Psychologist, theorist, inventor, author and creator of the DISC model
William Marston, born in the Cliftondale area of Saugus, Massachusetts, was the child of Annie Dalton (née Moulton) and Frederick William Marston. He had an impressive academic career at Harvard University, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in 1915, followed by an LL.B. in 1918, and a Ph.D. in Psychology in 1921. During his Harvard years, Marston sold his first script, “The Thief,” to the filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché, who directed it in 1913. He later taught at American University in Washington, D.C., and at Tufts University in Massachusetts. In 1929, Marston moved to California, working for a year at Universal Studios as Director of Public Services and teaching at the University of Southern California.
In 1915, Marston married his colleague Elizabeth “Sadie” Holloway. In 1925, he began a relationship with Olive “Dotsie” Byrne, a psychology student he met while teaching. His wife approved of this relationship, and Byrne eventually moved in with the couple in a polyamorous relationship. Between 1928 and 1933, Marston and his wife had two children, Pete and Olive Ann (named in honor of Byrne), and he also fathered three children with Byrne: Byrne, Donn, and Fredericka. One of his sons later stated that this unconventional family was a wonderful home.
William Moulton Marston passed away from cancer on May 2, 1947, in Rye, New York. After his death, his two partners continued living together: Olive stayed at home to take care of the children, while Elizabeth worked as a university professor. This arrangement lasted until Olive Byrne’s natural death in 1985.
Inspired by his wife Elizabeth, who noticed her blood pressure rising when she was angry or excited, Marston identified a link between blood pressure and lying. This insight led him to create the systolic blood pressure test. This test, which measured fluctuations in blood pressure using cuffs and a stethoscope during questioning, could purportedly detect lies based on changes in the readings. Marston’s invention laid the groundwork for the first practical lie detector. Building on Marston’s work, John Augustus Larson later developed the prototype of the modern polygraph in Berkeley, California, incorporating Marston’s systolic blood pressure test as a key element.
An interview with Olive Byrne, using the pseudonym “Olive Richard,” was published on October 25, 1940, in The Family Circle. The article, titled “Don’t Laugh at the Comics,” featured Marston’s perspective on the educational value of comic books. This piece, followed by another in 1942, garnered the attention of Max Gaines, a comics’ publisher. Gaines brought Marston on board as an educational consultant for National Periodical Publications and All-American Publications, which later became part of DC Comics.
In the early 1940s, DC Comics’ roster was primarily filled with male superheroes like Green Lantern, Superman, and Batman. However, an idea from Marston’s wife, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, led to the creation of a female superhero. Marston proposed a hero who would triumph through love rather than violence or force. Elizabeth agreed but insisted the character be female.
Marston presented this concept to Max Gaines, co-founder of All-American Publications. With approval, Marston created Wonder Woman, inspired by the empowered, liberated women of his era. He used the pseudonym Charles Moulton, blending his and Gaines’s middle names.
Marston expressed his views on female empowerment in a 1943 issue of The American Scholar, critiquing the lack of forceful, strong female archetypes in society. He argued that the denigration of women’s strength was a direct result of their perceived weakness, proposing a strong, capable, and attractive female character as the solution.
In the 2017 film “Wonderwoman” you can see the characteristics of the four behavioral factors reflected in each of the members of the protagonist’s team: the courageous and decisive, the sociable and humorous, the serene and calm, the quiet and analytical.
Upon completing his academic journey, Marston delved into exploring the roles of will and power in shaping human personality and behavior. He extended his research to include areas like consciousness, the psychology of colors, primary emotions, and physical symptoms associated with these emotions. His work in these areas significantly advanced the field of psychology.
Additionally, Marston was an accomplished writer on popular psychology topics. In 1928, he authored “Emotions of Normal People,” where he elaborated on the DISC Theory. This theory proposed that people’s behavior could be mapped along two axes: one ranging from passive to active attention, and the other based on the individual’s perception of the environment as either favorable or hostile. These axes intersect to create four quadrants, each representing a distinct behavioral pattern. In 1931, Marston expanded on this theory in his book “Integrative Psychology.” The DISC Theory was among the earliest efforts to apply psychological principles to everyday life outside clinical settings.
We will delve deeper into the theory behind DISC in another section.