The most complicated aspect of Myers-Briggs personality types is also one of the things that makes it a useful theory. It’s the answer to criticisms like “But people aren’t 100% introverts or extroverts” and “Sometimes I use thinking and sometimes feeling, so the test must be wrong.”
Myers-Briggs theory describes complex, nuanced, dynamic personalities using something called “function stacks.” That term refers to mental processes (functions) that people use in a certain order (stack) of preference. But when you start trying to study function stacks and people are throwing around phrases like “Extroverted Intuition” and “Introverted Thinking” it starts getting confusing, especially after you learn ENxJs don’t even use Extroverted Intuition and IxTJ types don’t use Introverted Thinking. What on earth is going on?
I’ve written about cognitive functions before, but I feel like I’ve always fallen short of explaining the concept both simply and concisely. I’ll link to those more in-depth posts at the end of this article, but right now let’s try and break this topic down for the simplest function stack guide on the Internet.
What J and P Really Mean
Contrary to popular opinion, Judging and Perceiving aren’t a sliding scale. They aren’t even meant to stand on their own as an aspect of your personality — they’re just in your four-letter type to describe how you use the other letters. Thinking and Feeling are both Judging functions because they’re involved in how you make decisions. Sensing and Intuition are both Perceiving functions because they’re about how you learn information. Read more →
Traditionally, Myers-Briggs theorists have taught that people develop their primary function first, followed by their secondary function up until their 20s, then their tertiary function in their 30s and 40s, and sometimes they’ll go on to start using their inferior function later in life. It’s a neat, orderly formula. Too neat for my tastes. (If you felt lost when I started talking about functions, click here to read a post explaining that aspect of Myers-Briggs personality types.)
When you start talking about type development in more depth, though, Myers-Briggs experts will add that environment and an individual’s commitment to personal growth does influence when our functions develop and how well we learn to use them. They’ll also talk about life-long type development and offer tips for dealing with your less developed functions before the age you’re “supposed” to develop them. And I’ve also talked with people who feel like they developed their tertiary before their secondary function, or had to go back later in life and become comfortable with their dominant function because they’d been suppressing it. Clearly, there’s more going on than a neat developmental progression from one function to another.
Personality Hacker proposes a different look at how we develop functions, or “mental processes.” I’ve not seen them directly address the question of type development from childhood on, but they do see our secondary function as our growth position. We’re most comfortable using our dominant function and (baring some kind of trauma) it’s typically also the one you’ve spent the most time developing. This function is either introverted (i.e. focused on our inner world) or extroverted (i.e. focused on the outer world). Your secondary function is focused in the other direction — if you’re a dominant introvert, your secondary mental process it extroverted (and vice versa). But your tertiary function matches your primary one in terms of introvert-extrovert, so it can be more comfortable (though not as healthy) for us to spend time in that one rather than cultivate our secondary function.
What About Culture and Family?
I think our early experiences and upbringing have quite a bit to do with which mental processes we develop and when. For example, an introverted child leads with an inward-focused mental process. How their society and family treats their introversion will have a huge impact on their development. They might develop their extroverted side more quickly as a defense mechanism for fitting into an extroverted world. On the other hand, the same thing (developing their secondary extroverted function early) could also happen if given support for their introverted development as well as encouragement to stretch themselves in the outer world.
Alternately, our hypothetical introvert might reject the push to be more extroverted and end up developing their tertiary process more quickly than their secondary process. That could be a reaction against the external push to be something they’re not, or in response to a particular subculture that values their introverted traits. If no one’s telling you to cultivate a less comfortable aspect of your personality, then why bother?
The same can hold true for extroverts. Many cultures, including the United States, have historically held extroverted traits up as more desirable. If you’re constantly being admired for your outgoing personality, social skills, and ability to navigate the outer world, why focus on developing your un-cool introvert side in high school? Or maybe you’re an extrovert growing up in a family of introverts who constantly ask you to give them alone time or be quiet, and you suppress your dominant function’s development until you’re older. I’ve seen both happen.
There are other factors in play as well. An ExTJ guy would typically find encouragement for his dominant function, where a woman with the same personality type could face criticism for not “acting like a girl.” An ExFJ girl would fit more easily into what society expects from young women, while a guy with the same type might be told to “man up.”
Messy, Beautiful Variations In Type
Personally, I feel I developed my dominant function first (as an INFJ, that’s Introverted Intuition/Ni), stunted my own secondary function’s growth by being incredibly shy (Extroverted Feeling/Fe), ended up using my tertiary function trying to make sense of things (Introverted Thinking/Ti), and was completely blind to my inferior function (Extroverted Sensing/Se). That described me pretty much until age 19 or 20. At that point, I’d been in college for about a year and started working to overcome my shyness. That finally gave my secondary Fe a chance to develop into a healthy version of that function. At the same time, I started using Ni in a healthier way, too, while still occasionally tapping into Ti. As I started learning more about my personality type, I’ve also started trying to develop my Se (though I’ll admit it’s with little success so far). But since I’m not even 30 yet, I “shouldn’t” be consciously using either my tertiary or inferior function yet.
