Saturday, February 06, 2010

The Myers-Briggs approach to Personality Types

Isabel Myers and her mother, Katherine Cook Briggs developed their theories during the second world war. Their initial self-assessment test was based on concepts of psychological type developed originally by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung but Myers refined and extended the concepts, orienting the approach towards 'normal people' rather than the clinically-referred individuals whom Jung had theorised about. The Myers-Briggs approach was developed outside the academic community, at that time mired in the morass of behaviourism. This separation continued even as Myers-Briggs took the global corporate community by storm.

The Myers-Briggs approach to personality differences is deceptively easy to state. Individuals taking the self-assessment inventory answer questions which produce scores on four dimensions as follows.

1. Extraverted or Introverted?

Is 'hell at a party' not being able to get in? Or being there? Extraverts take their energy from socialising with other people and feel under-energised when alone. Introverts need time alone, and socialising makes them weary. Most people recognise themselves on one side or the other of this divide. This is the E-I scale.

2. Sense-impressions or iNtuition?

Some people deal with the world in a concrete pragmatic way, others grasp situations through a framework of concepts, values or ideals. In the former category are many sports people, administrators, policemen; in the later category intellectuals, conceptual artists, campaigners for a cause. This is the S-N scale.

3. Thinking or Feeling?

Another poor choice of words from the founders. We all know people who are coldly focused on the logic of the situation, who will do what is logical, and take the interpersonal consequences. This applies as much to the logically-focused intellectual as to the results-focused executive and mission-oriented special forces soldier. On the other hand, there are those who put personal relationships first, who are motivated by sustaining the cohesion of the group, making their opponent a friend, or who are driven by a moral imperative to care.

The former score highly on the 'Thinking' side - sometimes the T is read as 'tough-minded'; the latter score highly on the Feeling side, although feeling is not so much raw emotion as a genuine warmth, empathy and an orientation to human values and solidarity. This is the T-F scale. And by the way, men's scores tend to be skewed to T and women's to F, although as a corrective, we have all met women who are probably from Mars, and men who have real warmth and are natural hosts, entertainers or diplomats.

4. Judging or Perceiving

This dimension is the staple of so many comedies, as well as real life dilemmas. One half of the partnership likes everything planned and organised in advance, the other hates lists, loves freedom and just wants to live life as it comes - 'something will always turn up'. This is the J-P scale. The highly-organised folk who want to put a grid over life score strongly J, while those who are transactionally in dialogue with events score highly P.

Putting it all together

Having completed the Myers-Briggs self-assessment questionnaires, your score will position you on each of the above four axes, combining to give a single, four letter code. I for instance score as an INTP.

I = Introverted (rather than extraverted)
N = iNtuitive (conceptual rather than concrete)
T = Thinking (logical and systematic rather than values-driven)
P = Perceiving (understand /persuade rather than dominate).

This is a typical profile for a researcher, architect, scientist or strategist. If you enter INTP (or any other Myers-Briggs type) into your favourite search engine, a number of profiles will come up.

I want to emphasise that the theory behind the MBTI is a lot deeper than I have described. For example, the four axes are not really in the same category. The S-N and T-F axes are fundamental, and the E-I and J-P dimensions modify their dominance and orientation.

Continue to the next post where we dig a lot deeper into the relationship between Myers-Briggs type theory and brain architecture.