Is MBTI Too Convenient? Reflections on Psychological Type and Function

My husband and I have been into MBTI for over a decade, and it’s not uncommon to meet people who sort of smirk and say, “Well yes, we used to be into that, but we found other models more useful.” Often implied is the unspoken, “We found other models more up-to-date and less likely to draw the ridicule of psychology professionals.”

No one can fairly accuse America of too much respect for amateur expertise and individual experience.

It is true that MBTI is based on work done over a century ago, in the infancy of the psychological profession, by Carl Jung – a famously mystical thinker. Very few trained psychologists can be trusted to competently handle mysticism – they approach the psyche, their own subject, as a sort of fable, a glamor for something far more mundane and mechanical. Most are simply interested in behavior and in the conscious attitudes which influence it. The profession no longer shares Carl Jung’s interest in the mind as existing and possessing an inherent nature and architecture.

Not only that, but people in general are so afraid of being caught “stereotyping” that archetype and typology in general are felt to be problematic by many.

A perusal of Carl Jung’s works on personality type, however, show an empirically-based, thoughtful contemplation of the differences between people, the interior sources of those differences, and the patterns into which those differences fall.

And while many people feel that the block-like division of humanity into 16 specific types exhibiting 8 specific functions, and no more, is too convenient to be really likely, this objection also is resolved to a great extent by understanding the thought process that began it all – not a desire to divide humanity into 16 types, but an observation of a single basic division: Introverted and Extroverted.

Unlike Freud, Carl Jung did not see introversion as inherently problematic. He was introverted himself, so it’s little wonder. Instead, he thought that, much like Christianity teaches we can only be saved by dying to ourselves, we can only be psychologically sound by transcending our inherent preference for introversion or extroversion, and balancing that tendency with its opposite.

For Jung, introversion was simply a mentality – a tendency or preference, inborn, to find one’s natural sphere of activity and interest either within one’s own mind (building a world within) or among people and events and objects (finding a world without.)

The other functions are simply developments of this basic observation. Some who build within build a world of facts and truths – introverted thinking. Some build a world of beauty and value – introverted feeling. And some who find a world without are primarily interested in organizing it according to its hard realities – extroverted thinking – while some are more interested in organizing it according to its human interests – extroverted feeling.

And these form only the first class of divisions of that first basic complication; these are the “judging” functions. All four of these mental processes are subdivisions of the distinction-making activity of Reason. People who tend primarily to a judging function are more active, while those who tend primarily to a “perceptive” function are more contemplative.

A note about what is being divided here. I think it’s the human heritage of Reason – what distinguishes us from animals.

Reason is too large a function to be contained only by those who do math or pursue philosophy. Reason is understanding. As such it both makes distinctions and renders judgments on the one hand, and comprehends the wholeness and nature of things on the other. It is fully possessed by the human race only in our differences and varieties. None or very few of us possess it whole.

About the perceiving functions. These functions (sensing; and intuition, which is properly called imagination) represent the holistic and comprehensive “grasping” activity of Reason – its ability to understand a thing as it is, and not only in its parts and ingredients.

Properly and traditionally, sensing and imagination are both “sensate functions” of the mind. Here some confusion comes in. “Sensing” in ordinary language can refer either to the body’s ability to generate sense-impressions of the world (shared with the animals and therefore seen as a “lower” function) or the mind’s ability to receive, give human importance and meaning to, and store memories of those impressions. The latter belongs to Reason. It is our grasp of physical reality, and in some deeper philosophies, our participation in making physical reality.

Imagination is also a sensate function, and is simply the ability to form concepts of things which are not immediately present to one’s senses, as if they were.

Together, these “perceiving” functions represent that activity of Reason which grasps and understands the ideas of things whole – unlike the judging function, which breaks them down and makes distinctions.

People who dislike MBTI are often primary sensers – they see the world whole, in its experienced or remembered actuality, and are undeveloped in the fine art of making distinctions. They see it as unimportant, and as I’m trying to show, the whole point of the MBTI theory is to make distinctions. Primary intuitives can also be suspicious of the theory on that basis, but their tendency to be tuned in to patterns may give them the sense that something of the sort is likely.

Remember, we are still talking about that first primary division of people based on the mental functions they like to use best. Some who build a world within build a world of memories and important experiences – introverted sensing. Some build a world of imagination and patterns – introverted intuition. Some who find a world without find it a world of adventure and moment-by-moment experience – extroverted sensing. Some find a world of possibilities, of people and events arranged in patterns – extroverted intuition.

And there are your 8 basic functions. They are all simply complications of that basic tendency to funnel one’s awareness (when comfortable and doing what one pleases) into the inner world or the external one. And a related complication of the basic tendency to be oriented to action or contemplation; to judgment or understanding; to organization or acceptance.

Thus the supposed 8 functions can still be resolved down into a unity.

