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.[1][2] The foundation of these ideas originated with Francis Galton and eugenics.[3] 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.[3] 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).[citation needed]

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.[4][5] From type number, an individual's mental characteristics could supposedly be predicted.[4] Barbara Honeyman Heath, who was Sheldon's main assistant in compiling Atlas of Men, accused him of falsifying the data he used in writing the book.[3] Questions exist about her motivations in making these accusations.[3]

The three types[edit]

Sheldon's "somatotypes" and their associated physical and psychological traits can be characterized as follows:[5][6]

comparison of body types
  • Ectomorphic: characterized as linear, thin, fragile, lightly muscled, flat chested and delicate; described as cerebrotonic inclined to desire isolation, solitude and concealment; and being tense, anxious, restrained in posture and movement, introverted and secretive.[5][6]
  • Mesomorphic: characterized as hard, rugged, rectangular, athletically built with well developed muscles, thick skin and good posture; described as somatotonic inclined towards physical adventure and risk taking; and being vigorous, courageous, direct and dominant.[5][6]
  • Endomorphic: characterized as round and soft with under-developed muscles and having difficulty losing weight; described as viscerotonic enjoying food, people and affection; having slow reactions; and being disposed to complacency.[5][6]

Academic evaluations[edit]

Sheldon's work was heavily burdened by his racist, anti-Semitic and sexist views.[1][3] 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.[7] Stereotypes of mesomorphs are generally much more favorable than those of endomorphs.[citation needed] Stereotypes of ectomorphs are somewhat mixed.[citation needed] Sheldon's ideas that body type was an indicator of temperament, moral character or potential—while popular in an atmosphere accepting of the theories of eugenics—were soon widely discredited.[3][8] The principle criticism of Sheldon's constitutional theory was that it was not a theory at all but one general assumption, continuity between structure and behavior, and a set of descriptive concepts to measure physique and behavior in a scaled manner.[6] His methodology was also criticized.[6]

Modern assessments[edit]

Sheldon's theories enjoyed a vogue as the "pop-psych flavor of the month" through the 1950s.[9] Modern scientists, however, generally dismiss his claims as outdated, if not outright quackery.[6][10][11][12] Sheldon's methodology[13] and theories have been extensively criticized and largely discredited.[1]

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.[9] The photos were in fact collected by Sheldon to provide data for his ideas about somatotypes.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Rafter, N (2008). "Somatotyping, antimodernism, and the production of criminological knowledge". Criminology 45 (4): 805–33. doi:10.1111/j.1745-9125.2007.00092.x. 
  2. ^ "Constitutional Theory". The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology. Penguin. 2009. ISBN 9780141030241 – via Credo Reference. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Vertinsky, P (2007). "Physique as destiny: William H. Sheldon, Barbara Honeyman Heath and the struggle for hegemony in the science of somatotyping". Canadian Bulletin of Medical History 24 (2): 291–316. PMID 18447308. 
  4. ^ a b Sheldon, William Herbert (1954). Atlas of Men: A Guide for Somatotyping the Adult Male at All Ages. New York: Harper. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Kamlesh, M.L. (2011). "Ch. 15: Personality and Sport § Sheldon's Constitutional Typology". Psychology in Physical Education and Sport. Pinnacle Technology. ISBN 9781618202482. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Roeckelein, Jon E. (1998). "Sheldon's Type Theory". Dictionary of Theories, Laws, and Concepts in Psychology. Greenwood. pp. 427–8. ISBN 9780313304606. 
  7. ^ Ryckman, RM; Robbins, MA; Kaczor, LM; Gold, JA (1989). "Male and female raters' stereotyping of male and female physiques". Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 15 (2): 244–51. doi:10.1177/0146167289152011. 
  8. ^ "Body Type". Encyclopedia of Special Education: A Reference for the Education of Children, Adolescents, and Adults with Disabilities and Other Exceptional Individuals. Wiley. 2007. ISBN 9780471678021. Retrieved 2014-11-20 – via Credo Reference. (subscription required (help)). 
  9. ^ a b Rosenbaum, Ron (January 15, 1995). "The great ivy league nude posture photo scandal". The New York Times. Retrieved December 2, 2011. 
  10. ^ Zentner, Marcel; Shiner, Rebecca L. (2012). Handbook of Tempermaent. Guilford. p. 6. ISBN 9781462506514. 
  11. ^ Ryckman, Richard M. (2007). Theories of Personality (9th ed.). Cengage Learning. pp. 260–1. ISBN 9780495099086. 
  12. ^ "Nude photos are sealed at Smithsonian". The New York Times. January 21, 1995. Retrieved December 1, 2011. 
  13. ^ Genovese, JEC (2008). "Physique correlates with reproductive success in an archival sample of delinquent youth" (PDF). Evolutionary Psychology 6 (3): 369–85. 


  • Gerrig, Richard; Zimbardo, Phillip G. (2002). Psychology and Life (16th ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ISBN 0-205-33511-X. 
  • Hartl, Emil M.; Monnelly, Edward P.; Elderkin, Roland D. (1982). Physique and Delinquent Behavior (A Thirty-year Follow-up of William H. Sheldon’s Varieties of Delinquent Youth). New York: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-328480-5. 

Further reading[edit]

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