If we’re gonna talk about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), then we ought to be sure we’re clear on what each preference means. And there’s one that’s misrepresented more often than not—not because it’s hard to understand, but because of cultural baggage. This is the TF preference, which pits “Thinkers” (T) against “Feelers” (F).
Now, I’m an INFJ—a Feeler. But while my preference for intuition is strong, my TF preference is muted. Feeling judgment is surely my default, but it’s easy for me to switch to thinking because I see the value of and therefore actually enjoy using thinking. It probably also has something to do with the fact that people’s scores often seem to even out in adulthood because they’re developing their tertiary and inferior functions.
The point is that, while I don’t claim to be equally adept at both, I’ve come to sincerely value both types of judgment. So it’s not because of a Feeler’s impulse for tact over frankness that I’m stating the following: the way we tend to talk about feeling judgment sells this valuable skill short. In an effort to both acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of Fs and to rationally parse the proper application of both forms of judgment (see what I did there?), I’d like to offer a reworded take on what the TF preference actually means.
Defining F and T
It’s often said that Ts use “logic” and Fs use “how they feel” as the basis for decisions. I’m guessing it was a bemused T who came up with this description.
So block from your mind everything you’ve heard about Fs and Ts for a moment, and try these two complementary definitions on for size:
Feeling judgments tend to focus on the impact on people, while thinking judgments are anchored to some non-human end (e.g., rules, data, profit margins, or some other impersonal goal).
When we use feeling judgment, we’re being subjective (i.e., considering an individual human’s viewpoint); when we use thinking judgment, we’re being objective (i.e., looking at impersonal reality as separate from human experience).
Of course, we all use feeling judgment and thinking judgment in our day-to-day lives. But we’re generally more comfortable with one or the other, and when faced with decisions that involve aspects of both, we tend to default to our preferred process.
Now, there are some NTs who will try to claim that they’re the “smartest” type. Logic, after all, is the ultimate tool of Smart People, right? But if thinking judgment isn’t actually best defined as “logical,” and if we all use both thinking and feeling, then logical types will want to rethink this claim. Indeed, a high level of skill with subjectivity is a manifestation of intelligence. After all, virtually everyone resents being treated as an object, Ts included. So when the problem you’re trying to solve involves people, thinking judgment is usually not the right tool.
Think of the work of a diplomat. Understanding (not to mention solving) a people-centered problem requires an ability to grasp complexity just as much as any problem we might find in the world of STEM. Human perspectives are messy, nuanced, and constantly shifting! So we can apply our thinking judgment to reach the objective conclusion that Nobel Peace Prize winners, who are the archetypal heroes of feeling judgment (though there surely Ts in the lot, just as Fs can excel in the sciences) are as intelligent as their peers who win other forms of Nobels.
Moreover, being an F doesn’t mean that you’re “emotional”—and being a T doesn’t mean you’re not. A friend of mine with a T preference once said that pregnancy hormones had turned her into an F because she was having mood swings. But the fact is, even without hormone fluctuations, thinking types who have not developed their feeling judgment can be moody or volatile precisely because they lack skill in using person-centered judgment or communicating their subjective perspectives. In Gifts Differing, Isabel Briggs Myers relates the example of the ESTJs, whose dominant function is extraverted thinking, who have never developed their feeling judgment. The result? They “may even acutely embarrass them at times by unexpected explosions of temper which consciously they would never ‘think’ of committing” (87). (Of course, thinking types are perfectly capable of developing their feeling judgment if they see value in it, so it’s not fair to call them emotional, either.) In short, the TF preference is about how you judge and decide things, not about being emotionally grounded or moody.
When Feeling is the Quickest Route
I spoke above about expressing appreciation for Fs and rationally parsing applicability of both forms of judgment. In this case, my selection of this topic as worthy of a blog post was fueled by my extraverted feeling (“Oh, no! People’s subjective experiences are being misunderstood!”), but I’m using mainly introverted thinking as a tool to address this (“That means we need clearer descriptions of what T and F mean.”)
Without using feeling judgment at some point, however, you may end up with a system that seems like it should be rational, but actually has horrible consequences in the human sphere. Have you read Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal? In this 18th century satirical classic, Swift proposes that the poor just sell their one-year-olds to rich people as food. It would, after all, help reduce the population of the poor and miserable, and provide a benefit to their parents!
It is feeling that swiftly rejects this argument. Those strong Ts who do try to devise “rational” arguments to refute the likes of Swift’s modest proposal are generally trying to translate an impulse that stemmed from their feeling judgment—which they do not trust—into a language they understand better. Their efforts do, however, reveal how sometimes T and F are merely different routes to the same decision.
Ultimately, knowing when to use thinking judgment and when to use feeling might be the key to wisdom, which thinkers and feelers both surely value. Such wisdom would be intelligence used intelligently, with a sophistication gained from experience.
Dear Ts, if you feel that this post gave your subjective experiences short shrift, I hope you’ll stay tuned. In an upcoming post, we’ll explore some challenges that arise from misapplication or excess of feeling judgment.