• MBTI: Jung's Theory of Psychological Type: Lenore Thomson Interview

    MBTI: Jung's Theory of Psychological Type: Lenore Thomson Interview

    Lenore's "Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual" explains the principles underlying the different ways people grant meaning to their experience, how and where they invest psychological energy, how they become conscious and self-aware, and how they prefer to adapt to their environment. By showing the point of view each type brings to various life tasks, ranging from getting a seat on the subway during rush hour to crucial ethical decisions, Lenore reveals each type’s characteristic defenses and the way all types struggle to reconcile their inner psychological conflicts. Her stories exemplify the way our common human nature diversifies into types that challenge each other's compassion. Such compelling stories come only from lived experience integrated with profound knowledge of science, religion, and the arts, including pop culture. Through humor and cautionary tales, the book guides us away from simplistic trait-based models of personality to dynamic type development over a lifetime.

    Jeanne Marlowe, a type consultant who has worked with Lenore for 8 years, starts the dialogue.

    JM: Let's leap right into the heart of the matter. What is a psychological type?

    LTB: I think I'd like to start with what a psychological type isn't. I want to be up front about how I understand type theory, because otherwise what I say about it won't make much sense.

    I don't believe that type refers to a person's innate personality characteristics. It isn't the causal source of a person's needs or the behaviors designed to meet them.

    Rather, type is the outcome of habituated choices -- our accustomed orientation to incoming information. Of course, some of our choices are going to favor our temperament, in so far as temperament means our basic chemistry, but knowing our type won't tell us what job we're best suited to do or what kind of marriage partner we ought to seek. Type tells us how we generally adapt, particularly when a situation is unfamiliar. It tells us what we're most likely to recognize as important about a situation, what that means to us, and what strategies we use to manage it.

    The universe, after all, is a blooming, buzzing, ever-changing field of information. We can't take in everything that exists. Every situation requires that we make choices. If we recognize something as important, we're setting aside other things as less important, or screening them out altogether. This isn't a sign of dysfunction. It's the way we're made. The very purpose of having a nervous system is to narrow our receptive capacity to data that ensures our comfort and survival.

    From time immemorial, various temperament theories have attempted to classify human personality in these terms, assuming that people have different kinds of nervous systems, which give rise to different kinds of emotional dispositions. For example, some people enjoy risk, others seek harmony; some people want responsibility, others enjoy change. The validity of these classification systems, however, is undermined by the corollary assumption that people's behaviors issue directly from their affective needs, reflecting the natural way such needs can be met.

    C. G. Jung, the analyst who came up with the theory of psychological types, objected to this assumption. He was loathe to credit people's choices entirely to affective disposition, as though people could be pegged by a label, and consciousness were an expedient illusion. He pointed out, in fact, that when our behaviors do issue from immediate needs outside our conscious control, we don't identify these actions with preference or authenticity. Rather, we feel precisely as though we're out of control. Therefore, Jung focused on the part of the psyche that is making this judgment -- the "I" that results from making free-will decisions, the choices that make us feel like "ourselves."

    A type test is trying to get at these free-will decisions -- do you see yourself as cool-headed or warm-hearted; do you like deadlines or do they get in the way? These choices can't be traced backwards into core emotional needs that demand behavioral compliance. Rather, they point ahead -- to goals that we set ourselves in a particular time and place, the ways in which we deliberately narrow our receptive field to information that we value.

    JM: Thank you for getting at what seems to me two chief concerns of Isabel Myers, the inventor of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. She emphasized that her questionnaire does not indicate skill and was horrified when a bank misused it to fire all its employees preferring intuition. She also insisted that type knowledge could help people become aware of more choices so that they could "cross from the natural to the appropriate" (Gifts Differing, 1980, p. 118).

    LTB: I like that phrasing -- crossing from the natural to the appropriate. There is little question that we naturally value options that ensure our comfort and survival. Our choices will normally favor our felt strengths and the things we like to do. But what makes us recognizably human is the fact that value accrues to more than issues of pleasure and survival. It's our capacity to override our immediate affective needs for the sake of principles and ideals that enables us to establish a sense of self with a narrative history. To credit our principles or ideals to innate disposition sets up a social caste system rather than a natural taxonomy. This becomes clear when type theory is employed to locate people's ostensible places in the institutions we already take for granted.

    The purpose of type theory is to make us aware of the self-experience we ordinarily inhabit. It takes us outside that self-experience to get a vantage point on habituated strategies of adaptation. Thus, we can see ourselves more objectively, understanding what our choices say about our direction, our self-imposed limitations, and the cultural environment we take for granted.

    It may be noted that a sense of self is a cognitive phenomenon. This is why Jung's theory doesn't traffic in social stereotypes. Rather, it recognizes four cognitive standpoints, which exist in all of us. Jung called these standpoints functions, naming them as Sensation, Intuition, Feeling, and Thinking. These terms don't refer, in any way, to the entire human psyche. They don't mean senses, imagination, emotion, and intellect.

