Should we use typology in psychology?

Typology is the classification of objects into groups, this blog will try to briefly examine whether some of the uses of typology in psychology have been appropriately used.

In the subject of childhood attachment, Ainsworth and Bell investigated the various types of attachment, through the ‘strange situation’ experiment. The children were then subsequently categorised into groups that included: secure, anxious avoidant and disorganised. However some would argue that attachment types are a spectrum, rather than discrete groups. There are also other issues with this experiment, such as only mothers were used, when the children may have been attached to other family figures.

Offender profiling is a technique sometimes utilised by the police in order to assist in the tracking down criminals. In the FBI method of criminal profiling, early on the offender is quickly categorised into either ‘organised’ or ‘disorganised’. Ressler et al. (1986) suggested that, “facets of the criminal’s personality are evident in his offense. Like a fingerprint, the crime scene can be used to aid in identifying the murderer”. Hence the classifications of organised and disorganized offenders, which was based on the interviews of just 36 offenders.
This classification was investigated by David Canter, who carried out a Smallest Space Statistical Analysis of 100 murders committed by 100 different serial killers. He found that all crimes of serial killers will have ‘organised’ characteristics, but there was not enough evidence to justify the ‘disorganised’ category.
Although tis is not the only example of groups being used to classify offenders Holmes and Holmes (1998) proposed 6 groups, which essentially ranged from disorganised to organised, but displayed more of a spectrum then the one utilised by the FBI. However there has not been enough evidence to justify the use of categories in offender profiling.

Another example that may be applied to this is that of learning styles. Frequently in schools and other learning institutions, great emphasis is placed on classifying the learning style of the child. Coffield et al. (2004) described at least 70 different learning schemes, and did not claom that their list was exhaustive. A research paper by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer and Bjork (2009) investigated the effect that the use of specific learning styles had on learning. They found very limited evidence to support the theory, despite it being a widespread and commonly accepted idea.

Clearly there have been some good uses of classifying people into groups, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders’ being one example. However, I feel that its use in some cases may be reductionist and may lead to a simplistic view of behaviour.

Pashler,H., McDaniel,M., Rohrer,R., Bjork,R., (2009). Learning Styles.

Canter,D.(2004).The Organized / Disorganized Typology of Serial Murder: Myth or Model?


10 comments on “Should we use typology in psychology?

  1. psue3e says:

    Love the topic! It even has a rhyme! You have given very relevant and diverse examples from different areas of psychology to support your point and I found that intriguing and thought-provoking.

    Yet, your post seems biased towards the argument that psychologists should not use typology in this discipline. You only briefly mention the DSM as an example of how beneficial typology can actually be, and I would have liked it if you have elaborated on that a bit more. Yes, typology can be reductionist but it does offer a more simple way of exploring, analysing and interpreting complex behaviours, as stated in an article in the Clinical Child and Family Review. That particular paper examines three personalities and parenting styles: Adjusted/Authoritative, Overcontrolled/Authoritarian, and Undercontrolled/Permissive. As you can see by the fact that they have specific groups for particular behaviour, they have adopted the typological approach. They do not see it as restricting, though, rather it is a way of stansardising their variables – if these groups have not been set up, the researchers would have ended up with a vaeriety of different answers – as insightful as they might be, it would be very difficult to analyse the results statistically and consequently, contribute to controlling and predicting human behaviour. This what psychology as a scientific discipline is striving for. =)

    That said, I think you have supported your opinion with scientific evidence and have explained it thoroughly so I really enjoying reading it! Looking forward to the next one!


    Abstract from

    • Hahaha, I didn’t even realise that it rhymed until you pointed it out. I agree that my blog did turn out kinda one sided, thank you for presenting the other side. To be honest I was struggling to think of any positives, so I’m glad that you’ve pointed them out to me. However in one of the studies referenced within the article you suggested, it says that ‘77% of the families were matched to one of the three types’ what about the 23% that weren’t? A ‘mixed’ category could be introduced to solve this, but this would seriuosly reduce the falsifiability of the theories. Hence reducing how scientific-ness it is. Should those that do not fit the groups prescribed be seen as falsifying the theories?

