The Gifted Sensor

For those who are digging into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for the first time, the Sensing (S) and iNtuition (N) dichotomy is often the hardest to grasp.  And with good reason: SN is about how we take in information, which is so fundamental to our lives that most of us don’t even stop to consider how we’re doing it, let alone that others might be doing so differently.

I’ve long thought that a significant part of my sense of being “weird brained” may stem from my very strong preference for intuition.  As an INFJ, my dominant function is introverted intuition, which means that I live inside my head ideating, making abstract and theoretical leaps.  My inferior function, on the other hand, is extraverted sensing, which is all about noticing concrete things in the world around me.  PersonalityPage.com’s description of sensing activities makes me laugh because one of the examples is “noticing that a stoplight has changed.”  And, see, this one time when I was living in Japan, I had stopped at an intersection on my walk home from work, and my train of thought as I waited for the light to change moved from how I thought な (na) is the most aesthetically pleasing hiragana character to the fact that math may well have been easier for many people if humans had six fingers on each hand and therefore had developed a base twelve system as our standard, rather than using base ten.  (Twelve is divisible by 2, 3, 4, and 6, rather than just 2 and 5, after all.)

And then I noticed that the stoplight had gone through a full cycle and had returned to red.  I had missed the concrete and present green light because I was thinking about abstractions.  That, my friends, is what it means to have extraverted sensing as your inferior function.

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With all this ideating going on, you might not be surprised to hear that intuitives dominate among the population identified as gifted.  And hey, after I originally drafted this post, I happened across a chapter in Off the Charts addressing this very subject.  In “Building Bridges: Research on Gifted Children’s Personalities,” author Shelagh A. Gallagher reviews research into several personality metrics, including the MBTI, and what they have to say about gifted populations.

And with the MBTI, a preference for intuition stands out as defining the gifted.  While only 31.9% of a normative group had a preference for intuition, 71.6% of gifted students were Ns (Sak 2004).  A study of creative men (defined in the survey as architects, scientists, mathematicians, and writers) reported 64% I, 97% N, 59% T, and 56% P preferences (MacKinnon 1978), and McCaulley (1976) found that 100% of creative research scientists preferred intuition.

This is a core reason that I’ve proposed the word abstract-intensive as a neutral synonym for “gifted.”  As Isabel Briggs Myers notes in Gifts Differing, the intuitive preference is essentially an innate predilection for the abstract; sensors, meanwhile, prefer the concrete.  The sensor absorbs facts; the intuitive delights in ideas.  The sensor uses those facts in the present, while the intuitive spends as much time as possible in the future.  (Standard disclaimer for MBTI parsing: we all do all of these things, of course, and we can get good at our non-preferred type, too.  Your preference, however, is where you were naturally comfortable early in your life.)  A strong preference for intuition is not a strength when you’re trying to do something practical like get home from work and get started on dinner, but it is useful for those who want to make the theoretical leaps that give rise to artistic creation and scientific discovery.

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This also makes a difference in those first years of life when highly intuitive children are being noted for their precocious ability to read or do math.  As Briggs Myers notes (in a book that isn’t even about giftedness), what are letters and numbers but abstractionsThe sensing child is not less bright; he simply doesn’t care as much about these things as the intuitive child, who is good at turning these abstract symbols into theoretical concepts precisely because she likes doing so.  好きこそ物の上手なれ。

Those who are offended by the elitism they perceive in the label “gifted” often respond by asserting that “all children are gifted.”  What they mean by this is that every child is of equal human value and has potential to contribute to society based on his or her unique skills; what the advocate for the gifted child hears is a denial that abstract intensity leads to a need for special programming, and perhaps also the implication that someone’s mommy or daddy just wants to feel special.

The thing is, I strongly agree with the meaning I’ve attributed to the offended first party, and I simultaneously assert that abstract-intensive children actually do benefit from (and even need) a different educational setup.  For me, getting put in the gifted program after being bullied in the regular classroom was emotionally equivalent to having Hagrid show up and tell poor Harry, banished under the Dursleys’ staircase, that he was a wizard.