I’m certainly not trying to argue that Myers-Briggs gets everything (or even most things) wrong about type development. The MBTI is a fantastic tool for describing how people’s mind’s work, how we typically learn information, and the ways we interact with our worlds. And the typical type development model has lots of truth in it, including the fact that our primary and secondary functions are the ones we develop most fully. It’s just that there’s more influencing the nuances of type development than how old we are.
These variations are one reason why no two people who share a personality type will be exactly the same. We all have different circumstances that shape our type development, different levels of comfort with our type’s functions, and different ways of expressing how our minds work. If you feel like you didn’t follow the standard model of type development, don’t worry — you haven’t missed out on your chance to grow and there isn’t anything wrong with you. Our personality types aren’t boxes we fit in neatly or hoops of development we jump through. They’re a way of describing how your mind works and a tool we can use to accelerate personal growth, including developing all facets of our personality type more fully.
Some of you might think that title is strange, but my fellow introverts will understand. The hours of mental preparation that go into making a two minute phone call. The sense of dread when the phone rings and you aren’t ready to talk with someone. The pressure of sounding engaged and alert while thinking fast enough to avoid awkward silences. Most of us view the telephone in much the same way the Dowager Countess of Grantham does.
But I had a truly enjoyable phone conversation with a friend this weekend, and I realized this wasn’t an isolated incident. When he asked for my number my first instinct was panic, then I realized there wasn’t any reason to. I talk with my sister on the phone for hours almost every day. I chat with my dance team when we’re coordinating practice times. I enjoy the unexpected call from my cousin or a select group of friends. Chatting on the phone really isn’t all that scary.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am in many ways a stereotypical introvert in regards to the telephone. We don’t have caller ID on the landline and the calls are rarely for me, so I refuse to answer when it rings unless I recognize the voice and want to talk with them now. My cell phone is set so it doesn’t even ring unless the number is in my contacts list and, in general, I much prefer written communication. There are times, however, when telephones are a preferable method of communication. Read more →
People have been trying to use personality types to find their perfect romantic match since typology first became popular. In a previous posts about Myers-Briggs types and love languages, I talked about how falling in love — and staying in love — with someone is so much more complex than simply matching personality types. Sometimes when browsing personality type forums, I’ll come across posts from people asking how to find and attract a someone of a specific personality type (often it’s an ENTP asking for step-by-step instructions to win an INFJ, which I find hilarious). It’s like some of us think that if we can just find someone who is our ideal type-match, then we’ll be happy because we caught the mythical “compatibility” creature.
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Now, I do have some personality types I find more attractive romantically than others, but it’s not always the types I’m “supposed” to like according to Myers-Briggs or Keirsey theories. Even Isabel Myers was happily married to a man who her theory said should have been incompatible. An understanding of love languages and a mutual willingness to understand and work with each other is one piece of the puzzle. Another is something I just learned this week from Personality Hacker.*
The “Genius System”
Personality Hacker was founded by Antonia Dodge and Joel Mark Witt, who use what they call the “Genius system” to divide Myers-Briggs types into four groups based on the last two letters in a person’s type. In terms of function stacks, this means they group types based on whether the type introverts or extroverts their Judging function. The groupings end up looking like this:
According to a new article on Personality Hacker, each of these groups look for and expressed love in a unique way. Most people would tell an INFJ to look for a relationship with an ENFP or an ENTP and avoid their opposite type, ESTP. This system stays that an ENFP and and ENTP express love in completely different ways, but ENTPs and ESTPs are actually very similar in how they love. That would explain why some INFJs find ENFPs really attractive, while others prefer ESTPs or ENTPs. It’s not so much about matching two specific types, as it is about finding types who express love in a way you relate to and understand. This Genius style take on the MBTI adds an intriguing aspect to the subject of personality types in relationships. You can check out the Personality Hacker podcast on how each type says “I Love You”* for a full explanation, but here’s my brief take on what this means:
Types of Love
“Harmony” types, who use Extroverted Feeling as their first or second function, feel loved when they are connected, safe, cared for, and accepted as their authentic selves. They express love in a similar way, by encouraging the people they love and keeping in touch with them. They are primarily concerned with harmonious relationships and emotional connection.
The types who use Introverted Feeling, “Authenticity” in the Genius System, highly value honesty in relationships. They feel loved when they know someone is being real with them and is supportive of their own authentic expressions. Authenticity types express love by giving people space to be themselves and being willing to work through problems in the relationship.
