There are numerous ways of identifying and understanding the 16 personality types. Not surprisingly, the approach we’re typically drawn to bears the mark of our own type—the psychological lens through which we see the world. The influence of our type-related preferences / biases helps account for the diversity of approaches to type and, at times, to disparities of outcome in the typing process.
In this post, we will compare and contrast the different methods and mindsets generally employed intuitives (N), sensors (S), thinkers (T) and feelers (F) in the typing process. We’ll be delineating each group of types according to their dominant function. For instance, our intuitive group will be comprised of INFJ, INTJ, ENFP, and ENTP types—all of whom use an intuition as their dominant function. This post should help us better understand the types and their respective approaches to personality typing.
How Intuitives (N) Approach Personality Typing
Types who lead with intuition (INFJ, INTJ, ENFP, ENTP) are disposed to making type determinations based on an overall impression (N). They don’t approach the typing process with a checklist of specific traits and behaviors, but simply observe and engage with people until intuition “reveals” their type, often in an “all-at-once” fashion.
Intuition is often seen as a holistic process. Despite placing little conscious emphasis on specific personality characteristics, intuitives eventually come to see the “big picture.” This isn’t to say they aren’t registering the details, but only that this tends to happen on a more subconscious basis (i.e., via inferior sensing) for these types.
Interestingly, intuitives may unwittingly develop their own system of understanding different personalities prior to learning of existing taxonomies. This stems from their proclivity for recognizing patterns, both within and between individuals. For instance, if John and Wendy both exhibit personality pattern A, a rudimentary sense of type emerges, one which can be further refined over time. To the intuitive, it doesn’t necessarily matter what name or label is assigned to a type. What matters is that a type represents a personality pattern which is reliably known through intuition.
In this light, we expect intuitives to be drawn to “whole type” approaches rather than those oriented to identifying each preference or function separately. That said, there are times when intuitives quickly grasp certain aspects of type—some pieces of the puzzle—but not others. This shouldn’t however be taken to mean that they’re using a piecemeal approach, but only that intuition has yet to decode the more nuanced aspects of the person’s type.
A common critique of the intuitive approach is its impenetrability or lack of transparency. Namely, other types want to know how intuitives arrived at their conclusion and, in many cases, intuitives might be inclined to say something like: “I just know, so please trust me on this.” Of course, this is rarely a satisfactory answer for those who are uncertain about the intuitive’s methodology. To bridge the gap, intuitives either need to do a better job of explaining themselves (which isn’t always easy; after all, how does one explain intuitive knowing?) or they need to be repeatedly proven correct or reliable.
Lastly, I think it’s worth mentioning that non-intuitive types can develop a more intuitive typing style. Like any skill (e.g., driving a car), with enough practice, the typing process is increasingly delegated to the subconscious and thus starts to feel more effortless. If this is the case, I suspect the key for non-intuitives is good upfront training. If the information they’re taught to focus on is arbitrary or inconsequential with respect to type identification, they may arrive at the wrong conclusions even if the typing process itself has come to feel more intuitive and effortless.
How Sensors (S) Approach Personality Typing
Like intuitives, sensing types (ISFJ, ISTJ, ESFP, ESTP) lead with perception. However, whereas intuitives make type determinations through holistic impressions, sensors aim to identify specific personality traits and preferences. Hence, knowing an individual’s type is apt to come later in the game for sensors, as it depends on the collection of all the requisite concrete data.
In many respects, personality questionnaires are consistent with the sensing approach. Namely, data is gathered regarding all the relevant elements of type and are then tallied to determine a person’s preferences for each category. In other words, type is approached as a summation of its parts; the proverbial trees are identified before the forest.
One advantage of the sensing approach is its precision and consistency with respect to the specific traits its assessing. Indeed, few will accuse sensing types of playing fast and loose with the details. The problem with exclusive reliance on sensing, however, is it fails to offer a unified impression—a Gestalt, if you will—of the type.
Sensing can help us learn about each individual trait, but not about how they combine and work together. To illustrate, we can’t understand water simply by studying hydrogen and oxygen molecules independently. We also need to experience the whole that emerges (our holistic experience of water or a personality type), which has special qualities that can’t be predicted from merely summing the parts.
How Thinkers (T) Approach Personality Typing
Thinking types (INTP, ISTP, ENTJ, ESTJ) approach the typing process, as well as personality taxonomies, through an analytic or formulaic lens. Thinkers (T) with auxiliary intuition (N), in particular, will tend to focus on theoretical categories (personality preferences, functions, etc.), ensuring that they are clearly conceived and logically consistent. Preferring to operate in terms of “first principles,” thinkers are reluctant to dive into the applications of type until its basic building blocks have shown to be well formulated. Once a sound theoretical and factual basis is established, assessments can be designed to measure individual differences in each of its constituent domains.
Astute readers may have noticed some similarities between the thinking and sensing approaches. Namely, both are inclined to emphasize and assess discrete elements of type and then employ quantitative measures to make type determinations. Perhaps the main difference is thinkers (especially NTs) will focus more on the theoretical formulation of the type categories, using not only empirical data but also reason and intuition. Sensing dominants, by contrast, may attempt to construct measures based on empirical data alone.
The strength of the thinking approach is its concern for conceptual clarity and adherence to logical principles. It attempts to build its approach on a solid foundation that will withstand the test of time. A potential weakness is, like intuitives, thinkers (especially NTPs) may underutilize empirical data or cherry pick data that supports their preferred theory. Thinking-based approaches are most effective when they incorporate the right balance of logic, intuition, and empirical data.
How Feelers (F) Approach Personality Typing
Feelers (INFP, ISFP, ENFJ, ESFJ) are inclined to take a personal approach to the typing process. While thinkers are laboring to sharpen up their theories and instruments, feelers are engaging with people on a face-to-face basis. Through these interactions, they are exposed to a wide variety of people and personality traits. While sometimes dismissed as “anecdotal evidence” by thinkers, feelers gather huge amounts of raw data through their personal interactions. While this is not the place to quibble over Jung’s type, his informal observations of psychiatric clients ostensibly granted him enough data to develop a theory of type that has now endured for over a century.
The feeling and intuitive approaches are similar in that both capitalize on opportunities to understand people and their personalities through real-time interactions. However, it’s important to recognize that feeling and intuition aren’t the same thing. While both play a role in reading and engaging with people, feeling is less apt to provide an all-at-once, holistic sense of a person’s type (although, as we discussed earlier, intuition can be developed with practice). Thus, dominant feelers may experience more difficulty grasping the overall pattern of a person’s type. They may feel strongly about certain aspects, but unclear about others.
The strength of the feeling approach—person-to-person engagement—allows feelers to discern a number of subtle, non-verbal cues that go undetected when relying strictly on questionnaires. And while feelers are not immune to subjective bias, there is a sense in which they can accurately read and understand others. Of course, some are more skilled at this than others, which can lead to the same problem faced by intuitives: How can we trust your judgment?
This explains much of the divide between academic and folk psychology. Feelers and intuitives, in particular, are inclined to believe that much of what’s important to know about people can be gleaned informally through personal observations and interactions. Thinkers, by contrast, will often take a more detached approach to personality differences, viewing them through the lens of carefully developed constructs.
That said, as we grow and develop our type, we start seeing things through new lenses, namely, through our non-dominant functions. Not only can this help us better appreciate the approaches used by other types, but offers a more comprehensive suite of tools for discerning and understanding type differences.
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