The boxes we make (what's an INTP?)

No, this has nothing to do with woodworking. Zee Zee asked about the INTP and INFP in my last posting, so I’ll digress/rant about the personality type industry.

People are different from one another. Duh! But once you get past that obvious statement, what does it really mean? We have different cultural backgrounds, beliefs, knowledge bases, bodies, etc. All of these conspire to create an “identity.”

We can’t get inside other people’s inner worlds, but at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, people started to classify the similarities and differences. The Greeks based it on the bodily “humors” (fluids) – a phlegmatic personality, etc. (I might be off on the details – academic colleagues please suspend judgment here). Other systems evolved over time and in different cultures. But the essence was the same – create a small set of labels that describe the broad traits that both cluster people into groups, as well as distinguish groups from one another. Where this human tendancy to define “us” and “them” comes from is beyond the scope of this musing. 😉

Just like we have a multiplicity of religions in the world, there are many personality “systems” out there. And, just as the Unitarian Universalists spend a lot of time understanding the cross-religious elements we have in common, scientific psychologists have tried to distill a “pure” theory of personality that crosses cultures. The degree to which that endeavor is successful – or even theoretically possible – is a subject of active debate.

One off-shoot of this classification endeavor is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It’s based on Jung’s theory of personality types, and has questionable scientific credentials. Nonetheless, it has taken off as its own cottage industry in the business consulting world. Whether it’s “right” or not is secondary to its utility as a business consulting device. That is, the very value of teaching people about gross personality differences – and, importantly, of not assigning value judgments to differences in preference – can alter group dynamics and relationships in a business setting.

That’s the background (dang, this is starting to read like an academic journal article). OK, here’s the meat of the message.

The MBTI is a typology consisting of 16 “boxes” (my term), and each of us can be placed into one and only one box as dominant preference. When you take the MBTI test you get placed onto a pole of 4 personality dimensions: Introversion/Extraversion, iNtuitive/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, and Perceiving/Judging. Your type is a 4-letter string based on your placement on these dimensions. In my case, I’m (likely – it’s been a while since I’ve taken the actual instrument) Introverted/iNtuitive/Thinking/Perceiving, or INTP.

Now, as you expect, INTPs have a lot in common. They ought to – their designation is based on answers to such questions as “when I need to recharge, I’d prefer to a) curl up with a good book, or b) go out to dinner with friends” (that’s not a real question on the MBTI – just my made up example). (And if your answer to that question is “it depends!”, welcome to the real-world club, and my principal criticism). All the MBTI instrument can reflect back to us is our collective responses to dozens of such preference questions. In other words, it can’t tell us much we didn’t already know, but what it does do is package up a bunch of our discrete preferences into a collective, systematic bundle.

Someone’s even gone as far as to create a website dedicated to the INTP type. You can read it for insights into our “type.”

Curious what your own type is? While the MBTI is strictly copyrighted, a similar instrument is available on the web (Click here). It takes 10 minutes or so to take. Do you dare?

(Yikes! I just took it, and it says I’m an INFP. What should I make of this?)

Now the rant: it’s really easy to over-play the type differences. What makes me crazy is when I go to a meeting of MBTI groupies (yes, there are such things) and hear people say “as an ENFP, I like to do XYZ with my children.” It’s almost like, having been labeled, people adopt it as a core identity. And while the “proper” presentation of the MBTI is to recognize and appreciate differences (a popular book based on types is Please Understand Me), I don’t like the aspect that places us into little boxes. Maybe I’m just a psychometric Luddite. I recognize I have core preferences – the INTP label fits – but I’m certainly not restricted to them. For example, INTP’s don’t like detail work, in general, yet my last blog talked about the need to stretch myself into doing exactly that.

OK, my rant is weaker than I expected. Maybe it’s just a human tendency to say “I’m different, damnit!” But in fact our “uniqueness” is a little over-rated. Deep down inside we really do have a lot in common (the human race, that is). But that’s another essay…

Bottom line – yeah, I know this typology has some validity. I also don’t like being put into boxes. And yet it’s liberating, too, to know I’m not “crazy” but there are lots of people who have the same bundle of preferences that I do. But I’m unique, damnit! Great, yet another inner struggle to mull over. 😉

Back to the easier, more concrete struggles like what color to paint my wall (“Fresh Orange” is still looking like the best candidate – dang! in sunlight it really does look like the color of a fresh orange…)


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