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But I also am familiar with what happens when one sibling gets put in the gifted program and the other does not, because that’s what happened in my family.  My younger sister, Emily, didn’t get placed in the gifted class.

Now that we’re both adults, and since I’m doing all this work exploring the impact of giftedness over the lifespan, I’ve come to wonder about this.  My relationship with my sister obviously had a big impact on my life and on hers.  When we were kids, we hardly got along at all.  I was the socially awkward kid whom others evidently found intimidating in class and often shunned or teased; Emily, who was three and a half years younger, always wanted to be the exact opposite of that.  And while I felt weird outside the home, Emily was more likely to feel weird inside it.  See, a lot of time was spent in our household talking about abstractions like politics, and the fact that she didn’t jump into those as eagerly as I did made her think she must not be smart.

So why didn’t my sister, who also got her genes from the same places, get into the gifted program?  Was she not as smart?  What does being smart even mean?  Do you have to have a weird brain to count as “intelligent?”

One clue to unraveling this mystery came when Emily re-took the MBTI as an adult.  When she first took it as a high schooler, her results labeled her an ENFJ.  And, yes, she’s definitely an extravert and definitely a feeler.  But the N?  As far as we can tell, she selected all of those intuitive markers on her test because she had been raised to value themeven though they weren’t her natural preference.  (As regular readers will recall, this is a noted problem with the MBTI instrument, even though the content underlying the imperfect testing device is quite valuable.)  So when she took it several years later, when she knew herself better, she came out as a sensor.  An ESFJ.

Oh, we said as we discussed the results.  Maybe that’s part of why you always felt weird in our family.

What sorts of things does Emily like?  Well, she’s strikingly good at many things—things that all seem to involve paying attention to concrete things with her five senses.  When she was a kid, she had a mega Play-Doh cooking set and wondered why I got the Tastybake Oven for Christmas one year.  She later asked for the Dr. Dreadful Drink Lab and the Creepy Crawlies machine and spent hours making various tasty potions and squishy bugs.  She also liked playing with toy cars, and bought a real one for herself when she was in high school with the money she’d earned from skillfully waiting tables (something she and I both agree I’d be terrible at).  She also always impressed (and maybe even intimidated) boys with her high level of knowledge of the mechanics under the hood.

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Building on her Play-Doh precocity, she’s made her own fancy birthday cake—by which I mean fancy tiramisu or tres leches—every year since she was 14, and has even sold her tiramisu to fancy culinarily credentialed people who were impressed with it.  She started off going to a respected culinary school for college, but ultimately selected nursing as a career.  I remember seeing her study room in the basement of our parents’ house while she was in nursing school, and marveling at all the data she had charted out and memorized.  I couldn’t have done nearly so well in memorizing that data—in large part because it didn’t truly interest me.  But it interested Emily, because she’s an ESFJ who’s driven to care for people, and this practical data would empower her to do just that, and so she absorbed it all rapidly.  Since earning her degree, she has worked in a few different hospitals, where she inevitably rises quickly in the estimation of her colleagues and superiors.  They have said she’s a natural at this job and let her try positions that most people need special training for, and keep trying to put her in leadership roles.

Seems like we could conceivably call this being gifted.

So what if the tests used to select kids for gifted programs are in part essentially measuring MBTI intuition, because that was what was valued in our educational system? Because that seemed like being “smart” to people who struggled with it?

And it’s true that, since abstractions are the main ways we convey mathematical, scientific, and verbal knowledge, it does make sense to screen for this and separate this group out.  This points to why “abstract-intensive” is a good alternate to “gifted.”  It doesn’t elevate some and put others down; it does identify a real distinction with real implications.  (We should note, of course, that some sensors do indeed qualify for gifted programs, and not all intuitives do so.  I’ve got a number of hypotheses to address this, but until I talk to some actual people of this sort, this is just more of my ideating.)