  2. psuf10 says:

    Hey Louisenichols

    Really like your blog very informative and interesting. However as psue3e says it is slightly one sided and the idea which you bring up in your conclusion doesn’t really follow the general trend of the blog.

    For me I think typology is a useful tool and simplifying situations is often good due to it makes it more accessible to the public and for data collection it makes it easier.

    As HE Garrett says there are two main uses for typology, it enable us to better describe behavior in a set environmental setting and provide clearer insight into motives underlying observed behavior.(GARRETT.H (1939). LEWIN’S ‘TOPOLOGICAL’ PSYCHOLOGY: AN EVALUATION. Columbia University: 518.) These can be seen in the classification and catching of serial killers qualities at an early age e.g. Forensic Psychiatrist, Columbia University Michael Stone says in his podcast that there are three main things which suggest a serial killer, Bed wetting in there teens, pyromania and animal torture. (Stone, M. (2010, July 28). The Psychopathology of Evil Children . Retrieved from: This is a very broad sweeping generalization however in the case of catching potential criminals early is a good thing due to it can help the child and the people he/ her could potentially hurt and if this generalization is made surely there must be some evidence to support this idea.

    However this is just my opinion do you think that the categorization like this might put people into the mind set that they are in this group and so to prove everyone right they do the crimes anyway?

    • psuf1d says:

      I Really enjoyed reading your blog! This is a topic i feel very strongly about and in my opinion i do not believe that we should use typologies in psychology.

      Whilst it may make things easier for us when it comes to research, it is too much of a simplisitic approach to something which is anything but simplistic.

      Human behaviour is probabaly one of the most complex things there is and no matter how hard we try and how extensive out research is,we will never understand it completely.Due to its complexity,we cannot possibly categorise people into specific groups. For example, with the area of learning styles, individuals can either be said to be for example auditory or visual. But who amoung us is 100% of only 1 of these? we may be mostly auditory or mostly visual, but never completely. This, in my opinion applies to any kind of behaviour into which a person can be categorised.

      Also,say we grouped individuals based on personality traits, for example aggressive, neurotic or intraverted, this could lead to them behaving in a way which reflects this label,people who are categorised as aggressive, may become more aggressive because they believe they have, if you will, a reputation to uphold.

    • Thank you, psuf10. I agree that my blog turned out quite one-sided, however I would disagree about my final paragraph. Admittedly I should have extended it more, and concluded in greater depth. However, as I see it, the main criticism of the use of typology is that it is often too simplistic, being placed in a certain category, results in numerous inferences being made about that person. Which i summarised, although quite abruptly.
      I don’t understand how groups can provide ‘clearer insight into motives underlying observed behaviour’, I thought this was something that couldn’t be objectively studied. Could you explain this for me?
      I do agree that catching and helping potential criminals whilst they are young, is important, however I have seen limited evidence to suggest that serial killers can be classified. But please do prove me wrong.
      Perhaps you are right in that putting people into groups does create a self fulling property, I wonder if this could be linked to the Rosenhan Experiment in psychology? Once you give someone a label, the characteristics associated with that label begin to be seen.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Oi Looby, hope you haven’t been copying and pasting 😉 couldn’t help but notice a ‘disorganized’ amongst the rest of your, erm, dis and organisations.

    • I’m pretty sure i didn’t copy and paste 😛 in my defence the S and the Z are reasonably close together 🙂 i tend to spell it with a Z and rely on spell checker to put me right, probably ought to get spelling lessons, I reckon that i’m getting worse 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    P.s. from Asha 😛 xx

  5. Anonymous says:

    Oh and it was indeed very one-sided. I agree with your conclusion 100% and feel you can’t classify people into groups. There is always going to be a spectrum of results and it’s impossible to decide where a catagory begins and ends without erroneously type-casting the people who lie on the boundaries (and thereabouts). I think Psychology is a subject therefore where typology would do more damage than good… Not that I know the first thing about Psychology (: you are my inadvertant teacher.

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