    Rather, they refer to the kinds of information the cognitive mind derives from our bodily and emotional experiences -- respectively, aesthetics, symbols, ideals, and concepts.

    In Jung's theory, aesthetics and symbols are opposites; you can't clarify what's immediately apparent (Sensation) at the same time you're inferring what isn't yet apparent (Intuition). In the same way, ideals and concepts are opposites; you can't determine something's value to you personally (Feeling) at the same time you're classifying it impersonally (Thinking). One is always choosing between these opposites, granting one more importance than the other.

    To have a psychological type means that one of these four cognitive standpoints has become habituated. We're less aware of options connected with its opposite, and the other standpoints are subordinated to our dominant one, supporting our goals, or balancing them with information that is less immediately conscious.

    To some extent, of course, our preferred orientation takes shape naturally, as we experience our felt strengths and find options to express them. But this is different from saying that type is innately determined. At birth, the brain has neurological potential for many different environmental options, and it structures itself on the basis of our actual choices -- about where to focus our attention, what we like and dislike, and what meaning we assign to our experiences.

    Although these choices will certainly favor our chemistry, our proclivity to anxiety or aggression, our interests, our fears, and our abilities, they also reflect the expectations of others, the possibilities we recognize or create for ourselves, and the gradual development of our character -- the standards we maintain, even when they *don't* favor our immediate affective needs.

    JM: Your writing about young adult type preference changing as a result of relating to a significant other helped me understand the tension in my marriage at age 19. I felt forced to function as a Thinker to balance my husband's dominant Feeling preference. Although I identify as a lifelong INFP, my MBTI ® score on the Thinking-Feeling dichotomy has never been clear, hovering at the midpoint. Maybe others with similar experience will send questions that you can deal with in a future column, especially regarding what is innate.

    LTB: This is what I mean by type reflecting an accustomed adaptive orientation, even when it's not entirely compatible with a self-image or a genuine issue of temperament. To ascribe this to type falsification implies that one has an innately determined type, but I believe that type results at odds with habituated strategies can give one a very good idea of what a person is doing, right now, to adapt to a particular environment. That kind of adaptation isn't necessarily false; it may reflect choices made for the sake of an authentic ideal or principle, whose price has become too high.

    As far as I'm concerned, the only aspect of type likely to reflect a person's innate disposition is what Jung referred to as the attitudes, Extraversion and Introversion. Our dominant standpoint will always reflect the attitude that comes naturally to us. However, Jung contended that the vast majority of people have only a slight preference for either, and, for these types, cultural influence plays a greater role.

    I also believe that we're likely to innately prefer a left- or right-brain approach to information, which implicates the J and P attitudes in the MBTI system.

    Because of the attitudes, each function has two different ways of expression, resulting in eight function-attitudes -- Introverted and Extraverted versions of Sensation, Intuition, Feeling, and Thinking. As implied, my view is that Introverted and Extraverted versions of the same function come at information from opposing brain hemispheres.

    When dominant and auxiliary functions implicate the right hemisphere, the type is usually outwardly adaptable to novelty and change, but this is balanced by a reliance on principles and values that are understood to be universal. In the MBTI system, these are the P types, whose preferred Extraverted function is either Sensation or Intuition.

    When dominant and auxiliary functions implicate the left hemisphere, the type is usually invested in a collective outward charter that serves as a uniting lingua franca, but this is balanced by an inner world of impressions and alternatives that are understood to be individual. In the MBTI system, these are the J types, whose preferred Extraverted function is either Thinking or Feeling.

    JM: Doesn't this brain map suggest that type preference depends on the inborn structure of the nervous system?

    LTB: The only purpose of the brain map is to show how type preference relates to what the brain actually does. It doesn't mean that preference is a predetermined neurological structure, and it doesn't mean that you can drill into the cranium and locate the functions, cradled happily in their separate quadrants. What I'm trying to indicate is that tasks associated with the various functions implicate different parts of the brain.

    For example, if the left frontal lobe of the brain is anesthetized, discrimination and executive judgment are rendered impossible. The frontal cortex is crucial to the tasks we associate with Extraverted Thinking and Extraverted Feeling.

    If the right back hemisphere is anesthetized instead, executive judgment remains possible, but it occurs without reference to real subjective experience, spatial awareness, and contextual evaluation -- aspects associated with Introverted Thinking and Introverted Feeling. Without this input, the left brain simply fabricates whatever appears to "explain" how consequence is related to cause.

    JM: One of the advantages of the brain map is that it helps to explain why the Extraverted and Introverted orientation of each function differ so dramatically. You characterize this difference as left brain constraint vs. right brain immediacy.

    LTB: It seems to me that Jung was grappling with the distinction between Extraverted and Introverted functional orientation at a time when the brain hemispheres weren't so well understood. We know now that the left brain is largely responsible for maintaining a consistent world view, and the right brain is responsible for recognizing novelty. The brain map shows that each function is capable of doing either.