We can see this essential unity when we compare similar functions. Let us compare, for instance, introverted feeling and introverted thinking. They both say, in effect, “I have privately made judgments which bind me. I must adhere to these private judgments, despite the effect it may have on the external world. I must be true to my own teachings, regardless of relationships, effect on people’s lives, effect on the environment, reactions of others, trauma to others, and so on.”

What is the difference between introverted thinking and introverted feeling, then? It is simply the kind of judgments which tend to be offered.

The user of introverted thinking will similarly say, “I have made judgments of philosophical truth and scales of importance to which I must be true, no matter what I destroy in the outer world.” It is easy to see why such a person might be considered harsh.

The user of introverted feeling will say, “I have made moral and artistic and aesthetic judgments to which I must be true, no matter what I destroy in the outer world.” Surprisingly to those who assume INFPs and ISFPs are always sweet, these people can also be quite harsh.

According to MBTI, the primary introverted feeler will grow into a subsidiary use of extroverted thinking, which balance out the inward-focused tendency of Fi with a concern for external efficiency and practicality. This combination is why introverted-feeling users are often surprisingly severe. I bring this up because I saw it presented that way in two completely different and unrelated films recently.

In High Society, Grace Kelley’s character Tracy Lord is told that she is too severe, an Ice Goddess. What is her great sin? She divorced her composer husband because he began writing vulgar jazz music instead of the classical compositions she found worthy and beautiful. She has also rejected her father for his relationship with a “dancer.” She claims it’s out of concern for her mother, but we know this isn’t true because her mother is not happy, and wants her husband back. Tracy’s father has simply outraged her by transgressing her moral values. This outrage spilled over into her marriage, making her react more harshly than she otherwise would have done to her husband’s transgression of her aesthetic values.

In the television show Community, Gillian Jacob’s character Britta Perry is a left-wing activist who particularly tries to live up to her own ideals of vegetarianism and compassion, and yet is constantly accused by her fellow study-group members of being a “buzz-kill.” She is told by the group’s leader that she should make use of her “natural talent for severity” instead of trying to come off as compassionate. Bewildered, she protests that her compassion is real. People don’t see it that way, because she’s more concerned with living up to her values than harmony with the group.

Thus, introverted-feeling users may feel within themselves that they are sensitive and compassionate, but they can be perceived by others as harsh because they are uncompromising. They are more aware of whether someone is transgressing their theoretical standards and values, than what effect their own actions might have on others, or what others might think.

When introverted thinkers and feelers clash, it can be strange to watch them talk past each other. They say the same thing while pointing at something completely different.

Likewise, users of extroverted judging functions appear to be doing the same thing, concerning different areas of life. Both say, “Look what effect your speech and actions have on the world, and don’t just say or do whatever you want. Control your impulses according to their real-world effects.”

However, the extroverted feeler is looking at real-world effects about relationships and human harmony, while the extroverted thinker is looking at real-world effects about efficiency and effectiveness, goal-meeting, and the conditions for human society to function well.

Particularly interesting is to compare similarly-oriented sensing and intuition. The terminology here tends to favor intuition-users, and so do most MBTI enthusiasts. However, it seems clear to me that intuition and sensing are more or less the same action, pointing at different areas of life.

So the extroverted senser and the extroverted intuitive both learn best by trying things for themselves. They both find the right way to do things by trying out what’s available and possible. They go in head-first. This is due to the preference they both share for minute-by-minute information-gathering. The intuitive, however, is looking for overarching patterns; while the senser is looking for immediate sense-impressions. Both can be impressive. At his best, the brilliant senser can perform feats of athleticism that blows the intuitive away. And the intuitive’s lucky responses to emergencies or uncertainty can seem almost preternatural.

Taken together, these 8 functions comprehend the entire observable span of Reason (leaving out the strictly spiritual, if there is such a thing.) Thus, the number 8 should not be seen as some suspiciously convenient and exclusive enumeration of utterly discreet mental functions. Instead, they should be seen as a series of distinctions among basically similar activities, intended to help navigate the broad, single field of observable human Reason.

That being the case, it seems obvious that new theorists could further subdivide each function into even more specific uses of the mind. That no one seems interested in doing so probably reflects the difficulty we would have keeping track all the resulting new types. (Although some theorists are beginning to add A and B onto the types, I don’t think this is really a subdivision. Just an inclusion of extraneous categories, behavioral rather than mental.)

1 Comment »

  1. This is good Alana. It had been many years since I’d considered MBTI from the more nuanced approach of functions. I burned out on it when it became widely popular and devolved in the popular mind to a Buzzfeed-level quizlet. I never cottoned to the more contemporary models. Big 5, especially, carries the sterile and inhuman approach of modern psych.

    I am INTP married to an INFP. The clash of severities described above is especially funny.


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