Myers-Briggs — Unravelling a Pop Psychology Obsession: Pt.I


Special thanks to Julia Jarzyna for her artwork seen in the cover image.


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI for short) is a method of categorising people into 16 distinct personality types. Based on the theories of Carl Jung, the method has become a multi-million-pound industry and is perhaps one of the most renowned ways of measuring personality. Many people become acquainted with MBTI through the 16 Personalities website, which offers a free test whereby you are assigned a type (e.g. INFP) based on how you respond to a series of questions. Whilst 16 Personalities has a reputation for yielding ‘uncannily accurate’ results for people, it barely cuts beneath the surface of what is really a complex system of personality typing.

Many people view the MBTI with scepticism; to some it is little more than ‘pseudoscience’ and should be held with the same dubious regard that many have for something like astrology. I would argue that whilst the MBTI is far from being ‘hard science’, this should not in any way diminish the worth of what I deem to be a useful tool that we can all use to understand ourselves and others.

So how does the MBTI work? As mentioned earlier, those who take the test are divided into 16 types. Each type is represented as a four-letter code (e.g. ESTJ) which serves to indicate what a person’s particular preferences are. The theory behind MBTI is often simplified using the dichotomies used to determine each personality code. They are as follows:

· Introverted (I) OR Extroverted (E)

· iNtuitive (N) OR Sensing (S)

· Feeling (F) OR Thinking (T)

· Judging (J) OR Perceiving (P)

Notice that iNtuitive is ‘N’ rather than ‘I’. That’s because ‘I’ has already been used for Introverted.

Commonly people assuming they are Introverted (I) think that this is to do with how social they are as a person. If they are introverted, then that must be because they don’t like going to parties and instead prefer reading books. The Extroverted (E) people are the outgoing ones, always wanting to stay late at parties and engaging in impulsive behaviour. None of this could be further from the truth.

Being Introverted (I) means that one’s energies are primarily directed internally. Someone who is introverted may love being around people and going to parties. Hell, they may not even like books! But what makes them Introverted is their proclivity for concentrating on their internal world of thoughts, feelings and impressions. Conversely, someone who is Extroverted (E) directs their energy outwards. They can still be shy and enjoy solitary activities, but they concentrate more on the world around them and draw energy from their surroundings, rather than their internal world.

It is important to note that no one is completely one thing or the other. Jung himself joked that anyone who was a total introvert or extrovert would end up in an asylum. It’s all a matter of preference. No one fits entirely into one state of being, but it’s an indicator of what fits best for each person.

As for people who prefer iNtuitive (N), this means that someone prefers to process information in an intangible way. iNtuition is basically processing through the abstract and focusing on possibilities and connections that may not be immediately obvious. The flip side of this is Sensing (S), which is all about processing what is real and concrete. It is not uncommon for people to refer to data from the 5 senses here. I prefer to talk about Sensing as something that deals with anything physical. An iNtuitive type is more interested in the abstract, in what is intangible, whereas a Sensing type is more preoccupied with what is actually there: physical and tangible.

Neither process is more intelligent than the other. In the MBTI community, especially online, Sensors are sometimes perceived as being ‘dumb’ and the iNtuitives as ‘ingenious’. This is an injustice that needs to be corrected. Neither of these processes is ‘better’; they’re just different. And while I’m at it, it’s important to remember that anyone can do all of these things, it’s just a matter of preference.

Here comes the dichotomy that most people always get wrong: Feeling (F) OR Thinking (T). Everyone feels, everyone thinks. Feeling is not about emotion. Anyone can be an emotional wreck, even people who prefer Thinking. What is meant by Feeling is preferring a process of making decisions that takes values and beliefs into account. The key word that could be used to describe what is meant by Feeling is this: sentiment. Thinking, on the other hand, is about logic. It is not interested in how people feel or what their moral code is. It is about doing things efficiently and impersonally, as well as making sure everything makes logical sense.

Finally, there is the last dichotomy of Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). I once dated a guy who insisted that people who were Judging were organised and on time for their appointments, and that Perceivers were indecisive, scatter-brained and always late to everything. That guy was an idiot. Anyone can have their act together or be a mess. That’s down to you. Your Myers-Briggs type has no bearing on your capacity to be either of these things. And as you’ll see in part 2 of this exploration of the MBTI, traits have little bearing on why you score as a Judging or Perceiving type. In fact, traits have nothing to do with your type. The difference between those who score as Judging types and those who score as Perceiving types is that Judging types are more likely to present a judging process (i.e. Thinking or Feeling) to the world, and Perceiving types present a perceiving process to the world (i.e. iNtuition or Sensing). This often manifests in Judging types appearing to be quite structured in the way they navigate the world, whereas Perceiving types are more likely to appear quite open and flexible. This has paved the way for stereotypes. Judgers are seen as highly organised and punctual, whereas Perceivers are seen as disorganised and tardy. Every stereotype has a degree of truth, but the way you score need not dictate your ability to organise or structure your life.

Here, we have just about broken beneath the surface of the MBTI. In the next part of this exploration, we will delve into the cognitive functions. These are the true explanation for what makes the individual types work. I hope you have enjoyed reading this introduction to what is, ultimately, an exciting way to enhance self-understanding and personal growth.

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