Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Astrology for Nerds

I can’t resist online personality tests. They combine several of my favorite things: complex typologies and patterns, fault lines between tribal and individual identity, intersections between biological and cultural development, and amusing cocktail chatter. For example, I recently came out of the closet as a “Neutral Good” person, at least according to the potential moral alignments for characters in Dungeons & Dragons.

Personality is hard wired – an immutable characteristic” as the Supreme Court used to say. In my family, my brothers and I all look sorta like each other (and both parents). We also exhibit similar personality traits, to the annoyance of our partners and children. In contrast, my three kids came from separate adoptions. They all have blue eyes and an addiction to Apple devices, but not much else in common. Each has a very distinctive personality.

One of most people’s defining personality traits is our identity as either an introvert or an extrovert. The usual caveats apply – ambiverts exist, this trait can be experienced as spectrum, individual results may vary, blah blah blah. But roughly two thirds of the population exhibit primarily extroverted characteristics, and one third of us are introverts. The good third.

Here’s a chart identifying some of the attributes most commonly associated with introverts and extroverts. You don’t need to be an extrovert to like people or socialize, and you don’t need to be an introvert to enjoy quiet time alone. Instead, here is the key distinction between the two personality types: extroverts recharge their batteries by being social; introverts find socializing to be draining, and recharge by spending time alone.

Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking helped me recognize my fundamentally introverted nature, and my need for tools to navigate our boisterous world. This is particularly important for anyone who by choice or nature is often expected to speak out in social situations. In my life, the tyranny of the closet has created an additional challenge: wearing any mask puts me at risk of further damage to my authentic self.

Introversion is one of those minority traits that survived thousands of generations of human evolution. Apparently both extroverts and introverts have something to contribute to our very social species. Just like the persistent presence of LGBT individuals in the population. However, it only takes a tenth of the number of introverts for the gays to spice things up. We fall between the 2% worldwide proportion of red hair, and 8% for blue eyes. (Blue-eyed, red-haired homosexuals are like unicorns.)

The most famous personality typology is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. MBTI was developed seventy years ago by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, based on a conceptual framework for human psychology originally proposed by Carl Jung. MBTI evaluates an individual’s approach to experiencing the world on four binary dimensions, resulting in sixteen distinct combinations. That’s seven more possibilities than the nine you get with D&D’s moral alignments.

Frankly, I never remember what any of the letters mean after the initial I or E (for Introvert and Extrovert). And I can’t be bothered to explain the difference between Sensors v. Intuitives, Thinkers v. Feelers, or Judgers v. Perceivers. Go ahead and google them for yourself.

Over the years, Human Resources folks have used MBTI to evaluate workplace dynamics, and educators have used it for career advice. Official instruments for evaluating MBTI types are rigorous and expensive. Fortunately, the Internet provides numerous free and easy alternatives. For example:

Here’s a list of the sixteen types, with their percentage distribution in the general population. MBTI adherents do not agree on labels or shorthand descriptions for each, so don’t blame me for these examples.
  • ISTJ (6%): "Trustee". Dependable and decisive in practical affairs.
  • ISTP (5%): "Artisan". Impulsive thrill seekers - good with tools.
  • ISFJ (6%): "Conservator". Loyal people with a desire to help.
  • ISFP (5%): "Artist". Creative people - keenly developed senses.
  • INTJ (1%): "Scientist". Pragmatic and decisive - system builders.
  • INTP (1%): "Architect". Precise in thought and language.
  • INFJ (1%): "Author". Complicated people, driven to help others.
  • INFP (1%): "Questor". A sense of honor - somewhat lost in life.
  • ESTJ (13%): "Administrator". Responsible - pillars of strength.
  • ESTP (13%): "Promotor". Dynamic, competitive entrepreneurs.
  • ESFJ (13%): "Seller". Sociable - outstanding hosts or hostesses.
  • ESFP (13%): "Entertainer". Warm, optimistic, witty and generous.
  • ENTJ (5%): "Field Marshal". Driven to lead - natural executives.
  • ENTP (5%): "Inventor". Innovative people - open to possibilities.
  • ENFJ (5%): "Pedagogue". Helping others fulfill their potential.
  • ENFP (5%): "Journalist". Uncanny sense of motivations of others.
My MBTI test results always converge on INFP.  (Spoiler alert – INFP is the worst possible fit for the legal profession.)

I’m ambivalent about Myers-Briggs personality types.

Maggie Koerth-Baker, a writer at Nate Silver’s analytical website, recently wrote about the attractions and deficiencies of personality typologies like MBTI. She describes MBTI as “astrology for nerds” based on “junk science.” The fundamental problem is “personality traits fall on a bell curve and most of us will be near the middle of the distribution. When you try to categorize people by type, you end up with a lot of people who are placed in boxes that seem far apart, but whose distribution of personality is actually pretty close to each other.” 

Nevertheless, personality traits are real. At least some of the specific components of MBTI have demonstrable validity, such as the “I” versus “E” of introversion and extroversion. Koerth-Baker directs MBTI and Buzzfeed quiz obsessives to other tests that instead look at individual traits with quantifiable measures. “The most popular — used by the vast majority of scientists who study personality — is called the Big Five, a system that organizes personality around five broad clusters of traits: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and openness to experience.” I’ll return to this topic when I write about Lawyer Personalities.

Logomania is our brain’s instinct to either find or create coherent patterns in our experience. MBTI is mostly just another horoscopic obsession, with a lot of projection and confirmation bias going on. You might as well plan your life based on fortune cookies, or your birth in the traditional Chinese calendar's Yang Wood Year of the Dragon. (Did I mention I’m also a Taurus? But not stubborn.)

Hence my ambivalence about MBTI: secretly I can’t resist giving it a little logomaniacal credence, because I recognize a kernel of useful insight. But I’m embarrassed about it.

So, as usual in these situations, I hide behind humor. I will therefore give the last word to blogger Heidi Priebe at with some of her tongue in cheek tributes to each of the sixteen Myers-Briggs types:

Bonus Myers-Briggs Typologies:

Impatient MBTI Shorthand

1 comment:

  1. I love seeing Uncle Iroh in the animated characters grid. My kids and I play a personality game where we assign a role for each show we like to someone in the family. Avatar is a good show because the characters are such clear types. G is Aang. S is Katara. E is Zuko. C is Toph. I am Uncle Iroh, at least in his lazy manifestation.