Moreover, school doesn’t teach you everything useful.  Indeed, I wish gifted programs would offer content designed to help those who are really, really abstract-intensive develop a baseline of skills for the concrete world.  I had my sister read a draft of this post to ensure I was representing her story accurately, and she chimed in here with a suggestion: “All ‘gifted’ kids should have to take things like home ec.  My sister and I should have switched high school math classes; I needed the AP Calc, and she needed the real life applications taught in Consumer Math.”

And I’m inclined to agree.  While Emily’s suggestion won’t be right for every abstract-intensive kid or every gifted sensor, it is excellent food for thought.  Her line of thought empowers us to think of our own needs and choose our own destinies rather than getting stuck in any pre-made ruts.  That’s a good exercise no matter what kind of brain you have.

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And you know, Emily later realized that she might well have become—and loved, and excelled at being—a math teacher.  She’s really good at math.  And that is, of course something that’s taught as an abstraction.  Sensors get there a bit later than intuitives, and in different ways, and for different reasons.

On the other hand, though it took her a bit of time to figure out her path, she’s now doing quite well applying her sensing gifts.  I wonder if taking the MBTI and finding out she was actually a sensor might have been her own chance for Hagrid to show up and tell her just what type of magic she was capable of making.

In our next episode, we’ll step outside of the family and explore this magic, and the Muggles who sneer at it, in the broader world.  Stay tuned!

Images credits: webandi, 5arah, Lysons_editions, Sanshiro, doria150, and StockSnap on Pixabay

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24 thoughts on “The Gifted Sensor

  1. This post helped me to better understand the utility of your “abstract-intensive” label. It opens the door to creating different programs for “concrete-intensive” learners as well (lots of hands-on vocational training). However, as your post points out, there are some issues with accurately testing for the MBTI dimensions in children, so I’m not sure if this would be feasible in practice.

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    1. Maqroll, thanks for the comment! I’m delighted to hear this fleshed out the abstract-intensive idea a bit. (This post is actually where I first came up with that idea, and then thought explaining it merited a separate piece. 🙂 ) I fully agree that there are implications for a more concrete-centered education. And you’re right about the MBTI testing problem, of course. That would be interesting to dive into deeper, with more expertise and social science research instruments at the ready…!

      (I actually meant the “intensive” part to speak to the intensities, i.e. OEs, of giftedness, so I wonder if there’s some other word that might be good for concrete learners to pair with any noteworthy trait about them. Or maybe no one will pick that up in the “abstract-intense” terminology and I should let go of that….)

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  2. Speaking of S vs. N……there have been comparisons between SP’s and NT’s, but what I’d really like to see is a comparison of SP’s vs. nJ’s. You just don’t see that talked about. I don’t know why. But it would be interesting.

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    1. I know that in some applications of type theory (such as Keirsey & Bates’ Please Understand Me), the types are initially broken down into four temperaments — SJ, SP, NF, and NT. This is because SN is the primary difference between people, but once you have those two groups, then the JP dichotomy is supposed to be more meaningful to Sensors, and the TF dichotomy is supposed to be more meaningful to iNtuitives. I haven’t studied the reason why, but that could be the reason for what you’re seeing!

      On the other hand, there are blogs out there that seem to like to compare all manner of pairs. Gifts Differing also has some good data, picking out trends in career paths and so on by several different pairings apart from just the four classic temperaments. (For instance, it’s TJs that tend to love to practice law. Makes sense!) You might enjoy that book if you’re looking for examples like that!

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      1. Hurray! Glad you know about Gifts Differing. It talks about the 16 profiles.

        Sadly, these days, there is soooo much online about what I call “All Functions, All the Time”. In my opinion, I blame alot of that on some guy who used to be on Youtube who went by the name Dave Superpowers. This was some years ago, when there was less written anout the 16 Types online. This guy made “a Ton” of videos, talked ALOT about functions, talked kinda fast in his videos, sounded confident, had much less “competition” than today….and I feel most people just didn’t bother to question him and went along with things. Whatever happened to him? Where is he now? Did he ever write any book on Type? Was he ever CERTIFIED? Or just “out-posting” people on Youtube?

