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Unearthing the Buried Treasure Behind the 4 Letters of the MBTI Assessment

An abbreviated excerpt on the foundation of the Myers-Briggs Assessment and its importance

“When people are introduced to the MBTI®, the parts of the theory – the four type dichotomies are generally explained first… many people stop at this level of understanding. In doing so, they miss the broader implications and applications that are intrinsic to the dynamic character of the MBTI®.” MBTI® Manual, pg. 23.

When it comes to personality tools, the MBTI® is a Horse of a Different Color.  Its unique place among assessments arises from its theoretical underpinnings – C.G. Jung’s Psychological Types. Yet, an explanation of Jung’s deeper theoretical foundations is mostly missing from MBTI® introductory sessions, internet quizzes, on-line questionnaires, and graduate school courses on the subject. When we think about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® and Type, it’s the “4 letters” of Type, the Type preferences, that come to mind.

Understanding individual Type preferences is, for most people, the first step in learning about Type. Knowledge of Type’s 4 letters enhances self-awareness and helps us to value differences. But to fully understand what our own 4-letter Type means, we need to comprehend the theory upon which it is based.

About Myers’ Dichotomies and their Relationship to Jungian Theory

Jungian Type theory is a holistic theory of personality addressing how we mentally process information – how we Perceive (or take in information) and how we Judge (evaluate that information).

Jung shaped his theory of Psychological Types (psychological meaning “of, affecting, or arising in the mind”) upon the differences he observed between people and what he deemed to be the psychological drivers of those behavioral differences. Jung’s theory is complex, but Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Myers, thought it to be the best theory of human behavior that they had come upon. Sharing a passion for human development, they sought to simplify the theory to bring it to the public and make it useful in people’s lives.

The result of their efforts was the construction of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®). The Indicator, and the resultant 16 Types, simplified Jung’s theory while still capturing the rich and more meaningful elements. Myers constructed her assessment on four dichotomous scales to mirror Jung’s fundamental principle that there are opposite ways of being in the world. She broke Jung’s theory into easily understandable parts by creating 4 preferences and 16 Type categories. The more complex Jungian principles were encoded within the 16 Types.

What is often overlooked in Introductory MBTI® sessions is the integration of the “parts” back into the Jungian typological system. People get stuck in the parts. Unfortunately, we cannot get a full picture of Jung’s theory by simply adding MBTI® preferences together. To get to the deeper levels of Type, we must uncover what Myers implied within each Type.

So, just how do these 4 letters of Type “interact” to unearth Jung’s theory? What are we missing when we view Type solely from the perspective of our 4 letters?

The Eight Jungian Functions in their Attitudes (the Dominant Functions of Type)

For the first thirty or so years of observing human behavior, Jung named and wrote about two opposite Attitudes or ways of facing the world – Extraversion (E) and Introversion (I).  It was not until the end of his treatise on Psychological Types that Jung concluded these two categories were too simple to explain “the tremendous differences among individuals.” To account for these differences, Jung categorized and named two Perceiving Functions (Sensing – S and Intuition – N) and two Judging Functions (Thinking – T and Feeling – F). The first three preferences in Myers’ 16 Types come directly from these aspects of Jung’s theory.

What we cannot see directly from our Type Code is Jung’s proposition that we engage Extraversion and Introversion in different ways. A person with an introverted preference does not introvert like every other introvert. In other words, when we engage our energy in an outward or inward manner, we merge that energy with one of the four Mental Functions of S, N, T and F. The energy Attitudes move the Functions either toward the outer world, or toward the inner world, resulting in eight different “Function-Types” (also called Eight Jungian Functions, Function-Attitudes, Mental Functions, Mental Processes or Cognitive Processes). These Eight Functions are:

  • Extraverted Sensing, Intuition, Thinking and Feeling (abbreviated as Se, Ne, Te, Fe), and
  • Introverted Sensing, Intuition, Thinking and Feeling (abbreviated as Si, Ni, Ti and Fi)

Jung’s Eight Functions take on the characteristics of the energy that carries them and are thus qualitatively different. When a Function is used in the outside world, it is objective and brings with it the fast and active energy of Extraversion. When a Function is engaged in the inner world, it is subjective, known only to the person using the Function, and can appear to be more slow, hesitant or incomplete.

