It’s surprising that I haven’t gotten into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) here before, because I’m a longtime fan of it. You know: that test where you answer a bunch of questions about how you behave or what you prefer, and it spits our four letters that represent your personality type: ENFP, ISTJ, et cetera. As it happens, I stumbled across a copy of Isabel Briggs Myers’ Gifts Differing recently, and upon flipping through it, I realized how it could enrich what we talk about in this blog. So you can expect to hear about it in some upcoming posts! For starters, it happens to be a good complement to the Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD), as I’ll get to shortly. It has implications for social movements and organizing. And it’s certainly relevant to feeling like you have a “weird brain.”
But first, here’s something worth addressing: I know a lot of people who aren’t fond of the MBTI. And it’s true that, like a lot of things that people come to know through corporate settings and less-than-thoughtful BuzzFeed articles, it can be used poorly. In my experience, this usually comes down to superficial understanding by the manager or the BuzzFeed author.
One common criticism of the MBTI is that some people end up with different results each time they take the test. There are a number of possible reasons for this, none of which invalidate the insightful material buried beneath the imperfect testing instrument. The subject, for instance, might be influenced by the setting in which he is taking the test, as when a natural Feeling type takes up the value of dispassionate rationality in his highly analytic workplace and is proud that he’s done so—even though outside of work he’s always glad to get a break from that mode of judging things. Or the subject might think of times when she has applied all of the preferences—because all of us apply all the preferences occasionally—without knowing how to determine which she’s most comfortable with in general. These hypotheticals might also indicate that the subjects have well-developed auxiliary, tertiary, or even inferior functions. So I, too, have complaints about MBTI tests.
None of this, however, precludes the fact that a person is likely to have a preference for either Sensing (S) or iNtuition (N), or Thinking (T) or Feeling (F), or that these preferences matter. (And if you’re really into type theory, you’ll probably know why I picked those four of the eight preferences. It struck me long ago that those seemed to be the core influential preferences, so I was thrilled to discover upon further reading that that’s where Jung started in the first place. Extraversion (E) / Introversion (I) and Judging (J) / Perciving (P) certainly also have implications, but they tend to be more supplementary.)
So if people don’t know their MBTI types, then rather than having them take a freebie online test, I generally find it more fruitful to explain what each preference refers to and then ask the interested people which they identify with or gravitate toward. People usually know. (And if they don’t, if I know them well, I can often tell them.) Whether they have a strong or a weak preference is also salient, though of the four core preferences (Sensing, iNutition, Thinking, and Feeling), people tend to embrace at least one of them. Type theory would call this their dominant function.
Another problem with the MBTI is that people often have poor understandings of what each letter refers to—stereotyped and occasionally missing the true meaning of the preference entirely. This could be the subject of a separate post, so I’ll leave it there for now; suffice it for now to say that if you don’t really grasp what the letters refer to, then knowing a person’s type won’t be very useful to you. (If you’re curious, PersonalityPage.com has a decent introduction to the preferences to get you started.)
It’s true, of course, that there are only sixteen types in the MBTI, while there are billions of people in the world. That means there’s going to be tremendous variety contained within each one of those sixteen types. It’s a bit like knowing someone’s nationality: you don’t know everything important about a person just from knowing this, but you do know something, and that something may well be significant.
For instance, I am an INFJ, and while I know that one of my best friends is an INFJ and suspect that others are as well, there are other INFJs with whom I don’t click. Most of my friends are IN– types, with E-F- also well represented. And there are, of course, all sorts of other types thrown in, though my opposites, the EST- types, seem to be conspicuously absent.
If you ask me, what’s more useful than knowing someone’s four letter type is knowing their dominant and auxiliary functions. (These correspond directly to the four letter type, but you have to either look up what the letters point to, or memorize a formula that can be a confusing for novices.) As an INFJ, for instance, my auxiliary function is extraverted feeling, which explains why I click with many E-F- types, while my dominant function is introverted intuition, which is very much related to feeling “weird-brained.” Ni-dom (as dominant introverted intuition is known in type shorthand) is often said to be opaque, “mystical,” and weird to observe; it’s also the dominant function of the INTJs. See if this blog doesn’t have Ni-dom plastered all over it, judging from this description:
Ni-doms are usually drawn to careers or interests that allow them to: examine and challenge unrecognized or unacknowledged aspects of reality; grapple with theory or questions surrounding language, definitions, terminology; explore creative solutions to philosophical problems; help others realize their potential; persuade people to broaden their intellectual horizons. [Source]
People’s tertiary and inferior functions often come into play pretty clearly when they’re young to middle-aged adults, pointing to promising areas for growth that might be relevant to those interested in Dabrowskian development and authenticity. While my dominant function means I have a strong preference for intuition, my auxiliary, extraverted feeling, is only a slight preference, and is balanced by my tertiary function of introverted thinking in ways that are significant to me as a writer and political organizer.
But what I’ve come to love most about the MBTI is that it’s a great tool for empathy. I remember stumbling across—and then poring over—PersonalityPage.com back when I was a college freshman in 2000 as I tried to make sense of all the people I was meeting. It was only when I first grasped just what sensing and intuition were that I started to understand why some people seemed so wholly other to me. (And why I in turn confound them!) Once I understood how Sensors parse the world, I developed respect for them, and saw how they were strong in ways that I was weak. That’s why the MBTI is such a good tool for the Dabrowskian dynamism subject-object in oneself, which is of course the effort to try to see yourself as others see you (i.e. objectively) and see the world from the perspective of another (i.e., try on their subjectivity). I’ve seen the MBTI be of most use when people who matter to each other (couples, colleagues, parents and children, or other pairs who interact in significant ways) find they just keep butting heads with each other. Figuring out where their types differ often gets some productive conversations started, in as neutral a way as possible. (The creators of the MBTI make a point to note that all types have something to contribute, after all.)
Of course, it’s just a tool. If it’s not the right tool for what you’re trying to do, then put it aside. Again, it tells you something about a person, but it doesn’t tell you everything.
And the reason I’m writing about it here and now is that it is the right tool for some thoughts I’ve been thinking lately, which is why I thought I’d start off with this “what I think about the MBTI” post. Delving into the ways that different people perceive the world around them (i.e., whether through iNtuition or through Sensing) and how they decide what to do about it (i.e., by using Feeling or Thinking) is relevant to a lot of what I’ve been pondering lately.
Before we go deeper, however, I thought I’d open this up. What are your thoughts about the MBTI? Do you know your type? Has this knowledge been useful to you, and if so, how? Does your experience contradict the defenses I’ve just offered? Either way, I’d love to know.
Image credits: geralt, Free-Photos, DasWortgewand, and GDJ on Pixabay.