        Who even talks about “the 4 letters” anymore? This is why I like Myers-Briggs BOOKS with the 16 profiles.
        But even that has its problems (in my opinion), for example, Kiersey calls the INTJ “the Mastermind” (OOOOOH! How totally Kewwwwl) and we see lots of folks who wanna be an INTJ, cuz they wanna be smart and be the Mastermind. This is why I’m against giving a “title” or “name” to the 16 types. But thats just me. 🙂

        Two other books that have all 16 profiles and talk about the 4 letters are:
        Type Talk by Kroeger and Thuessen….and…
        Life Types by Hirsch and Kummerow.
        If only more people online would read them…..
        I enjoy your posts. Keep up the good work!

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        1. Owl, thank you! (And I really apologize for my late reply; sometimes I get overwhelmed by the inbox and things get overlooked….) But I’m grateful for your kind words, and thanks for adding these insights to the conversation here!

          I haven’t done a lot of MBTI reading online, but when I have, it’s been sites that focus on the 16 four-letter types. But I did come to be interested in the functions through that. This, I think, helped me to understand better how the four letters can interact, and what each function means in the context of the others. Either way, it seems to me that it comes down to a person’s willingness to dig deeply into the material, or just go for something superficial. (Precisely as happens when people want to be INTJs because they want to be “masterminds!” And I’ve definitely come across some cocky INTJs who nevertheless failed to impress me with their claim to intellectual mastery….)

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  3. Are you supposedly born with your personality type or is it flexible while you are young?

    I tried some of the tests they give to people who want to be air traffic controllers. They’re object manipulation puzzles because ATC is like playing 3D chess. I could do some of them really easily but then got totally stumped by the last one. Turned out it was impossible because being able to quickly spot when something is impossible is an important part of the job. I thought that was clever. And sneaky.

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    1. It’s thought to be innate. I don’t know the research behind that, but I seem to recall that there is some. Young people can, however, be taught to value a certain type and eventually come to identify as that type. (I suspect this accounts for some of the preference among women for Feeling and the preference among men for Thinking, though on that note, I don’t have any research to back me up, as there’s not really any way to conduct such research! I’m a woman with a slight F preference, and I couldn’t honestly tell you whether it was socialization or innate emotional OE that pushed me over the edge.) If people are taught to value a type that’s not natural to them, however, you’ll get something like what happened when they tried to make lefties write with their right hands. It’s harder for them that way.

      That IS a clever puzzle. I like that!

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    1. Hmm, good question. I haven’t stumbled across one that suggests it would overcome my concerns about the instrument, so I tend to suggest to people who are interested in figuring out their type that they look at descriptions of each preference pair and see if one resonates more. If that’s not enough to decide, then I guess any of the free tests are probably good as exploratory devices, even if just in the same sense that flipping a coin and seeing it come up heads sometimes just proves to us that we wanted tails all along.

      What about you, Jen? Are there any you think stand out?

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  4. This is a great post Jessie. I loved reading about the journeys you and your sister have been on, and the different ways you interpret/relate to the world. Emily sounds gifted to me — and I can only imagine what it must have been like for her growing up in an otherwise ‘N’ household. Mine is an exclusively N household; I shudder a bit to think of how A would fare if she were an S type in this environment.

    Also – does being a sensor type relate to being (generally) ‘better with your hands’? And what about coordination, playing sport at a high level etc?

    I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve watched youtube videos about it, and tried to plait A’s hair in a fancy way. It seems impossible for me to figure it out and get it right – and A looked so great the couple of times I’ve seen her in a fancy hairdo. I feel a distinct sense of failure in the hairstyle department and am a bit in awe of those who can french plait etc with ease. A has not been able to figure out how to do these hairstyles on herself, either. She says that her best achievement as far as hair is concerned, was figuring out how to do a *high* ponytail when she was 14.

    Looking back, there was a boy in my class throughout primary school and he was what I would describe as a highly gifted, highly introverted, sensor type. I went to his home once and he’d built an awesome play house for him & his siblings. There were the most exquisite balsa wood aeroplanes hanging from his bedroom ceiling. I’ll never forget that visit, because the things that Eric had created (and was in the middle of creating!) around the place gave it a distinct sense of magic. He also drew extremely intricate mazes that the teacher used to print out for members of the class to try and solve. I sometimes wonder what Eric is doing these days. I’m almost certain that he will have found school a bit of a drag – it meant time away from his building and making.

