Somatotype and constitutional psychology
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Constitutional psychology is a now discredited theory, developed in the 1940s by American psychologist William Herbert Sheldon, associating body types with human temperament types. The foundation of these ideas originated with Francis Galton and eugenics. Sheldon and Earnest Hooton were seen as leaders of a school of thought, popular in anthropology at the time, which held that the size and shape of a person's body indicated intelligence, moral worth and future achievement. Sheldon proposed that the human physique be classified 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 characterized as follows:
- Ectomorphic: characterized by long and thin muscles/limbs and low fat storage; usually referred to as slim. Ectomorphs are predisposed to neither store fat nor build muscle.
- Mesomorphic: characterized by large bones, solid torso, moderate fat levels and an average waist. Mesomorphs are predisposed to build muscle.
- Endomorphic: characterized by increased fat storage, wide hips, medium width shoulders and a medium bone structure. Endomorphs are predisposed to store fat due to having well developed visceral structures.
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 and usually take part in long distance sports, such as marathon running. 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 or she 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's theories enjoyed a vogue as the "pop-psych flavor of the month" through the 1950s. Modern scientists, however, generally dismiss his claims as outdated, if not outright quackery.
Sheldon's photographs of naked Ivy League undergraduates, numbered in the thousands, were taken under the guise of a pre-existing program ostensibly evaluating student posture. The photos were in fact collected by Sheldon to provide data for his ideas about somatotypes.
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J. E. Lindsay Carter, Barbara Honeyman Heath, Somatotyping-development and Applications ( Cambridge University Press 1990)