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In the early 1900’s, famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung undertook his seminal work on identifying and categorizing the range of human personality types. As described in Psychological Types, Jung identified one attitude and two functions on which individuals differ. For this attitude and each of these functions, he described two potential preferences, one of which, he found, any individual would tend to prefer.

The attitude that Jung identified deals with the direction in which an individual’s energy tends to flow. An individual may, on this measure, be an Introvert or an Extravert.
  • Introverts (I), as described by Jung, tend to focus their energy inward.

  • Extraverts (E), as described by Jung, tend to focus their energy outward into the world.
The two functions that Jung identified deal with:
  1. The source from which a person tends to perceive information. An Individual may, on this measure, prefer Intuition or Sensing.

    • Those who prefer Intuition (N) obtain their information primarily from within their own minds and imaginations.

    • Those who prefer Sensing (S) obtain their information primarily from the external world.

  2. Their preferred manner of making decisions. An individual, on this measure, may prefer Thinking or Feeling.

    • Those that prefer Thinking (T) make decisions primarily rationally, consciously weighing the pros and cons of their options.

    • Those that prefer Feeling (F) make decisions based primarily on their “gut” instinct.

The Development of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

In the 1940’s, having read Jung’s Psychological Types, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, began working with the aim of making Jung’s ideas on personality type more accessible and applicable to the public. In the process, they discovered one further function on which they found that individuals differed.

That function was the degree to which an individual preferred structure in their lives. An individual may, they found, on this measure, prefer what they somewhat confusingly called Judging or Perceiving.
  • Judging (J) individuals prefer their lives to be structured and planned.

  • Perceiving (P) individuals prefer to remain open to new spontaneous possibilities.
Combining Jung’s attitude and two functions with their additional function, and formalizing the system, the two women created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a scheme by which individuals can be categorized according to their variations on these four dichotomies.

Redefining Introversion and Extraversion

Since Jung’s time, many have come to think differently about the nature of Introversion and Extraversion. Whereas Jung focused on where a person directs their energy in defining these preferences in attitude, many now consider them a measure of where a person obtains their energy. In this view, Introverts are drained by prolonged exposure to external stimulation and need time alone to refresh themselves. Extraverts, on the other hand, are drained by time alone and need stimulation from others to “recharge their batteries.”

The 16 Myers-Briggs Types

Given four variables, each with two potential preferences, the MBTI scheme consists of 16 total possible personality types. We can describe any particular individual’s MBTI personality type by simply listing their preference on each of the variables using the common abbreviations. By convention, we first list their preference on the I/E attitude, then on the N/S function, then the T/F function and finally the J/P function.

Thus, the 16 possible types are:


Every individual will, according to MBTI theory, be best characterized by one of these 16 types.

For example, I am an INTJ.

I prefer:
  • Introversion (I)- I am drained by prolonged external stimulation and must recharge in solitude.

  • Intuition (N) - I perceive information primarily from within my own mind and imagination.

  • Thinking (T) - I make decisions primarily by consciously weighing pros and cons.

  • Judging (J) - I prefer my life to be structured and planned.
There are a number of tests, based on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, available online and elsewhere that will allow you to determine your type. There are also many profiles describing in great detail the characteristics of individuals of each of the 16 types. Many of these resources are linked to from my Personality Types page.

Preferences as a Spectrum

Many believe that, rather than pure dichotomies, the preferences are actually a spectrum. One individual, for instance, may prefer Introversion very strongly over Extraversion, while another may prefer it only relatively narrowly. This view is reflected in the results of some MBTI-based tests, which describe a person’s preference on each attitude or function as a relative percentage. So, for example, one person may be 80% Sensing and 20% Intuitive, while another may be 60% Sensing and 40% Intuitive.

At times, a person may seem to prefer the two options on a given attitude or function relatively equally. For instance, I myself prefer Thinking and Feeling relatively closely and make decisions based on gut instinct almost as often as I make them on consciously weighed pros and cons. In such cases, we use an X to notate the relatively equal preference on that particular attitude or function. For instance, if my T and F were both preferred 50%, then I might be described as an INXJ, rather than either an INTJ or INFJ.

The Four Myers-Briggs Groups

The 16 Myers-Briggs types are often organized into four categories, each consisting of four of the types that, due to a particular shared combination of two preferences, demonstrate certain similarities in their strengths, challenges and priority of values.

These groups, described very basically, are:

Group Name Members' Shared Preferences Types Included Strengths Highest Value(s)
Rationals NT INTJ
Logic and strategy Truth, knowledge, competence and autonomy
Idealists NF INFJ,
Diplomacy and creating harmony among people Principles, meaning and relationships
Guardians SJ ISTJ
Logistics and materials Security and being respected within their communities
Artisans SP ISTP
Tactical actions and adaptability Sensually stimulating experiences

MBTI Dynamics

Although I believe that the Enneagram provides a more conducive paradigm for it, the dynamics of personal development can be and are discussed within the MBTI framework.

“True” vs. “Reactive” Type

I have long noticed that among individuals of a given MBTI type, some seem “comfortable in their skin” living as that type, while others seem unfulfilled and somewhat unnatural in their expression of that particular type. In some cases, this may simply be a function of a difference in maturity level between the two individuals. However, in at least a certain number of other cases, I have theorized that this difference may stem from the fact that the more comfortable individuals were encouraged and able to develop in a manner consistent with their innate tendencies, whereas the less comfortable individuals were encouraged or forced by a family or society marked by a conflicting value system to stifle their natural tendencies and/or to increasingly express tendencies that are not their preferred ones.

