By Dr. A.J. Drenth
The INTP personality type is the most independent and philosophical of the 16 types. INTPs have a deep need for personal autonomy and independence of thought. While they may not discover their intellectual side as early as INTJs do, once their auxiliary function, Extraverted Intuition (Ne), has been fully awakened, they display an insatiable appetite for theories and ideas. Many enjoy exploring unifying theories and metaphysical truths that explain the underlying nature of things. Toward this end, they may devour stacks of books on philosophy, religion, psychology, evolutionary theory, and the like.
When vacationing from their philosophical investigations, INTPs, like ENTPs, can be quirky, witty, and engaging. Since they extravert Intuition (Ne) and Feeling (Fe), they can have a certain charm, approachability, and congeniality about them. When discussing a topic that interests them, they can be stimulating conversationalists, as their ever active minds can easily connect one topic to another, paving the way for a multifaceted and broad-ranging dialogue. If disinterested however, such as when forced to endure protracted small talk, they will quickly zone out or find a way of redirecting the conversation. Despite appearing outwardly genuine and personable, INTPs are more interested in discussing ideas than the commonplace details of people’s lives. They enjoy discovering what makes people tick—their motivations, interests, patterns, and propensities. This allows INTPs to further hone and refine their theories (Ti-Ne) of human nature (Fe).
Like other introverts, INTPs can be anxious and self-conscious characters. It is not uncommon for them to display a handful of nervous habits, or at least some sign that they are not at ease. They generally avoid direct eye contact, as though the gaze of their interlocutor may somehow harm them or render them incapable of thinking or communicating. INTPs often have enough insecurity about the discombobulated nature of their Ne expressions in the first place. Feeling that someone else is watching or critiquing them only makes it worse. Like INFPs, INTPs can be slow to disclose the contents of their inner world. As strange as it may seem to other types, INTPs often conceal some of their most dominant personality features, namely, their highly cerebral, rational side. It may only be a select few who are granted full access to this side of the INTP. Others may only encounter INTPs’ inner world through encounters with their work, such as by reading something they have written. This may explain why many INTPs often take interest in writing, which provides an excellent forum for expressing themselves more fully and precisely.
Because of their reluctance to freely display the rational dimension of their personality, as well as the scattered nature of their Ne expressions, INTPs often feel their true level of knowledge and competence goes unnoticed by others. This is especially common in the workplace, where their lack of enthusiasm for organizational life, combined with their quirky outward demeanor, may be mistaken for incompetence. As discussed in my INTP careers post, INTPs can struggle to find satisfying jobs within the system and are often happier functioning as freelancers or entrepreneurs.
When it comes to relationships, INTPs can also have a rough go of things. While they can use their Ne and Fe to attract potential mates, INTPs’ internal tug-of-war between their Ti and Fe, between their independence (Ti) and the relationship (Fe), can inspire a host of problems. This will be elaborated later in this profile in our discussion of INTPs’ Fe inferior function.
INTPs’ Functional Stack & Personality Type Development
Each personality type prefers four of the eight functions first described by Jung. These four functions make up the “functional stack.” The relative strength of preference for these four functions is expressed in the following manner: dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, inferior. INTPs’ first preference is Ti, followed by Ne, Si and Fe respectively. This is depicted in the arrangement of INTPs’ functional stack:
While we will soon discuss each of the above functions in greater depth, for now, we will turn our attention to another feature of INTPs’ personality, their type development. As is true for other types, their type development consists of three primary phases.
Phase I (Childhood)
This phase is characterized by the emergence and differentiation of INTPs’ dominant function, Introverted Thinking (Ti). Early in life, INTPs often employ their Ti to focus on one or two pursuits. They may, for instance, use it to master video games, program computers, get good grades, or perfect their 5 K time. Since Ti is a Judging function, INTPs often take themselves and their lives rather seriously. Even from a relatively young age, they are self-motivated and goal-oriented, striving for excellence in whatever captures their interests.
Phase II (Adolescence-30s)
Once their dominant Ti reaches a certain level of consciousness and differentiation, INTPs’ inferior function, Extraverted Feeling (Fe), enters the picture and begins to play a more influential role. Phase II INTPs also show increasing use and development of their auxiliary function, Extraverted Intuition (Ne). During this phase, INTPs often develop a stronger interest in intellectual and philosophical endeavors, poised to see and understand “the big picture.” Developing their Ne involves an opening of prior judgments to allow an influx of new information. But since Ne is extraverted and expansive, INTPs must explore a breadth of ideas before they feel confident about who they are and what they believe. Thus, Phase II INTPs may find it easier to identify what they don’t believe than what they do believe. Some may struggle with nihilism or cynicism, worried that they may never find absolute truth. It can therefore take INTPs a great deal of time, even decades, to discern what they believe about the world, themselves, and their place in the world.
