15 Apr 2011

M is for MBTI.

MBTI - short for Myers-Briggs Type Indicator - is a psychology-based system that describes personality traits.

I've been using it for many years, in my job as well as my personal life, and it's proven so useful that it has become a part of my way of thinking about and dealing with the world.


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is based on quite a complicated system, but it can be simplified for personal use or use in your writing, which is what I'll do here.

However, if you'd want to use the insights with other people, e.g. in a professional or therapeutic setting, I would advise you to study the system in more detail.

When I talk about the MBTI to my students, I compare it to the systems we use every day to describe what a person looks like on the outside:
'Hm, I can't think of her name right now, but you know who I mean: the tall woman with the short, blonde hair.'

For efficiency's sake, we focus on a limited set of observable characteristics, and describe them in the form of opposite pairs. E.g. short/tall, bald/long hair, pale skin/dark skin, etc. For each pair, some people will be on one end of the spectrum, and most people will be 'somewhere in between'.

Psychologist Carl Gustav Jung formulated similar 'opposite pairs' for personality. Later on, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers developed this further into the MBTI system as it is now used, with 4 pairs of opposing characteristics.

Here, too, some people will show up on one end, with a more extreme preference, while most are 'somewhere in between', to varying degrees.

The Opposing Pairs

These are the 4 pairs of characteristics the MBTI takes into account:
  • Extraversion (E) - Introversion (I)
  • Sensation (S) - iNtuition (N)
  • Thinking (T) - Feeling (F)
  • Judging (J) - Perceiving (P)

Extraversion vs. Introversion

This pair of characteristics looks at where you direct your attention and where you draw your energy from.

Are you more focused on the people and the world around you (Extraversion), or on your inner world (Introversion)?

Do you get energy from interacting with people (E), or from being by yourself (I)?

Read more about Extraversion vs. Introversion.

Sensation vs. iNtuition

The second pair of characteristics looks at the kind of information you take in, and the information you naturally focus on.

Do you mainly notice information that is tangible, measurable, concrete and factual (Sensation) or do you focus on patterns, possibilities and 'the bigger picture' (iNtuition)?

Do you prefer to deal with the world as it exists (S) or are you constantly looking for ways to improve, to innovate and to 'boldly go where no one has gone before', at least when ideas are concerned (N)?

Are you a person who will most often ask questions beginning with: 'what', 'how', 'when', ... (S) or is your main question: 'Why?' (N)

(It is interesting to note here that the majority of people reside on the 'Sensation' side of the spectrum, so if you're undecided, statistically you're more likely to be on the S-side.)

Read more about Sensation vs. Intuition.

Thinking vs. Feeling

The third pair looks at what you base your decisions on.

As far as making decisions is concerned, do you place more value on logic, facts and objective truth (Thinking) or on people, values and personal or social concerns (Feeling)?

Do you consider truth more important than tact (T) or tact more important than truth (F)?

Do logical inconsistenties drive you crazy (T) or do you get nervous in situations where the harmony between people has been disturbed (F)?

Read more about Thinking vs. Feeling.

Judging vs. Perceiving

The fourth pair gives information about how you live your life towards the outside world, and how you structure your life and deal with your time.

Are you more comfortable after you have made a decision (Judging) or when all options are still open (Perceiving)?

Do you prefer to / are you more efficient when you plan your time and activities beforehand (J) or do you prefer to improvise and adapt your priorities according to the situation at hand (P)?

Do you like making / having to do-lists (J) or do those lists make you nervous (P)?

Read more about Judging vs. Perceiving.

The Letters

When you take MBTI-based tests, you usually end up with letters and scores. The letters are the ones I've used before: (I)ntroversion - (E)xtraversion, i(N)tuition - (S)ensation, (T)hinking - (F)eeling and (J)udging - (P)erceiving. If you get other letters, chances are you've taken a different test. ;-)

The Kisa test in the links below gives you scores for each end of the spectrum, so you get 8 scores in total, which helps to create a more complete picture.

I want to point out here that there are no 'bad' letters and no 'bad' scores. The diversity of our species is a strong factor in our success, especially when we learn to understand our differences and cooperate.

If you get low scores for certain letters, that's okay too. It usually means you don't have a strong preference for either of the characteristics - or you have a high preference for both. This, too, is useful in a team, family or community. These people can often take on different roles, depending on which skills are lacking and needed. They can also act as mediators between the more extreme team or family members to keep everyone focused and working together.