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    1. Thank you, Ro! I’m glad you’re enjoying the family stories. It seems to me that we have some stories worth telling, though I can never be certain that I’m not just amusing myself. Emily and I had fun talking about this, at any rate. (Now the only person left to write about is my mom, as I told her yesterday. She insists there is nothing worth saying about her, but I’ll work on her. 😉 Incidentally, I think she’s also an S, but of a more mild type, one who is balanced the way I am with T and F. I have a definite preference, but I’m comfortable with the other function, too, and even enjoy it. That is how Mom is with intuition.)

      I don’t know for a fact, but I also would suspect that sensors are more likely to be better with their hands. Emily certainly is. She was great at those string games like cat’s cradle / Jacob’s ladder and that sort of thing — and funny you should mention hairstyles, because we had this book called Braids and Bows when we were kids, and I could not do anything out of it at all, but Emily sometimes would French braid my hair for me, even asking if she could do it when I didn’t otherwise request it. I also considered a high ponytail a success!

      And Eric does sound like a highly gifted sensor type to me. I certainly respect these people’s gifts, as I can’t do that kind of thing, and they contribute something so valuable to all of us!

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  5. Jessie, thanks for another intriguing post. I feel like I can appreciate it better than most because I actually know the people and background you’re describing here. It was gracious of Emily to agree to be your example (and Emily being Emily I’m not surprised at her graciousness).

    I love your determination to find a neutral term for giftedness, and appreciate your nuanced way of addressing the common complaints people have about what is imperfectly termed giftedness. I also wonder how other aspects of MBTI tie in to this thought train. For me the problem with the MBTI terms is their baggage (connotations) outside of the instrument. For some reason I think of “intuition” and “feeling” as squishy and woo and nonrational, and thus less appealing to someone who values rationality and science (whether good at it or not). What’s funny is that I also really value compassion and empathy in myself and others but I think I compartmentalize it when it comes to “thinking” (where rationality is the highest good.) It’s sort of what you talked about in the post, but it’s at the very shallow level of the basic terms, not the behaviors. (Your notion that our current/recent educational culture highly prefers intuiting over sensing is the exact opposite of my reaction to those terms themselves.) Adding the spectrum of abstract concrete helps me understand N v S better. (Another problem I have with MBTI terms is using “sensing” on one axis and “perceiving” on a completely different one. Am I too literal in thinking of those terms as practically synonymous?

    I have taken a real (professionally administered and scored) MBTI twice and because at the time I tend to think my type makes sense I don’t write it down–and then completely forget it. SO for fun I just took an online version, and scored ENFP. That rings a bell so I’m sure that’s probably what I got one time on the real test. The full results plot them on a chart, and one repeated result is that I’m really near the center (any preferences are slight). I think that could be a type of bias, as I answer questions with the implicit urge to balance my answers (lots of “on the other hand” thinking as I consider answers.) Wait: according to this most recent test I have a moderate preference for N 🙂 Well, this has become a rambling response, but thank you for reading it.

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    1. Thank you, Aunt Amy, for the comment and for sharing this post, which was not at all rambling (or if it was, then rambling is a good thing, and I’m about to emulate that)! It’s great to read the thoughts of someone who does know all the characters and dynamics underlying this story. And yes, Emily was of course extremely gracious about this. I was initially concerned that she might not want this posted, or that it might come across badly in some way, so I had her read it while I was home at Christmas. She actually seemed to really like it and added some great comments — the rest of which are in the second half, which I cut off and made into its own post so as to dive into it more deeply.

      I’m so glad that my search for a neutral term is resonating with you and a few others. I know the reasons that I want to talk about the subject are the farthest thing from claiming anything like elitism; it’s a bit like saying “I’m an HSP” or “I’m on the autism spectrum” (both of which overlap with giftedness but are separate things; I suspect I’m an HSP but am not on the autism spectrum!)…at any rate, these are things to describe a lived experience, not to claim any special status. It’s useful to explore and neither needs nor generally merits valorization (nor defamation, but that happens less often…except of course with people saying “gee, these so-called gifted folks are not actually impressive at all!”)