Phase III (30s, 40s, & Beyond)
If all goes well and they are fortunate enough to enter Phase III, INTPs experience greater balance between their dominant Ti and inferior Fe functions. They discover that growth and integration takes place rather naturally as they learn to effectively and consistently employ their type’s strengths (i.e., their Ti and Ne).
INTPs’ Dominant Function: Introverted Thinking (Ti)
As enumerated in my book on INTPs, Introverted Thinking involves the application of logic and reason for the sake of understanding a given situation, system, or problem. INTPs use Ti to bring structure and order to their inner world, granting them a strong sense of inner control. Inwardly, INTPs are highly self-disciplined, working to effectively manage their thoughts and their lives. The disciplined nature of their Ti compels INTPs to frame many things as a goal or challenge. These challenges may be physical (e.g., trying to achieve an ideal state of health or fitness), intellectual, practical, psychoemotional (e.g., becoming self-actualized), or later in their development, interpersonal (e.g., “perfecting” a relationship or becoming a skilled lover). In order to succeed in these personal challenges, INTPs are apt to impose rules on themselves. However, because of the wayward influence of their auxiliary Ne, they commonly end up breaking or sabotaging them.
INTPs are also less interested in working with facts than with ideas. Jung writes: “His ideas have their origin not in objective data, but in his subjective foundation.” INTPs are constantly digging into the background of their own thoughts in order to better understand their origins and to ensure their thinking is founded on solid reasoning. They see it pointless to try to build theories on a dubious conceptual platform, making them slower than Te types to rush into experiments to discover more “facts.”
INTPs often find it easier to identify inconsistencies or logical shortcomings—to assert what is not true—than to identify and confidently assert what is true. They can quickly locate inconsistencies or logical shortcomings in a given theory or argument. They excel when it comes to identifying exceptions or imagining scenarios in which the proposed explanation could breakdown. Due to their sensitivity to theoretical exceptions, they can be quick to throw theories and start from scratch. INTJs, by contrast, seem less deterred by ostensible exceptions, perhaps feeling that they will eventually be explained or otherwise rectified.
When functioning constructively, INTPs, like INFPs, often employ a trial-and-error sort of approach to building their theories and ideas. INTPs start with a given (Ti) and then use their auxiliary Ne to explore various connections and possibilities. They also integrate past experiences and acquired knowledge through their tertiary Si. It is usually only after years of toying with ideas that something resembling a systematic and coherent theory may start to emerge.
INTPs’ Auxiliary Function: Extraverted Intuition (Ne)
INTPs use Extraverted Intuition (Ne) as their auxiliary function. Ne can function either perceptively or expressively. The verbal expression of Ne amounts to something like “brainstorming aloud.” When orating, INTPs may not always seem to “have a point” as they haphazardly drift from one idea to the next. Even ideas that seem inwardly logical and sensible INTPs may suddenly sound incoherent when they attempt to convey them through their Ne.
In its receptive role, Ne prompts INTPs to gather information. Ne does not merely gather sensory information as Se does. Rather, it goes beyond or looks behind sense data, allowing INTPs to discern otherwise hidden patterns, possibilities, and potentials. Their Ne is constantly scanning for relationships or patterns within a pool of facts, ideas or experiences. INTPs commonly use this receptive side of their Ne in activities such as reading, researching, and conversation. They enjoy asking questions that allow them to gain insight or knowledge from others, making INTPs good facilitators of conversation.
INTPs may also use their Ne to sniff out intriguing possibilities. They commonly enjoy and assume the role of wanderer or seeker, rarely knowing in advance exactly what they are seeking.
Ne also confers an open-mindedness, helping INTPs see truth on both sides of an issue without forming unwarranted judgments or premature conclusions. More specifically, their Ne can be seen as contributing to their openness to alternative or Bohemian lifestyles. INTPs are those most likely to suddenly become vegetarians, join a commune, or decide to live out of the back of a van. They are drawn to the idea and challenges of an unconventional lifestyle.