    For example, Extraverted Sensation, which implicates the right brain, is concerned with direct experience, whereas Introverted Sensation, which implicates the left, is concerned with maintaining categories for experience.

    Extraverted Thinking, which implicates the left brain, is concerned with reliable principles of behavior, which maintain order, whereas Introverted Thinking, which implicates the right brain, is concerned with consistent underlying processes, which allow one to predict change and flux.

    The two hemispheres of the brain are designed to share their products across the corpus callosum; however, research indicates that cross-hemispheric communication can't take place diagonally. This would suggest that cognitive products associated with these diagonally related quadrants can't be simultaneously conscious.

    Notice, for example, that Extraverted Thinking implicates the left front hemisphere, whereas Introverted Feeling implicates the right back hemisphere. Te and Fi are considered direct opposites for good neurological reason. In my view, this is why our least developed function is most likely to become conscious as we encounter its operation in others.

    This is why I think it's a mistake to understand the functions as references to particular behavioral skills. They don't refer to abilities or actions; they refer to the structure of cognitive experience -- the way in which we reduce a constant bombardment of information to manageable forms that relate to our goals, beliefs, and preferences.

    JM: Your approach to type as the characteristic way we appropriate experience and give it meaning changed my approach to teaching MBTI ® theory. Instead of saying a type uses a function, I try to convey the more difficult characteristic orientation of each type. This approach alleviates the quagmire of labeling behavior, such as watering plants, as using Sensing.

    LTB: Jung didn't describe the functions as skills; he compared them to the four directions on a compass. Orientation, not innate ability. For example, you can make a reliable correlation between North and whale fishing, but orienting yourself by North won't give you the skills to work on a whale boat. Conversely, taking a job on a whale boat won't tell you how it feels to orient yourself by North.

    Each function orients conscious awareness in terms of its own psychic content, just as the four directions orient us to different parts of the external landscape. To take a direction always leaves a path not taken. If you're going North, you're axiomatically not going South. Over time, favoring one orientation over another becomes habitual, assembling a consistent approach to the meaning of our experiences.

    JM: How do you understand what it means to differentiate a function? Some type theorists believe that type development means differentiating all eight function-attitudes.

    LTB: When people talk about differentiating non-preferred functions, they usually mean engaging in specific behaviors that have become associated with the function's differentiated form. For example, an Intuitive type who strives to notice more details may describe the effort as "developing more Sensing." In general, there's no downside to this sort of thing. Stretching beyond our habituated comfort zone and learning to do new things keep us healthy and alive.

    This isn't, however, what Jung meant by differentiation. As orientations, the functions are always operating; they're part of everyone's cognitive architecture. Every minute of every day, they're turning our bodily and emotional experiences into cognitive events. Differentiating one means that we've gained some willful control over the brain states involved in that aspect of our experience and are directing them to conscious ends.

    The word "differentiation," after all, is analogical. Jung borrowed it from the field of developmental biology. Before a fertilized egg implants itself in the uterine wall, it's an undifferentiated cell mass. It's only after implantation and division that individual cells begin to differentiate. And what this means is that the cells become specialized, turning some genes off and others on, so that the cells are capable of supporting particular tasks in the growing embryo. For example, some cells differentiate for the operation of the heart, thereby becoming what the heart needs in order to grow and develop. Once a cell specializes, it acquires a "type," and it's suited to support a particular system of the body.

    It seems to me that Jung borrowed these existing terms deliberately. Undifferentiated functions are like undifferentiated stem cells. That is, they're conflated with each other, without specialized purpose, operating in concert with our emotional needs. However, as a person adapts to a particular environmental context, one of those functions becomes differentiated, supporting the expression of developing strengths in real-world terms.

    This is the basis of the Ego identity, and it occurs at the interface of culture and nature, just as a specialized cell will always be shaped by the organ it's supporting. The type model shows us what this psychological structure looks like once a function has been differentiated. If type were an innate pattern that we simply lived out, Jung's theory would make no sense.

    In Jung's model, orienting ourselves by one function is not natural; it requires conscious choice. "Natural," from this standpoint, means reacting to circumstances as they occur, guided by instinctual patterns of behavior. Jung believed that consciousness had allowed humans to disrupt the direct connection between immediate emotional needs and behavioral responses. We get control over the brain states involved in those responses and direct them to conscious ends.

    Those conscious goals are compensated by functions that have not been differentiated. This compensation is what keeps our conscious choices in touch with the motivating flame of our living, unadapted potential.

    In other words, our differentiated function sets our conscious direction. Having all eight competing for control is hardly a condition of wholeness or balance. What you want is a differentiated function flexible enough to enlist information from the others and to take that information into account when decisions are being made.

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    Original source: http://www.personalitypathways.com/thomson/