC theory used today. He viewed people as behaving along two axes with their actions tending to be active or passive depending upon the individual's perception of the environment as either antagonistic or favourable. By laying these axes at right angles, four quadrants were formed, each denoting a separate behavioural pattern.

  • Dominance produces activity in an antagonistic environment.

  • Influence produces activity in a favourable environment.

  • Steadiness produces passivity in a favourable environment.

  • Compliance produces passivity in an antagonistic environment.

Dr. Marston believed that people tend to learn a self-concept, which is basically in accord with one of the four factors. It is possible, therefore, using Marston's theory, to apply the powers of scientific observation to behaviour and to be Objective and Descriptive rather than Subjective and Judgmental.