      Your points about the MBTI terminology is really important and interesting. The first thing that strikes me is that “feeling” and “intuition” are terms associated with femininity, so the reaction you describe (which is extremely common; I also had it originally, as have many others) speaks to our culture’s basic devaluing of the feminine. (This of course does not mean that all women are necessarily feminine nor that men can’t be! But I digress.) I was just reading this book on mindfulness that I’m finding so useful called The Mind Illuminated, and it’s talking about “emotional” reactions being something we want to replace with “rational” reactions, and it struck me that, no, emotion is also a force for good, while people are plenty good at rationalizing evil. What the author (a PhD neuroscientist as well as a Buddhist teacher) meant to say, it seems to me, is that we want to mindfully attend to our emotions and our thoughts and react to them with intention, which isn’t the same as “rationally.” (So much “rationality” is just justifying ourselves and trying to blunt emotions that are signalling that we’re in the wrong, anyway….)

      I’m digressing again. But it does speak to the baggage that we have loaded into those words, and again, you’re not the only one who reacts that way. So, given that we have these cultural values, are there other terms that would have worked better for MBTI? I think there probably are. Abstract/Concrete would be good for iNtuition and Sensing, as we noted. Subjective/Objective would be better for Feeling/Thinking. And your point about sensing and perceiving actually points to something about how MBTI works. Sensing and intuition are the “perceiving functions,” while thinking and feeling are the “judging functions.” The J and P as personality types were only added later, and were meant to indicate whether a person presents their perceiving function or their judging function to the external world. (The opposite, according to type theory, would be directed internally.) So yes, sensing is indeed a type of perceiving! And so is intuition. Hence the overlap in meaning there.

      For what it’s worth, ENFP would have been my prediction for you! Even with the “on the one hand, on the other hand” responses. Which, coming full circle to our original topic, is a response that is highly correlated with abstract intensity. 🙂

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  6. I’ve been fortunate enough to have worked with both gifted sensors and intuitives and they definitely have a different working style. The sensors I’ve known tend to start from the bottom up, working through the details and building up the bigger picture from there. Intuitives like me though, NEED to understand the big picture BEFORE we can make sense of the details. It makes for difficult communication sometimes – the phrase “Can’t see the forest for the trees” must have been written by an intuitive! Eventually though, once we became more familiar with the subject matter, we could meet on common ground.

    It’s interesting about your sister – my sister tested as an ENTJ at work, but she is definitely an ‘F’. The work environment made her answer the questions like a ‘T’. I thought she was an ENFJ but your description of your sister as a child really resonates – the dolls complete with house and car, insistence on following a recipe to down to the last detail, now makes me think she is an ESFJ. Unfortunately the mistype has convinced her she needs to succeed in business which is causing her all sorts of stress – sad that people get so caught up in ‘their type’ even when it’s not accurate.

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    1. Interesting, Curious! I’m exactly the same way with respect to needing to know the big picture. If I don’t have that, there’s nothing for the details to adhere to.

      It’s nice to hear that my sister’s story is valuable! Type theory tends to appeal to the NFs most of all, and perhaps some NTs as well, but there don’t seem to be a whole lot of websites dedicated to understanding the various sensing types, which makes me think that sensors are not that motivated to put such types together. That makes it even harder for sensors who do want to know what it means to be, say, an ESFJ, to find examples to compare themselves to.

      I’ve also seen people whom I would bet money were actually Fs score as Ts at work. I suspect both broader cultural values and the more immediate pressures of work make that happen to a lot of people.

      And I see here evidence of why some people so vehemently hate type theory: if I’d seen people thinking that they need to match their lives to the four letters they get on their tests, then I’d probably have gotten a bad impression of it, too! The letters are a guide to helping you find your path, not one that’s supposed to dictate it for you.

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