Not my type

Periodically, something will make the news about astrology – say, that the traditional time periods for the Zodiac signs have shifted – which always reminds me, to my perpetual surprise, that people actually take astrology seriously.

Growing up, I always knew that my April 25 birthday made me a Taurus, and because they were next to the comics in the newspaper, I sometimes glanced at the horoscopes. But not for a moment did I ever think that the position of the stars when I was born could influence my personality, my interpersonal relations or my luck. Horoscopes were a joke for their vagueness – which is part of the source of the humor of The Onion’s horoscopes, which are absurd in their specificity.

Yet millions of people take astrology very seriously. I’m bemused by this, and can’t help but feel a little condescension. But am I really in a position to judge?

See, while astrology seems laughable, I do take very seriously another system that purports to categorize, describe and predict my believes and actions – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

This psychological tool holds that everyone can be described by their tendencies along one of four axes – Introversion vs. Extroversion, Sensing vs. iNtuition, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judgment vs. Perception.

The combination of these four traits gives you your “type,” which the MBTI system says will describe your personality.

I’m an INTP.

That means I’m introverted – being with other people, while often fun, is tiring for me, and I need to “recharge” by spending time alone after being out in the world.

I’m intuitive, which means when taking in information I prefer broad ideas and theories and look at the big picture of things instead of honing in on small details.

I tend to process information by taking a detached viewpoint and thinking things through logically rather than empathizing with the situation and how it makes me and others feel.

And generally speaking, I prefer taking in information (perceiving) rather than acting on it (judging). I’m a procrastinator, I don’t like taking strong stands on things without giving them a great deal of thought.

Up to speed? It gets more complicated. MBTI theory holds that these different traits interact with each other. As an INTP, my “dominant function” is Introverted Thinking. That means I order my internal world by thinking; I’m most comfortable as an analyzer thinking things through, examining both sides of a given issue to try to sort things out in my head.

My “auxiliary function” is Extroverted Intuition – meaning I take in information by jumping from idea to idea to idea, making intuitive leaps. I either “get” something instantly or I don’t. I brainstorm and play games with words and ideas, I suck up information and then want to share it with people.

By MBTI theory, I spend most of my life in one of these two modes – either a chaotic, curious information omnivore, unable to focus on a single thing for long, or a detached analyzer giving a subject deliberate and exhaustive thought until I can decide where the truth lies.

From my perspective, that seems to describe me pretty well. Certainly I’m highly introverted, I prefer big pictures over small details, I’m an inveterate procrastinator – and no one who knows me would ever accuse me of being over-emotional.

(You can take the test here.)

But the MBTI system is far from perfect. For one thing, there’s almost no empirical, scientific support for it in the psychological field.

A number of my friends are serious skeptics.

“It’s self-fulfilling and only as accurate as you are honest with yourself,” one said.

In other words, if I think of myself as an introvert, then a Myers-Briggs personality test is going to identify me as an introvert – even if I’m not.

As an INTP, the thought that I may be basing important conceptions of self-deception is highly troubling.

Is defining myself as an INTP just a modern-era version of defining myself as a Taurus? After all, Tauruses are supposed to be introverts.

I think applying this sort of skepticism to something that naturally appeals to me is healthy, and I accept the critique – to a point.

It’s a mistake, I think, to start thinking of MBTI types deterministically – that is, I do something because I’m an INTP or because I’m a perceiver and not a judger. But there’s nothing wrong with using it descriptively – a shorthand way to describe my personality by sorting it into categories. I would never say that, for example, “I’ll never get along with so-and-so because they’re an ESFJ,” just like I’d never say, “We’ll get along great because I’m a Taurus and you’re a Virgo.”

(Further, while astrology defines your personality by something silly and unrelated like the position of the constellations when you were born, MBTI defines your personality … by your personality. I think that’s a definite improvement.)

It’s also not necessarily for everyone. In the four MBTI dichotomies, my personality happens to fall pretty clearly into one or the other in each case. But if you fall in the middle in one category or another, of course it’s not going to be helpful for you. It’s always a mistake to get too attached to a model even when it doesn’t fit the available facts.

I still think the MBTI system offers a remarkable description of how I think. Though since INTPs like both big picture ideas and rational analyses of things, maybe that preference of mine WAS self-fulfilling, after all.