For instance, we might imagine two individuals that are both born with the innate tendency to develop into ESFP’s. One individual is born into a family and culture that greatly enjoy the natural exuberance of the ESFP and is rewarded for the resulting spontaneous, energetic behavior. The other is born into a family or culture where the ESFP’s impulsivity is frowned upon and, shamed for his or her natural tendencies, grows more introverted, vigilant and conformist, gradually assuming the outward expression of an ISTJ in reaction to his or her environment.

Years later, though the “true” type of both individuals is ESFP, only the first individual would comfortably express this type, while the other might be described as a “reactive ISTJ” who is plagued by the dissonance between the habitual ISTJ behavior that has evolved as a result of defense mechanisms and the “true” ESFP tendencies that are constantly being repressed. The insecurity of this “reactive ISTJ” would stand in stark contrast to the confident bearing of a mature “true ISTJ” who developed into that type in keeping with their inborn tendencies, rather than as a result of profound compromises and the formation of a “false self” perceived as necessary to survive in an unaccepting environment.

Such an outcome could just as easily happen in reverse. A "true ISTJ" born into a family or culture more accepting of ESFP's could well become a "reactive ESFP." Ultimately, in theory, any type may, when subject to particular pressures, be pushed, at the cost of authenticity, into expressing itself as any other type. However, it is possible that the likelihood of a person taking on an unnatural "reactive" type depends on just how strong their original innate tendencies are. Perhaps a person who prefers Introversion by a 90% to 10% margin over Extraversion, or vice-versa, would be far less likely, despite even intense pressure, to take on a persona featuring the opposite preference on that attitude, as compared to someone whose preference is by a margin of only 55%-45%. At the same time, it would stand to reason that when a person compromises a very strong innate tendency, they may pay an even greater emotional price, in proportion to the larger distance between their true and false selves, for doing so than would someone who compromises a relatively weaker innate tendency.

This theory is not an official part of the MBTI doctrine, but simply my own hypothesis. In this view, those living out “reactive” types will, if they are to heal and regain contact with the true Self, need to dissolve their defense mechanisms, transcend the fear, guilt and shame associated with the innate preferences which have been relegated to the Shadow and reintegrate them into their personalities.

Integration of Less Preferred Functions

An individual’s particular MBTI type describes those attitudes and functions that come most naturally to them. However, most MBTI practitioners do not view us as static creatures. Like Carl Jung, whose work ultimately aimed at fostering greater wholeness and identification with our larger Self, they have developed theories within the model that address the course of development over the lifespan. In particular, they have identified common patterns in when, at strategic points in our lives, our less preferred or “auxiliary,” “tertiary,” and “inferior” functions are likely to rise to the surface and become more integrated into our expanding sense of Self. Being aware of these developmental patterns for our personality type can help guide us on our path toward greater wholeness.

Applications of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

Knowing your own Myers-Briggs type can help give you tremendous insight into your identity that can benefit you in terms of personal development, career choices, relationship decisions and more. Knowing other people’s MBTI types can offer you a better understanding of how to best interact with them and foster compassion for them. The MBTI is also used in settings ranging from businesses to schools to the mental health and counseling fields to help in areas as diverse as optimizing personnel assignments and strengthening intimate connections.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator vs. The Enneagram

While the MBTI is currently the most widely used personality type scheme, it is not the only one. Another very popular system is the Enneagram. The two models differ in the main variables on which they categorize personalities and, thus, on the applications for which they are each optimal.

As we have seen, the MBTI categorizes individuals based on how they process energy and information, make decisions and structure their lives. This makes it very useful for certain applications, such as informing career choices or particular areas of relationship dynamics.

The Enneagram, on the other hand, defines its 9 types based on people’s somewhat deeper motivations, wounds and defense mechanisms. As I describe in my post “The Enneagram: A More Complete, Precise, Dynamic System for Optimizing Personal Development, Relationships and Human Systems than the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator”, I believe that the Enneagram’s central criteria for categorization and more precise explanation of dynamics makes it an ultimately more useful system than the MBTI for understanding our deeper drives and our paths toward wholeness in human systems.

In the end, both systems offer tremendously important information and are extremely valuable when used in the areas in which they are each most appropriate and effective.

Learn Much More about the MBTI

Learning about the MBTI had a profound influence on my life and how I see myself and others, and continues to play an enormous role in my understanding of the world and in my work with clients.

The MBTI-related book that I most recommend is:

Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey
Please Understand Me II: Temperament, Character, Intelligence by David Keirsey - Incredible book giving a complete history of personality typing, describing in detail the personality profile and characteristics of all of the types, as well as how they fare in various careers, and how they interact in terms of mating, parenting, etc. Also includes a personality test in the book.

You can also learn more about the system at:
  • My Personality Types Page – Here I describe how I first learned about the MBTI, provide more detailed descriptions of the system and my type, and offer many links to resources where you can determine your own MBTI type and read about all of the types and applications of the system.

  • All of my Blog Posts tagged Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

  • CPP, Inc. - Official publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Assessment.

  • The Myers & Briggs Foundation - Organization created to “continue the pioneering work of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the field of psychological type, especially the ethical and accurate use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator instrument.” See their MBTI Basics page for a nice overview.

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