MBTI and writing

I use the MBTI in my writing in different ways:
  • To build real and multi-layered characters.
    MBTI allows me to build 'real' characters efficiently. E.g. when I write down: "character X: INTP", it tells me so much more than those 4 characteristics; it summons a whole group of real, existing people in my mind, with real characteristics to pick and choose from.
  • To keep my character files clear and concise.
    My character files contain names, basic practical data, and personality types. It's so much easier to type "INTP" than: "recluse; appears ice-cold to outsiders but has an incredibly rich inner world; hates being misunderstood and will do everything to establish clarity; has an extreme ability to focus; needs to be independent; distrusts emotions because they've proven to be unreliable in the past; if someone appears on their radar in a good way, they'll do almost whatever they can to make them happy; etc.". For me, the word "INTP" conjures that image, without extensive character worksheets or interviews. 
  • To create tension and believable interaction.
    If I need a character to interact with another one in a certain way (antagonistic, soulmate, envy, distrust, practical misunderstandings, etc.), I'll pick a character with a particular personality type that tends to have that kind of interaction with the other character's type, and then I just stay true to the characters while I'm writing. Most of the time the desired interaction just happens.
  • To avoid gender stereotyping.
    Personality types aren't gender-specific. There may be more women with a Feeling preference than men, but I don't want to fall in the trap of assuming this is the case for everybody. By setting the types for my characters, I can add more variation and keep their behaviour consistent.
I know it all sounds very mechanical, but through the years it's become an automatic and intuitive process.

Useful Links

Have you come across the MBTI before? Do you know your type? Have you used MBTI in your writing?

Image: 'Diversity Cupcakes' by Clever Cupcakes. Available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Clever Cupcakes.
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  1. Wow! Fantastic read. I have to admit that I was pretty unfamiliar with MBTI, but it is such a compelling concept. I've witnessed these types of "observable characteristics," and I've contributed to the phenomenon. I've skipped ahead in some parts of your impressive analysis, but I read most of it. Well-done.

    And kudos! You, much like me, elaborate with such fine detail. Glad to know I'm not the only one pushing long form posts here for the blogging challenge (though I know most don't read my full reviews). It's fine.

    Great blog!

  2. No fair! All that insight into characters? Actually, that's great short-hand method you have. I find all of it really interesting. Wish I knew enough about it to use it myself. :)

  3. Fascinating read.

  4. i took the test years ago and came up with ISFJ. took it today and came up with the same thing. i love using the test for my characters. i also looked into how the test results relate to the system using Ennagrams to help me get an even better handle on them.

    btw, Catherine at Words World and Wings is doing a series on the Ennagrams and it's great.


  5. @Matthew: thanks, and great meeting you here! I'm trying to keep my A to Z posts short, but failing miserably, as you can see :-) Now, I knew beforehand this would be my mammoth post, but I wanted to get the information out, so I can refer to it later when I need it.

    @L.G.: I wish I had a similar system for plot development ;-)

    @mybabyjohn: Thanks! :-)

    @Michelle: I'm ENFP, so we're very complementary. I like working with ISFJs, because they are so kind and gentle and meticulate. I've noticed they tend to bring out my protective side, especially when they're up against harsher or very logical people. I'm not sure if that's a good thing ;-)
    I'm following Catherine's enneagram series and I like it as well.

  6. A most educational post. I learnt a lot about myself and others I'd better not mention.

  7. Hi Bob :-)

    oh, please do! We're all curious now :-)

  8. I've heard about the Myers-Briggs system before but never looked into it. You've given some good information here that definitely helps with characterization.

  9. @J.L.: Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful. :-)

  10. That's really fascinating. You're welcome to write about this at the Blood-Red Pencil sometime.

    Another crazy A-Z Challenge Fool

    Blog Book Tours

  11. Why, I'm an ISFJ, too. I wonder if it's a writer thing? I love how you can use this to craft characters that are very different from yourself.

  12. wow...fascinating read! looks like i am an INFJ (i hope those letters are correct.lol)...

  13. we were required to take the MBIT every year in high School. :P I think I'm an INFJ--unless that has changed. I should take it again.:P Anyway, Now i use the test to create my story characters!

  14. @Dani: Any time, it'd be an honour :-)

    @Shelli: there seem to be quite a few ISFJ writers and bloggers. I'm not surprised many ISFJs are attracted to blogging: it's quite similar to building a nice home, a warm online environment where friends can come and visit.

    @mymy & nutschell: *wave* to fellow NFs :-) If those letters are right, you should be much better organised than I'll ever be :-)

  15. I'll be it would take an awful lot of practice & familiarity w/ the personality types for four letters to paint such a complete personality for you. Man, I wish it was that automatic for me! But right now I feel like taking that personality test - thanks for the links!

  16. @Nicki: one step at a time :) For me it started many years ago with hearing about the test at work, taking it, ignoring it for a few years, rediscovering it at a time when it was very useful, and then gradually learning more. Have fun! :-)

  17. Although we work intimately with MBTI now, what we found so powerful about it when we started working with it was how much sense it made, formalizing and ordering much of our existing perceptions and knowledge.


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