Erik Fromm on Social Character Types of Personality

Erik Fromm was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1900. He gained his Ph.D by studying psychology, sociology, and philosophy. His writings often emphasize more on his experience and knowledge in sociology and philosophy compared to other psychologist.

He attempted to combine social theories of Freud and Marx. His experience through Nazi-era in his home country also influenced his theory. He was horrified to see how many of his fellow countrymen, even his Professor who supposed to be intelligent and compassionate, eagerly followed Hitler. As the result of the experience he often wrote about his concern for human freedom and dignity.

Fromm divided social characters by their orientations in life. He divided the human characters into two major opposite: the ones who are productive and non productive.

The non productive characters can be divided to four categories; receptive (always want to passively receive things), hoarding (protecting things, don’t want to share), exploitative (taking things by force and manipulation), and marketing (too adaptive to outside force and thus, lack identity).

He divided the productive people also into four categories, which are the direct opposite of their non productive counterparts: accepting, preserving, taking, exchanging.

Bear in mind that to Fromm, this social characters are not absolute, but rather a continuum and most people fall in the middle of the extremes. Each of the types may combine with either the productive or the non productive orientation.

See this diagram:


Non Productive


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This orientations or character types developed in their society. For example, receptive characters are mold in the feudal society. Society directs the children to act in certain ways so that the society will keep on going. But sometimes society frustrates and warps human nature. Fromm heavily criticized both capitalism and communism for reducing humans to be robots by making them wage slave and alienate them from the meaning and product of their labors.

Fromm researched this theory in a small Mexican village that has gone rapid change. The result of the research supported Fromm’s theory that everyone in the three classes within the society displayed a typical character according to their socioeconomic conditions.

According to Fromm, the best society is one where man can relate to others lovingly and help to create instead of destroy. He advocated what he called “humanistic management” where citizens meet in small groups to discuss political and social issues and give input to the government. Although many people criticized this idea as not feasible, but they concedes that the basic idea to empower every member of the society to be a productive humans is a fine ideal.


Lindzey, Gardner & Hall, S. Hall, Introduction to Theories of Personality, John Wiley & Sons, 1985