Effective, flexible utility of Myers Briggs Type Indicators

Pulished 2018-01-20. Written by Teodor Heggelund.

Keywords: philosophy, principles, psychology, psychonometrics.

I am driven by my need to understand.

I want to increase the radius of my understanding continuously. Through my education, I have gotten a grip on classical mechanics. Classical mechanics describes the motion of bodies under the influence of forces. Classical mechanics is well-defined and coherent. The human condition less so. Yet, we can still build an understanding of each other – if we allow for some other tools to enter.

Models used in physics are often deterministic. If a set of preconditions are present, the result can be predicted. In practice, this is extremely useful. Mechanical models used by civil engineers typically have margins of error provably less than 5 %, often negligibly close to zero. Because the error is bounded – provably below some limit – we may confidently predict behavior within a bounded error. If we want to prove that a structure is safe under some load, and know that our margin of error is less than 2 %, we can simply design the structure for a load that is 2 % bigger, and safety is guaranteed.

Psychological models are a different breed. Humans are vastly more complex than point masses with momentum and angular momentum. Current psychological models have nowhere near the predictive accuracy of physical models. The margin of error is typically not bounded, and scientific models describe correlation and probability instead of predicting behavior.

We are not able to enclose the totality of human behavior within a model.

As we are not able to create a total model of humans, we must be sure not to interpret the results from the model in a total way. We can never really predict behavior – yet we may improve our first guesses significantly. Models that do not confidently predict behavior can also be useful. If I know I will be meeting new people, I may try to activate different parts of my identity as opposed to when I am trying to understand complicated theory. With vocabulary from the model based on Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, it is easier to formulate what that activation means. The model helps me pull parts of my identity into the conscious. Only then can I make a conscious effort to behave in the way I intend.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicators (MBTI)

The theory of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators assert that individuals have preferred mental tools. A personality profile is described along four axes:

A person who is relaxed around people (E); prefers near, well-defined details (S); trusts in her feelings (F); and takes opportunities as they come (P) – will be classified as an ESFP. A person who prefers time alone to work things out (I); likes to consider big picture effects (N), bases decision making on logic (T) and plans far ahead (J) will be classified as an INTJ.

To get classified, one may take the test on the 16 Personalities website. The result will be a four letter indicator and a ratio for the position on each axis. The 16 Personalities test also gives a fifth axis which I will not explain here.

MBTI describes our preference for mental tools and mental models; a preferred mode of operation. Preference does not imply inability to do something else – only increased effort to exit the comfort zone. In other words, MBTI describes our behavior when walking the path of least resistance.

On the approximations of MBTI

Wikipedia lists up both theoretical and empirical criticism of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators:

Although popular in the business sector, the MBTI exhibits significant psychometric deficiencies, notably including poor validity (i.e. not measuring what it purports to measure) and poor reliability (giving different results for the same person on different occasions).

As a scientific model, MBTI makes several approximations:

I find these drawbacks to be significant. As I cannot fully trusting consolidate the approximations made with reality, I am left to only be able to take MBTI as a non-total approximation. MBTI cannot totally describe a personality, and it should therefore not be presumed that a MBTI type is sufficient for a good understanding of a human being.

From dogma to tool

A classification can be a procrustean bed that limits our perception. I prefer thinking of the type indicators as a starting point for understanding a person rather than a final answer.

How should we approach personality? Is personality something we may ever totally understand? Will we finally have a total understanding of how the human mind works? This question has troubled the mind of many a man over the course of mankind. We attempt to answer this question in a multitude of fields. Neuropsychology attempts to explain how we think with science. The humanities use literature to describe the human condition. Religion provides principles for how we should act when facing the world and all its suffering.

Phenomenology is the study of the human experience and consciousness. MBTI is a phenomenological tool – right from the beginning. The assignment of a psychological type does not happen by a scientific process, it is derived from the person’s own experience and self-evaluation.

We should therefore not be surprised when people behave in a way that is not consistent with their type – as predicting human behavior was never in the scope of the model. Instead, we may utilize the theory for partial understanding. Fortunately, a partial understanding of people is not bad! We rarely get to know anyone completely. Even our own mind can come to surprise us.

A tool for expression

When I know the person I am communicating with, I can tailor the way I act. In a meaningful conversation, the medium is suitable for the topic, the communicator, and the listener.

  1. The topic should be possible to discuss within the bounds of the mode of communication. Being overly scientific in ones mindset will limit one’s ability to appreciate art. Attempting to understand theoretical mathematics purely through feelings is rarely effective.
  2. The communicator should master the mode of communication. This is rarely a problem. People usually do things they are comfortable doing. It may even be a good idea to try to step outside of the mode of communication one is comfortable with, which enables learning.
  3. The receiver must be able to understand what is being said. The communicator must therefore use language within the grasp of the listener.

A topic can often be approached through several different modes of communication. If this is the case, the communicator may tailor his mode of communication to the listener. When speaking to a person interested in people, talk about the effects on people. If the listener prefers scientific rigor, attempt to make a principled argument.

I have learned through experience to tailor my mode of communication to the person I am speaking with. If I simply let my thoughts flow into the room, I often face confused faces. By moderating abstract arguments into something more specific, I am able to reach a broader argument. Being more explicit in one’s assumptions can also help avoid what may appear to be sudden leaps.

MBTI can be used as a tool to understand what mode of communication is appropriate for the conversation. For an audience strong on sensing (S), thoughts should be concretized as much as possible, and metaphysical arguments avoided. For feelers (F), discuss how the decision will impact people.

From type to mode of being

Reading up on the theory may give the impression that one class is right for each person. I believe a slightly more nuanced understanding is in place. Every person changes continuously with their environment. When we sit and think deeply about a topic for a while, we will not be too talkative when finally going into a room full of people. By striking up random conversations, putting our body in motion and doing improvisational exercises, we loosen up. Sure, we may have an overall preference. But that does not mean we do not adapt to situations!

I propose taking the profile as a mode of being. Introverted people can become engaged in conversations. Thinkers may enjoy being engulfed in feelings. If we so choose. And we can! If we choose that we are bounded by our type, we may be. If we take the type as a mode of being we revert to without conscious effort, we can make conscious effort to exit the bounds of our type.

Different modes of being are preferred in different situations

When would it be useful to choose to go outside our usual preference? When the situation calls for it. Our circumstances change all the time, and each has a different demand. Meeting lots of new people to have some fun? Whip out your ESFP tendencies. Be smooth. Let the conversation flow. Enjoy people’s feelings. Later that night, is the conversation turning philosophical over a good single malt? Allow that NT in the door.

Use your type to improve your weaknesses

When you don’t make an effort, you will fit in your type and follow your preference. Go out of your comfort zone and try other modes of being to improve on the places where you are weak.

If MBTI gives a preference for your action, that preference is typically where you excel. Is that the only thing you want to excel at? Are you content with your primary mode of being? Or do you want to thread the waters on the edge of your capacity?

MBTI can help you perceive where you have something to learn from others. Where you can benefit from paying attention to how others act; where they may do things in a way superior to your own.

Thanks to Lisa for giving constructive feedback on this text.

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