Like other NPs, INTPs often have a love-hate relationship with their Ne. They love the fact that it helps them remain open-minded and grasp the bigger picture. But living with Ne also has its challenges. For one, it can make it difficult for INTPs to arrive at firm conclusions or make important decisions. It often seems that at the very moment they are feeling good about a given conclusion or decision, their Ne steps in and causes them to start doubting it again. This has obvious implications for INTPs who are trying to find their niche in the world. This can leave them feeling discouraged and restless, worried that they may never find what they are looking for. They may feel frustrated by their seeming lack of progress toward anything substantial. The fact is that INTPs desperately want to produce something of lasting worth or value, but they also want to ensure they get it right. They don’t want to leave any stone unturned before arriving at a conclusion. While INTPs typically enjoy this quest for truth, there comes a point when they begin to feel the pressures of life impinging on them. Questions about careers and relationships loom large as they enter their late twenties and thirties. This can be frustrating to INTPs as they feel like life is requiring them to make decisions long before they are ready. As is true of all IN types, they feel that life would be far better if they weren’t forced to consider practical concerns.
INTPs’ Tertiary Function: Introverted Sensing (Si)
Unlike Ne (or Se), INTPs’ tertiary function, Introverted Sensing (Si), is a conservative function. It involves an attachment to past experiences and past precedent—to the routine, familiar, and predictable. Types with Si in their functional stack, including INTPs, tend to eat a fairly routine or consistent diet, “eating to live” rather than “living to eat.” Si types are not only conservative with regard to their diet, but with respect to the material world in general. They tend to be savers rather than spenders, seeing excessive material consumption as unnecessary, or perhaps even immoral.
Like other Si types, INTPs also have a diminished need for novel physical pleasures, lavish surroundings, or material comforts. They are minimalists to the core, relatively unconcerned with their physical surroundings.
An often overlooked role of Si is its perception of internal bodily sensations—the body as felt and experienced from within. Perhaps more than any other function, it provides access to the raw and basic sense of “being” that exists apart from thought or outward stimuli. Historically, Eastern philosophical and religious traditions have done a much better job exploring this dimension than those of the West. This feature of Si is brought to the fore during activities requiring close attention to one’s internal bodily state, such as yoga, Tai-Chi, meditation, or various relaxation techniques. INTPs interested in exploring this element of Si may find great delight and benefit from these sorts of practices. They are especially useful in developing the body awareness necessary to relax and control anxiety.
INTPs’ Inferior Function: Extraverted Feeling (Fe)
The inferior function is a less well-known and less-emphasized subject in personality typology. For those unfamiliar with the powerful influence of the inferior function on personality, as well as common strategies for dealing with it, be sure to read my post, Understanding the Inferior Function.
Harmony vs. Helping
INTPs use Extraverted Feeling (Fe) as their inferior function. Because it is in the inferior position, their Fe is often more sensitive and less resilient than Fe is for FJ types. This can make INTPs highly uncomfortable in emotional situations, especially those involving potential conflict or disharmony.
Because of their Fe’s concern for maintaining external harmony (or what may be better understood as its discomfort with disharmony), INTPs may abstain from expressing their judgments in order to avoid unsettling others. While not as overtly warm or effusive as FJ types, INTPs can be sensitive to others’ feelings and may go out of their way to avoid hurting or offending them. For instance, in the midst of a discussion, an INTP may want to explain how human mating practices are primarily a product of evolutionary pressures. But if he suspects that others may take offense to such an explanation, he may withhold it to avoid introducing disharmony.
Although functioning as superficial peacemakers, INTPs are generally slower to go out of their way to help others (at least in direct, hands-on ways). Especially early in their development, most forgo community service and avoid investing extensive time and energy helping others. This is particularly evident when under stress. If burdened by too many external pressures or demands, INTPs’ willingness to help others is one of the first things to go.
In short, INTPs’ Fe is more concerned with preserving harmony than it is with extensive helping. This is especially true early in life, when they have yet to achieve their Ti goals. Once those goals have been satisfactorily met, however, they may become more benevolent. We can see this with Einstein, for instance, who displayed increasing beneficence and generosity toward people in the second half of his life.
Reluctance to Extravert Judgment
In addition to their interest in maintaining external harmony, INTPs may forgo expressing their judgments because of concerns about their ability to effectively articulate them, perhaps fearing they will be perceived as less intelligent than they really are. Hence, their reluctance to self-express relates not only to a concern for others, but also to their own fears and insecurities. It can therefore take a great deal of courage for INTPs to assert themselves, particularly when discussing matters that make them anxious or uncomfortable. INTJs, in contrast, whose extraverted Judging function (Te) is in the auxiliary position, seem to have little problem in this regard.