The qualitative distinctions between a Function in its Extraverted and Introverted Attitudes account for divergent perspectives and ways of looking at the world. For example, if Sensing is Extraverted, the focus is gathering information from the immediate environment; if it is Introverted (Introverted Sensing – Si) the focus is on recalling past sensory experiences to compare and make sense of what is happening in the immediate environment.

These Functions in their Attitude are the cornerstones of Jung’s Type theory. The Function-Attitudes can be thought of as “mental perspectives,” “psychological resources” (Pearman, Roger) or “patterns of mental processing” (Lawrence, Gordon) to reflect their psychological nature. These eight perspectives define the predominant way we see, and react to, the world.

Type Dynamics and the Dominant Function

Jung believed that we prefer to engage one of the Eight Functions in a habitual and consistent manner – we either favor a Perceiving Function (Se, Si, Ne or Ni), or a Judging Function (Te, Ti, Fe or Fi). Our predominant Function, or the Dominant Function, is our central focus and colors our behavior – we seek out certain experiences and behave in certain ways (and reject others) based on our ingrained and customary “habits of mind.”  The Dominant Function is the mental process that is most conscious in the personality; it guides the way like the captain of a ship.

Jung also alluded to the possible existence of a secondary or ancillary Function that was in all respects different than, but complementary to, the Dominant Function.  In addition, he talked about an inferior Function that remained unconscious – not under our direct control.

Building on Jung’s theory, Myers did her own extensive research. She concluded that the Auxiliary Function, to which Jung only alluded, was vital for healthy and balanced psychological functioning. If our Dominant Function is a Perceiving Function, the Auxiliary must provide balance through Judging, and vice versa. If our Dominant is an Extraverted Function, our Auxiliary must provide balance through Introversion and the reverse is true. We all need a way to take in information and to evaluate information in both the inner and outer worlds, or we would be too one-sided – out of balance.

To capture the balancing nature of Type, Myers created a fourth dichotomy, the last letter of the Type Code (J/P). With the J/P dichotomy, Myers gave us a formula, called Type Dynamics, which reveals a theoretical pattern of use and development for Jung’s Functions in their Attitudes within the 16 Types (the history and mechanics of Myers’ formula is beyond the scope of this article). Each of the 16 Types has its own Function-Type pattern, from the most to least conscious, starting with the Dominant and proceeding in order through the Auxiliary, Tertiary and Inferior Functions.

For instance, an ESTP Type has the pattern of Extraverted Sensing, Introverted Thinking, Feeling (Extraverted or Introverted) and Introverted Intuition. The ISTJ dynamic pattern is Introverted Sensing, Extraverted Thinking, Feeling (Extraverted or Introverted) and Extraverted Intuition. If we simply stopped our examination of Type at the two codes, ISTJ and ESTP, we might think that these two Types see the world in a similar way, with one Type just being a bit more outgoing (E vs. I) and perhaps going a little more with the flow (P vs. J).

There is much more to the 4-letter Type Code than meets the eye, and this is just the beginning!

Concluding Points

Our 4-letter Type Code is a doorway into understanding how we think, how we approach the world, what aspects of our life we pay attention to and what is so unconscious that we tend to disregard, or disown it. When we select our 4-letter Type Code, we are doing much more than simply selecting letters.

We are tapping into a formula that gives us insight into our dominant psychological perspectives. A keen understanding of our preferred habits of mind provide the opportunity to become more self-aware – to gain a better understanding of how we face the world and how that impacts all aspects of our lives.  Jung said, “…we tend to see everything in terms of our own Type.”  Just think about the consequences of that statement! When we understand our underlying habits of mind, and the gifts and blind spots that come with operating from those perspectives, we have the choice to tap into other ways of thinking. In doing so, we can better understand where others are coming from, and be open to our own growth and development in a more profound and deeper way, than we could by just looking at the 4 letters of our Type.


The Eight Jungian Function Image Metaphor Cards

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If you know your 4-letter Type Code, and would like to understand your Dominant and Auxiliary Functions, or if you are unsure of your Type, our Image Metaphor Cards may be able to guide you.

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