The Ties that Bind: DISC Personality Styles, Wonder Woman and the Lie Detector

wonder woman

Did you know that the history of DISC, Wonder Woman and the lie detector are inextricably intertwined? It’s true, Dr. William Moulton Marsten, the originator of the four DISC Styles was an accomplished psychologist, lawyer, filmmaker, comic book writer and outspoken feminist. In this week’s story, Merrick Rosenberg, discuses the very interesting history of Dr. Marsten, and the path he took to develop what we know today as DISC. This article is full of fun facts to share with colleagues and clients alike who think DISC, human behavior, and the pursuit of truth is as interesting as we do!

The Ties that Bind: DISC Personality Styles, Wonder Woman and the Lie Detector

by Merrick Rosenberg

W e are all familiar with Wonder Woman, but most people don’t know the legacy of the man who brought her to life. Dr. William Moulton Marston’s story, depicted in the forthcoming movie, Professor Marston and The Wonder Women, was a psychologist, lawyer, feminist, filmmaker and comic book writer. Ultimately, his Wonder Woman character became the synthesis of his life’s passions.

Let’s start at the beginning. In his early years, Marston studied psychology at Harvard University. While there, he became fascinated with the emotions that drive human behavior, specifically the differences between how men and women think, feel and act.

This led to an intense interest in the link between emotions and their effect upon blood pressure. Marston wondered if heightened emotions, which he posited would take place during lying, could be measured and demonstrated by evaluating the minute changes in systolic blood pressure – or the amount of pressure in the arteries during contraction of the heart muscle. His work on developing a test to detect deception became the foundation for the first working polygraph or as it is known today, the lie detector.

Marston’s obsession with using his new invention as way of determining the guilt or innocence of people charged with crimes spurred him to attend law school to learn the rules of admissible evidence. His ultimate goal was to figure out how to introduce his “deception test” into court. Wonder Woman would one day play a role in popularizing the lie detector… but we will get to that later.

Marston had rather unconventional beliefs about women, given the times, and this was reflected in his work and personal relationships. He sought to use his new invention to prove that women were more honest than men and could work faster and with greater accuracy. In the legal realm, he wanted to know if women were more accurate than men when they served as jurors.

A staunch advocate of women’s rights and freedoms, Marston championed the latent abilities and causes of women. He spent his life advocating for women’s right to work and express their creativity at a time when the only work women were supposed to be doing, was housework.

On a personal front, William Marston led, shall we say, a rather nontraditional domestic lifestyle. Just as Wonder Woman had a secret life, so did Marston. He married Elizabeth (Sadie) Holloway, who lived with him and his mistress Olive Byrne. Marston fathered four children with the two women and the three of them shared a relationship that lasted throughout their lives.

Olive Byrne was the primary stay-at-home parent who raised the children, though she was quite a prolific author who helped Marston write his books and helped promote him and his work. Ironically, Byrne also penned an advice column in Family Circle Magazine for housewives in the 1930s.

In an additional interesting side note to history, Byrne was Margaret Sanger’s niece. You may recognize Sanger’s name as she was the passionate feminist, activist, educator and nurse who, in 1921, founded the American Birth Control League, known today as Planned Parenthood.

With the help of Olive Byrne, Marston released his first book, The Emotions of Normal People. The book was a defense of homosexuality, fetishism and sadomasochism. In it, he explained that forms of sexual expression that are commonly derided as deviant are totally normal. Later, his Wonder Woman character would challenge sexual convention as she was continually being bound with ropes and chains. The book was mostly ignored at the time, but it went on to create an industry that far outlasted Marston’s life.

In the book, Marston included a four-quadrant model of human behavior in which he described people’s attention as either passive or active and their perception of their environment as either favorable or antagonistic. This became the foundation of the widely-used DISC model that today, is taught in companies all over the world. To date, tens of millions of people have taken DISC assessments and participated in training programs to learn the four DISC Styles.

What most people do not know is that DISC was created based on Marston’s work in studying the psychological bondage relationship between men and women and the sexual appetite for Dominance and Submission. In this bondage relationship, there is an Inducement or legal pledge and an agreement of Compliance to that promise. Hence, the four styles, D, I, S, and C.

My books, Taking Flight! and The Chameleon, are based on Marston’s original work, though the styles have understandably been modernized for today’s audience. What Marston called Dominance is now symbolized by the Eagle who is direct, driven and decisive. Inducement is captured by the Parrot style as these people are interactive, innovative and intuitive. Submission, which would not be accepted as a word in today’s world, is depicted as the serene, sincere and sentimental Dove. And Compliance is reflected as the conscientious, contemplative, and cerebral Owl.

Marston wanted to inspire women of the 1940’s to break their chains and stand in their power. Wonder Woman was an embodiment of Marston’s life work as she was based on the unconventional, liberated, powerful modern women of his day. He created a feminine archetype that displayed strength, confidence and compassion. As a feminist icon, Wonder Woman arguably became the most important woman in the history of comics.

Men often liked Wonder Woman because she was beautiful. Women liked her because she was a role model representing what women could become. She not only embodied the masculine and feminine, but also all four of Marston’s personality styles. As Diana Prince, she conveyed the caring of the Dove’s S style and the accuracy of the Owl’s C style as a secretary. When she donned her Wonder Woman outfit, she demonstrated Eagle D style assertiveness and Parrot I style optimism and enthusiasm. By displaying all four styles, she had universal appeal.

But there was one more trick up Marston’s sleeve. Remember his early work with the lie detector? That’s right, he gave Wonder Woman a rather handy, portable lie detector – The Lasso of Truth – which compelled people to speak with complete honesty.

So, the next time you watch Wonder Woman in action, give a nod to Dr. William Moulton Marston as she represents his legacy – empowerment for woman, the four DISC styles and of course, truth.


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Merrick Rosenberg is a keynote speaker, entrepreneur and thought leader on personality styles. He co-founded Team Builders Plus in 1991, and Take Flight Learning in 2012. Merrick is the author of The Chameleon and co-author of Taking Flight!.

Under Merrick’s leadership, his company has been selected as the NJ Business of the Year and named one of the Fastest Growing Companies and Best Places to Work in the Philadelphia region. Merrick received his MBA from Drexel University who recognized him as the Alumni Entrepreneur of the Year. Merrick has worked with more than half of the Fortune 100 companies in the US and around the world.

Merrick has led DISC training programs for more than 30,000 people and spoken to tens of thousands more on how to incorporate the personality styles in their work and lives. The DISC training program that Merrick designed, Taking Flight with DISC, was recognized as the Best Personality Styles Training Program in the United States by Corporate Vision Magazine.

Publications regularly seek Merrick’s input, as he has been interviewed by: New York Times, Fast Company, Fortune, Huffington Post, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, InformationWeek, Parents and Glamour. Merrick is also a sought-after guest on radio and television shows.

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