“Effectiveness” types, those who use Extroverted Thinking, value independence in relationship. They want to know that the person who loves them is supportive of their goals and can be trusted to function on their own. They are loyal and protective towards those they love, and give them room to be themselves.
Those who use Introverted Thinking, “Accuracy” types, feel loved when they are respected. They want to know that the person who is in love with them thinks they are impressive and that the relationship makes sense. In return, they are protective, non-judgmental, and strive to bring the best version of themselves to the relationship.
Ultimately, typology is simply a tool we can use to understand each other. When we understand ourselves and the people around us, we have a better idea of what we’re looking for in a romantic relationship. I think that’s really the best way to apply Myers-Briggs theory to romance. We can’t just say that all INFJs’ ideal match is an ENTP — people are far more nuanced than that, even within a type. But the better we understand how we’re wired and what makes us feel loved, the more likely we’ll be able to recognize whether a potential romantic partner would be a good or a bad match for us.
This is one of the things Debra Fileta talks about in her book and blog True Love Dates. You have to know yourself before you try to get to know other people in a romantic context, otherwise you have no idea what you’re looking for in a relationship. So maybe the first thing we should do when looking at the Genius System types is find which group we fit into. If we know who we are, we’re one step closer to knowing what we want.
The study is 20 years old, but I first became aware of it last week. In two days, I saw two different articles talking about falling in love and Dr. Arthur Aron’s “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness.” (As an interesting side-note, this Dr. Aron is married to Dr. Elaine Aron, who we’ve talked about in connection to her research on Highly Sensitive Persons [HSPs].)
Aron’s study wasn’t actually intended to explore the science of falling in love — it was designed to study closeness and included both men-women and woman-woman pairs (because the sample group, a psychology class, was 70% women). The couples who fell in love were an unintended side-effect. Mandy Len Catron’s recent article “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” which called attention back to this study, demonstrates that the principles Aron used for studying accelerated intimacy between strangers can be applied to romantic relationships.
It’s a fascinating idea, made even more fascinating when you read his published research paper (what can I say? I’m a nerd) and find out about some of his other results. Is there a difference in closeness for introverts and extroverts? Can you truly become close to someone in less than an hour? What is it that effectively increases closeness?
Introverts and Extroverts
One thing I found fascinating about this study, which wasn’t brought out in any of the other articles I read, was Dr. Aron’s observations on the role introversion and extroversion played. In Study 3, Dr. Aron had the participants take a Myers-Briggs test, then used those results to create extrovert-extrovert, extrovert-introvert, and introvert-introvert pairs. Some of the pairs were told the experiment’s goal was to get close to the person you were paired with, and the others were told the study was about “dyadic interaction” and their job was simply to work through the questions.
Extroverts reported closeness in all cases, but introverts only reported closeness when they were told that closeness was a goal. Dr. Aron says, “these data shed doubt on the view that introverts are less social because they are less skilled at getting close. Indeed, when getting close is made an explicit task, introverts became as close as extraverts.” When introverts want to get close to someone, we’re just as capable of socializing with them as extroverts.
Is It Real?
The experiment succeeded in producing a feeling of closeness between two people, but is that closeness as real as a relationship that develops over time? Of the 58 people who completed follow-up questionnaires, 57% had a least one more conversation with their study partner, 35% got together to do something, and 37% started sitting together in class. One couple got married 6 months after the study.
So are we producing real closeness? Yes and no. We think that the closeness produced in these studies is experienced as similar in many important ways to felt closeness in naturally occurring relationships that develop over time. On the other hand, it seems unlikely that the procedure produces loyalty, dependence, commitment, or other relationship aspects that might take longer to develop.
In one of Dr. Aron’s tests, he paired individuals with shared interests, and individuals who shouldn’t have gotten along well based on their different responses to a questionnaire. He also conducted tests where pairs were assigned without filling out pre-tests to determine whether or not they were compatible. In all cases, participants reported similar levels of closeness. That indicates we can rapidly feel close with just about anyone, but on the long-term this closeness might not last because other considerations (like whether or not you share important values) will eventually come up.
Small Talk’s Not Enough
One thing Aron’s research found was that small-talk doesn’t do anything to bring people closer together (which I’m sure many of us have suspected for years). Talking about things people had done, what they liked and disliked, or other people they knew did not produce closeness between the two study participants. Here are some examples of the small-talk prompts used in his study:
If you could invent a new flavor of ice cream, what would it be?
Do you like to get up early or stay up late? Is there anything funny that has resulted from this?
What is the last concert you saw? How many of that band’s albums do you own? Had you seen them before? Where?
In contrast, the types of questions which did draw people closer together focused on how they feel about the way they live their lives, why they think the way they do, and what helps them connect with other people. Here are a few examples, and you can read the full list of closeness-generating questions at the end of his published research paper (which I linked in the intro), or by clicking this link.
What would constitute a perfect day for you?