Because of their difficulty with direct self-expression, INTPs are prone to making sudden executive decisions without any prior communication. Others may be left feeling incredulous as to why the INTP had not thought to discuss the issue with them first. INTPs may also exhibit passive-aggressive forms of behavior, such as intentionally staying late at the office to eschew or resist domestic expectations. INTPs can resemble IFP types in this regard, who have a similar propensity for acting passive-aggressively rather than expressing their concerns more directly.
Desire to Teach/Enlighten Others
Like FJs, INTPs like the idea of teaching others. INTPs strive to discover knowledge or wisdom they can use to enlighten the world. But as we’ve seen, INTPs can struggle when it comes to directly expressing their judgments. They are more comfortable exchanging ideas by way of their auxiliary Ne than they are in delivering Fe monologues. INTPs can also become impatient with those who are slow to understand or embrace their ideas.They often expect others to learn as quickly and independently as they do. For these reasons, INTPs are often ill-suited for teaching (with the possible exception of college/university professorship) and better off sharing their insights less directly, such as through writing.
Desire for Affirmation/Validation
Fe involves making connections between one’s own emotions and those of others. When a successful connection occurs, it results in a sense of validation, of being valued and understood. While INTPs can do at fair job at reading others’ emotions and are cognitively aware of the appropriate social response, they often do not “feel” what others are feeling. Despite this difficulty in connecting with others on a feeling level, their Fe still desires the same sense of affirmation and validation that FJs readily receive when engaging with people. This need for affirmation can be seen as a motivating force behind INTPs’ desire for achievement. It is why many INTPs score high as Enneagram Threes (3) and display certain narcissistic tendencies. Personally, I never understood my desire to write for a popular audience (rather than an academic one) until I recognized that my Fe was pushing for widespread affirmation.
Because INTPs, wittingly or not, rely on others for affirmation, they may often feel they cannot live without at least one other person in their lives. At other times, they can feel incredibly independent (Ti). Especially when their work is going well, they may feel they don’t really need other people. If they manage to completely isolate themselves from others, they will soon begin to feel that something important is missing from their lives. This prompts them to reinitiate contact with others, at least until they feel compelled to assert their independence again. This cycle of alternating between needing and devaluing others is common among INTPs and narcissists alike.
Slippery, “All-or-Nothing” Emotions
Despite the inferior position of their Fe, INTPs are not emotionless robots. Rather, as is typically the case with the inferior, there is an all-or-nothing character to their Fe. INTPs’ emotions seem to have a mind of their own, coming and going as they please. Consequently, INTPs often feel awkward or inept in emotional situations, knowing that they cannot readily summon the situationally-appropriate emotions.
As mentioned previously, INTPs are usually cognitively aware of what emotions are appropriate for a given situation, but without experiencing them directly, they can sound clumsy or mechanical in their expressions. This can be difficult for their romantic partners, particularly for FJ types, since FJs desire a sense of authentic emotional communion. While INTPs may experience strong feelings for their partners while away from them, they may not have those emotions or may have trouble communicating them while together.
For most INTPs, their Fe is rather naive and childlike. They may, for instance, be easily moved by cheesy romantic comedies or sappy love songs, anything that unconsciously incites their Fe emotions. This can also make INTPs easy targets for love-at-first-sight sorts of infatuation. They are particularly susceptible to being wooed by Feeling types, who can bypass their typical channels of logic and directly appeal to INTPs’ less conscious Fe.
While INTPs struggle to directly summon or contact their emotions, they can readily override or detach from them, almost functioning as though they didn’t exist. Consequently, INTPs may not consciously struggle with the same degree of guilt, regret, or shame as other types. Others may be surprised how quickly INTPs can seemingly resume “business as usual” after what most would consider tragic or traumatic circumstances.
You can learn more about INTPs in my eBook, the #1 best-selling INTP book on Amazon, now with over 80 five-star reviews:
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Spinoza, Kant, Noam Chomsky, Ken Wilber, Bill Gates, Eckhart Tolle, Herbert Spencer, Einstein, Hegel, Fichte, Bergson, Deleuze, Robert Pirsig, Christian Wolff, Paul Tillich, Owen Flanagan, Viktor Frankl, Edward Snowden, Paul Ricoeur
*Portions of this INTP profile are also likely to resonate with Enneagram Fives (5w4, 5w6), Threes (3w4), and Fours (4w5).