Some management writers that I respect think that it’s worth learning about Meyer-Briggs personality types, on the theory that you need to realize that most people are different from you, and that there are concrete differences in their motivations, approaches, and so forth that can be helpful to know. The Meyers-Briggs types categorize your personality along four dimensions:

  • Extrovert or Introvert
  • Sensing or iNtuitive
  • Thinking or Feeling
  • Judging or Perceiving

So you can take a test which will give you a four-letter type: ESTJ, INFJ, ESFP, etc. And you can find various descriptions of the sixteen possibilities.

The specific approach that one of the sources recommended is Keirsey’s, so I read his Please Understand Me. Keirsey actually thinks that not all distinctions are equally important: he focuses on whether people are SP (“Artisan”), SJ (“Guardian”), NF (“Idealist”), or NT (“Rational”). He talks about how authors over the last two and a half millennia have divided people into four groups which can easily be made to correspond to these categories.

Before reading the book, I took an online test (I can’t remember the link); it had me as I, N, and P, but I was tied on the T/F axis. Looking at the description, I thought it was pretty obvious that I was a thinking instead of feeling, making me an INTP. But then I took the personality test at the front of Keirsey’s book; it actually had me marked as an INFP.

This would make me an Idealist instead of a Rational. I will admit that I do have idealistic tendencies, but that still seemed a little strange; maybe the part of me that was answering the test would like to be an F even though I’m not. Keirsey, however, had different meanings for the letters, thinking that Meyers’ original descriptions weren’t the best:

  • E: expressive or I: reserved
  • S: observant or N: introspective
  • T: tough-minded or F: friendly
  • J: scheduling or P: probing

Looking at the T/F distinction that way, it’s not so clear to me. And, reading more of Keirsey’s descriptions, I definitely have some F in me: I find conflicts quite unpleasant, for example.

Still, whenever I see something like this, I’m suspicious: is this really a natural division, or is it just one way among many to divide up people? Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but it’s perhaps not quite as interesting. And if I can’t even figure out which of Keirsey’s four main types I am, then that adds to my suspicion.

Reading more, though, it was at least clear which of the types I’m not: I clearly have the least sympathy with SJ’s, and I should probably work on understanding them better. And I’m not an SP (e.g. flamboyant artist types), though at least it’s an idea that I find attractive. I could definitely see myself in parts of the NF description, but I’m pretty clearly an NT. What sealed the latter for me was his description of INTPs’ parenting styles; it wasn’t a priori obvious to me what, if anything, INTP’s would have in common in their approach to parenting, but his description says:

Architects [INTP’s] are devoted parents; they enjoy children, and are very serious about their upbringing. Each of their children is treated as a rational individual, with rights, privileges, and as much autonomy as that child can handle safely. INTPs encourage their children to take responsibility for their own lives and to chart their own course. They do not visit their own expectations on their children and never attack them physically or verbally. When safe to do so Architects let the natural consequences of their children’s actions teach them about reality. When this is unsafe, they somehow contrive to design logical consequences to inform their children’s actions.

And I would have to plead completely guilty to that. So: INTP (“Architect”) it is, and maybe there’s something to this sorting method after all.

To him, the most important distiction is the S/N disctinction, which he frequently characterizes concrete versus abstract. The significant majority of humanity fits in the former category, though doubtless most of you are in the latter. (And doubtless most people who like to think about this sorts of categorization are in the latter category as well; maybe that has something to do with why they consider it an important distinction, even if most of humanity is on one side…) For example, his claim is that, in most successful marriages, the couple is either both S’s or both N’s, but that for the other letters their being the opposite works better. Beats me; I haven’t closely observed enough marriages to have an opinion about this. I don’t even know what Liesl’s personality type is, though it wouldn’t surprise me if she’s an N; if she’s an S, I don’t think she’s too strongly on that side. (I suspect Miranda is an INFP, but I could be wrong. He does claim that INTP parents and INFP children get along quite well, which is nice.)

At the end of the book, he has a “four types sorter” designed to tell you if you’re an SP, SJ, NF, NP. The results there were interesting: I was an NP, but my scores were something like 32 points for NP, 35 for NF, 37 for SP, 56 for SJ, with the lowest score winning. So the lesson here is that, whatever I am, I’m not an SJ, which fits with my observations earlier.

I’m not sure quite what to take out of this, but I guess I should spend some time observing my coworkers and seeing how they fit in. We’re a bunch of programmers, so we may well all be NT’s. But perhaps I’ll be able to find situations where I’d been inappropriately treating people as having similar motivations and feelings to myself, and use that knowledge to work more effectively with them. Or perhaps the mistakes I’m making have nothing to do with these types, and my idiosyncracies lie along different lines. Or perhaps I’m not making mistakes! (Yeah, right.) We’ll see.

Do actual psychologists find these divisions useful? Jordan, what does Tanya say?

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