Is there something that you’ve dreamt of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
Tell your partner what you like about them: be honest this time, saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
Maybe there is a reason people devote so much time to small talk, which we introverts find so frustrating because we crave deep conversations. If we were having deep conversations with everyone, though, we’d feel very close to a lot more people. Maybe small talk protects us in a way, though it can also hinder genuine conversation.
Now that I’ve read about this research, part of me would really like to try it out and part of me thinks it sounds scary. I always thought that love is a choice, but there’s a part of me that feels like falling in love should just happen, then once you commit to the relationship you choose to keep loving each other. But Dr. Aron’s research indicates that you can choose who you become close to in the first place, and you can reach a level of closeness in less than an hour that approaches closeness you feel for people you’ve known many years. I think I’d be rather picky about who I went through these questions with, but it might be a great way to let yourself be vulnerable and open up possibilities in a relationship.
After many years of being intrigued by personality types, and Myers-Briggs in particular, I am finally reading Isabel Briggs Myers’ book, Gifts Differing. I wish I’d read it sooner — aspects of the theory that it took me years to learn about through casual reading are all explained in chapter 1. I wish I’d stumbled across an article talking about what all those letters actually mean earlier, or that I’d thought to read the book.
Since the best way to really learn something is to teach it, and in order to write the article I wish I’d read years ago, here is my own version of an introduction to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
Disclaimer: some of the links in this post are affiliate links. This means that, at no additional cost to you, I will receive a commission if you click on the link and make a purchase on that website.
As Isabel Myers explains it, the principle behind typology is to understand how and why other people’s minds work differently from our own. In chapter one, she says, “the theory is that much seemingly chance variation in human behavior is not due to chance; it in in fact the logical result of a few basic, observable differences in mental functioning.”
Myers-Briggs typology, and Jungian psychology, say that people have two main psychological “functions” which they develop and use to understand the world and interact with other people. The perceiving function includes “the process of becoming aware of things, people, occurrences, and ideas.” Intuition (N) and sensing (S) are two different ways of perceiving. The judging function “includes the process of coming to conclusions about what has been perceived.” Thinking (T) and feeling (F) are two different ways of judging.
As children grow, they start to use one way of perceiving (sensing or intuition) and one way of judging (thinking or feeling) more than the other. They become comfortable with the preferred perceiving and judging functions, and learn to use them much more effectively than the neglected function. This results in four possible combinations: sensing plus thinking (ST), sensing plus feeling (SF), intuition plus feeling (NF), and intuition plus thinking (NT).
Finding Dominant Functions
Isabel Myers says that in Jungian psychology, introversion (I) and extroversion (E) refers to whether people orient their lives around the inner world of concepts and ideas or the outer world of people and things. Every healthy person uses both introversion and extroversion, but there will be one with which they are most comfortable. This relates to the Sensing-Intuition and Thinking-Feeling functions by dictating whether a person’s dominant function is introverted or extroverted (more on that in a moment).
The last letter in a Myers-Briggs type refers to whether a person uses a perceptive (P) or a judging (J) “attitude as a way of life, a method of dealing with the world around us.” People use both a perceiving and a judging function; one extroverted and one introverted. If a person is a perceptive type, then their perceiving preference (S or N) will be extroverted. If a person is a judging type, their judging preference (T or F) will be extroverted.
Since the Judging-Perceiving preference only refers to outer behavior, it most easily observed in Extraverts. For example, an ENFJ will extrovert their judging function and use extroverted feeling (Fe) to interact with the outer world. Because they are an extrovert, this also makes Fe their dominant function. It is supported by an auxiliary perceiving function: introverted intuition (Ni). Dominant and auxiliary functions are a bit more complicated for introverts. An ISTP type will extrovert their perceiving function and use extroverted sensing (Se). However, since they are an introverted type, their dominant function is introverted thinking (Ti) and Se is their auxiliary function . The function they use the most is a judging one, but when they interact with the outer world they use perception.
Putting The Letters Together
It is far too simplistic to take each individual letter in a Myers-Briggs type separately. To say an INFJ is an introvert/intuitive/feeler/judger misses what the MBTI can tell us about how they look at the world with Ni and how they formulate judgements with Fe, and which of those they do most easily. It also passes over the fact that introverts sometimes use extroversion and that extraverts sometimes use introversion. That’s why the short Myers-Briggs style tests you might find online that line-up descriptions of Extravert-Introvert, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving and then have people choose which one is most “like them” can be an incorrect assessment of a person’s type.
One other thing to add about Myers-Briggs types is that Isabel Briggs Myers never intended for these types to be used to make people feel “boxed in” to their personality type or to infringe on a person’s right to self-determination. An ENTP, for example has “already exercised this right by preferring E and N and T and P.” Myers-Briggs type is a tool for better understanding who we have already chosen to be, and for learning to relate to and better understand people who think differently than us.