Somatotype and constitutional psychology

Somatotype and constitutional psychology

Constitutional psychology is a theory, developed in the 1940s by American psychologist William Herbert Sheldon, associating body types with human temperament types.

Sheldon proposed that the human physique be classed according to the relative contribution of three fundamental elements, somatotypes, named after the three germ layers of embryonic development: the endoderm, (develops into the digestive tract), the mesoderm, (becomes muscle, heart and blood vessels), and the ectoderm (forms the skin and nervous system).

In his 1954 book, Atlas of Men, Sheldon categorised all possible body types according to a scale ranging from 1 to 7 for each of the three "somatotypes", where the pure "endomorph" is 7–1–1, the pure "mesomorph" 1–7–1 and the pure "ectomorph" scores 1–1–7. From type number, an individual's mental characteristics could supposedly be predicted.


The three types

Sheldon's "somatotypes" and their supposed associated physical traits can be summarized as follows:

  • Ectomorphic: characterized by long and thin muscles/limbs and low fat storage; usually referred to as slim. Ectomorphs are not predisposed to store fat or build muscle.
  • Mesomorphic: characterized by medium bones, solid torso, low fat levels, wide shoulders with a narrow waist; usually referred to as muscular. Mesomorphs are predisposed to build muscle but not store fat.
  • Endomorphic: characterized by increased fat storage, a wide waist and a large bone structure, usually referred to as fat. Endomorphs are predisposed to storing fat.

The idea that these general body-types may correlate with general psychological types did not originate with Sheldon. In general outline, it resembles ideas found, for instance, in the tridosha system of Ayurveda; The Republic, by Plato; and propounded in the twentieth century by George Gurdjieff. In addition, Friedrich Nietzsche writes that "nature ... distinguishes" three different physiological body types, which correspond to a Republic-esque hierarchy.[1] Sheldon's ideas may also owe something to Aristotle's conception of the soul.[citation needed]

Roughly the three corresponding personality types proposed by Sheldon are somewhat akin to Jung's categorization of thinking, feeling and sensing types. As such they correspond quite closely to popular stereotypes of the skinny nerd, the jolly fat man, the slow-witted tough guy.

There is evidence that different physiques carry cultural stereotypes. For example, one study found that endomorphs are likely to be perceived as slow, sloppy, and lazy. Mesomorphs, in contrast, are typically stereotyped as popular and hardworking, whereas ectomorphs are often viewed as intelligent but fearful.[2] Stereotypes of mesomorphs are generally much more favorable than those of endomorphs. Stereotypes of ectomorphs are somewhat mixed.

The three body type descriptions could be modulated by body composition, which can be altered by specific diets and training techniques. In a famine, a person who was once considered an endomorph may begin to instead resemble an ectomorph, while an athletic mesomorph may begin to look more like an endomorph as he ages and loses muscle mass.

However, some aspects of the somatotype cannot be changed: muscle and adipose mass may change but the bone structure is a fixed characteristic. In the same way, cultural conditions might mask a tendency to one or another temperament.

Sheldon failed to produce a personality test that supported his notions statistically. His research did show that a predisposition towards criminality might be influenced by a somatotype high in mesomorphy and intermediate in ectomorphy. In contrast, a predisposition towards suicidality might be influenced by a somatotype high in ectomorphy, and endomorphs were found to be more common in mental institutions. These tendencies might be taken to support a theory of the aggressive and the nervous temperament, but no coherent demonstration of Sheldon's ready-made thesis has been forthcoming.

Modern assessments

Sheldon's theories had popularity through the 1950s, influencing Abraham Maslow, Aldous Huxley, and Robert S de Ropp. The majority of scientists today generally consider such theories outdated.[citation needed] Some[who?] found the idea of somatotypes reminiscent of eugenics and racial hygiene; they went against the fashionable emphasis on nurture, presenting a ready-made paradigm that had strong resonances with mystical thought.

Sheldon's photographs of naked Yale undergraduates, numbered in the thousands, which had been taken under the umbrella of a pre-existing program for checking student posture, and other similar photographs that he had gathered from programs at other institutes, were eventually destroyed.[3][4]

The words endomorphic, mesomorphic and ectomorphic are still sometimes used to describe body types, as, for example, in association with weight training aimed at gaining muscle. The psychosomatic linkage is fairly simplistic and is seen as undemonstrated in physiological science, but the account of somatotypes is still probably a valid[citation needed], if limited, way to sort basic body types. Advanced triploblastic animals, such as mammals, or modern humans in particular, do have these three basic tissue layers.[clarification needed]

Sheldon himself was more a behavioral psychologist than either an anatomist or a physiologist. His behavioral conclusions were based largely on interviews which he or his students carried out over a long span of time, and the actual psychometric data were often more suggestive than conclusive. The prevalence of kindred ideas in folklore and spiritual philosophy, though, suggests that ideas similar to Sheldon's will continue to be held until they are conclusively proven or disproven.

See also


  1. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Antichrist, 57.
  2. ^ Ryckman, R. M., Robbins, M. A., Kaczor, L. M., & Gold, J. A. (1989). Male and female raters' stereotyping of male and female physiques. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 15, 244-251.
  3. ^ Rosenbaum, Ron The Great Ivy League Nude Posture Photo Scandal. New York Times January 15, 1995
  4. ^ Nude Photos of Yale Graduates Are Shredded New York Times January 29, 1995


  • Sheldon, William H. ♦ The Varieties of Temperament (A Psychology of Constitutional Differences) Harper & Brothers, 1942
  • Sheldon, William H. ♦ The Varieties of Human Physique (An Introduction to Constitutional Psychology) ♦ Harper & Brothers, 1940
  • Sheldon, William H. ♦ Varieties of Delinquent Youth (An Introduction to Constitutional Psychiatry) ♦ Harper & Brothers, 1949
  • Atlas of Men (A Guide for Somatotyping the Adult Male at All Ages) ♦ Harper & Brothers, 1954
  • Hartl, Emil M.; Monnelly, Edward P.; Elderkin, Roland D. ♦ Physique and Delinquent Behavior (A Thirty-year Follow-up of William H. Sheldon’s Varieties of Delinquent Youth) ♦ Academic Press, 1982
  • Gerrig, Richard; Zimbardo, Phillip G. ♦ Psychology and Life ♦ 7th ed.

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