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Type, Trait, Tomato, Tomahtoe – Just Call the Whole Thing Off?

Type, Trait, Tomato, Tomahtoe

Do we really need to understand how, why or even whether, the MBTI® assessment is a type instrument rather than a trait instrument, or that Jungian psychological type is more than just a bundle of traits? Is there really that much of a difference? Is it even worth talking about anymore?

I think so! It may seem trivial to debate the matter, but there are substantial differences between the two. The basics: traits are individual characteristics that can be quantitatively measured like aggressiveness, sociability, or talkativeness (the Big Five’s NEO-PI, Hogan assessments, and DiSC). Results from trait instruments provide an individual with scores that fall within in a normal distribution of low to high. Personality “type” as opposed to “trait” is a holistic interactive system that is qualitative, not quantitative.The MBTI® type preferences are not traits. MBTI results give you a 4-letter type that has a corresponding type description written from an understanding of how the preferences interact within the type.

Let me share a personal story to highlight the differences between type and trait:

I was once part of a technology team that participated in an MBTI team building session.The practitioner started by putting our Reported Types on a type table (without the opportunity for self-selection and verification). The entire team was in the upper left-hand corner, ISTJ, with one INTP and me, who reported as an ENFJ. He directed us to our “scores” (the preference clarity index) for E and I and told us to line up accordingly. My preference clarity category was Very Clear, with my PCI being E30. I looked at my colleagues all standing on the other side of the room like we were about to play a very uneven game of tug-of-war. The practitioner said to the group, “Cindy is a strong, very extreme Extravert.” The entire team laughed. Then I heard these comments, “Cindy is that why you can’t stop talking? Is that why you constantly blurt things out in meetings?” After we sat down, he said, “Cindy, why are you even on this team? You must not like your job very much. I would imagine that it would be really hard for you to produce technical documentation as an ENFJ.” I will never forget those words.

Do I need to highlight the obvious consequences from that scenario? What if the practitioner had explained the nature of preferences as categories, explained to the team that people don’t behave in a certain way because of their preferences and that there are no good or bad types? What if he had he simply pointed out the gifts that someone with ENFJ preferences might bring to a primarily ISTJ technology team?

This is a classic example of a practitioner not understanding the dynamic nature of type and treating type and its components as individual traits disconnected from the whole. He presented type as trait, lining us up by “strength” of preference, equating specific behaviors to “weakness.” Negative stereotyping and misuse of type can damage people and their reputations.

Type experts have been writing about the differences between type and trait psychology for years to hit home the fact that the MBTI® assessment does not produce a set of stand-alone traits that can be quantitatively measured. When examining types as defined within the Jung/Myers model, we observe characteristics that are elements of a whole system, connected to theoretical underpinnings, which define the basic nature or quality of preferences. When we observe people to figure out type, we look for characteristics that point to a preference.

Despite the best efforts of type experts and theorists over the years, the message that the MBTI® is a type, not trait instrument, has not taken hold in the public domain. Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that psychology itself is a disciplined field of study, of which, most people are unfamiliar. Perhaps it is the deceivingly simplistic nature of the 4-letter MBTI type code that leads people to believe they understand the instrument and type. The thousands of imitation “tests” on the internet don’t help.

The reasons for misunderstanding are many and complex, but what is certain is that among trainers and layman who talk about type as if types were traits, there is no understanding of the dynamic nature of Jung’s theory of typology upon which the MBTI was constructed. When we pull apart a type code to analyze the workings of the attitudes (E-I and J-P), functions (S, N, T ,F) or functions-in-attitude (Se, Si, Ne, Ni, Te, Ti, Fe, Fi), and the characteristics associated with them, we must consider them as integral ingredients which interact or combine to make a whole system.

As an ENFJ, I am not 90% feeling and 10% thinking. I am not 80% extraverted feeling and 20% introverted intuition. Type is about the way I experience life. I am acutely aware and naturally tuned into how my relationships and others’ relationships and the relationships within my groups or systems (family, work, client teams) are functioning. If they are not working, I serve as a catalyst for healing and change. It is how I see the world from my Dominant Extraverted Feeling as it interacts with all the other Functions and Attitudes. That does not mean I am unable to see things in a more objective way, although it may take more energy, because it just isn’t natural for me. Our type lies within us and cannot be dissected from us. In the words of Jung himself, “We naturally tend to understand everything in terms of our own type.” We can’t break down how we experience the world into percentages or strengths, or low or high “parts.”

And here is the beauty of that. We don’t have to work to gain more of those independent “parts” to make us whole. We are already whole. Our work is to continually learn about who we are by opening our consciousness and becoming more aware of what knowledge of ourselves we have kept in our unconscious – what we have disowned. I find this perspective much more reassuring than a trait approach; it is easier to forgive myself and others when looking through this lens, for I know that we are all simply living from who we fundamentally are.

So, do we “Just call the whole thing off?” Do we stop trying to get the point across to the world that type should not be approached like trait psychology? Is it just too hard, because those of us that know better seem to be swimming against the current tide of popular culture? I don’t think so. Trait psychology has its proper place, but it’s not within the type system. Typology provides us with a theoretical foundation, a place to start and markers for development.

I agree with Jung’s statement in Psychological Types,

“The four functions are somewhat like the four points of the compass; they are just as arbitrary and just as indispensable. Nothing prevents our shifting the cardinal points as many degrees as we like in one direction or the other, or giving them different names…but the one thing I must confess: I would not for anything dispense with this compass on my psychological voyages of discovery.”

Comments (1)

  1. Thanks, Cindy! I love your emphasis on type as a system of interactive parts. Maybe one of the reasons people have trouble wrapping their heads around type vs. traits is because it is not clear why that’s important!