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

by Cindy Stengel Paris on March 18, 2012

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? Does it really matter?  Is  there really that much of a difference?  Is it even worth talking about anymore?

I think the answer to this is a resounding YES!  “So what” you say?  Well, these differences may seem trivial to the novice reader, thus the title of this blog, but I can assure you, they are  not.  [Click  here to look at a really simple chart created by Danielle Poirier that  explains the differences.]

Let me highlight the differences between type and trait  from a personal story to see what you think:

In another life, I was part of a technology team that  did a day of MBTI team building.  The  entire team was at the table: the CIO and his deputy, my practice leader, and  my peers – all managers.  The first thing that the trainer did was to put our reported types on a type table (without the opportunity for self-selection).  The  entire team was in the upper left hand corner of the table, ISTJ, and my reported  type was ENFJ.  He walked us through our  “scores” (the graph that highlights preference clarity how confident we are of the results) and we were told to look at  the “scores” for E and I.  My preference clarity on the E-I dichotomy was Very Clear.  He said to the group, “Cindy is a strong, very extreme Extravert”.  The entire team laughed.  Then I heard the comments, “Cindy, is that why don’t stop talking?  Is that why you constantly blurt things out in  meetings?”  The trainer went on to  explain that he was a classic INTJ/P because he was sometimes “J” and sometimes  “P”.  I challenged him on this point and asked him if he could explain type dynamics to the team.  He didn’t know what I was talking about!  Then, he pointed to the obvious “elephant in  the room” – the team type table.  He  said, “Look at the types on the team.  Cindy, why are you even here at this firm and 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 even have to highlight the obvious consequences  from that scenario?  What if the trainer had explained the nature of the dichotomies as  categories, explained to the team that people don’t behave in a certain way  because of their preferences and there are no good or bad types? Instead, I wonder what would have happened had he simply pointed out the gifts that someone with ENFJ preferences might bring to a primarily ISTJ team?

What happened at the session is a classic example of a practitioner not understanding the dynamic nature of type and treating type, and the components of type, as individual traits disconnected from the holistic system.  Implied in his presentation of type was the existence of strength of preference, cause and effect of type equating to specific behaviors (you can or cannot perform a task) and the “weaknesses” of being a particular way.  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 in order to impart the importance of understanding the differences; to hit home the fact that the MBTI® assessment does not produce a set of standalone traits that can be quantitatively measured.  When examining types as defined within the Jung/Myers model, we are observing 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.

One of the best explanations I have read comes from Naomi Quenk’s seminal article on the subject (Bulletin of Psychological Type,16:2, Spring, 1993) [Click here to read the full article].  Quenk says,  “The traits [type characteristics] involved are likely to be more or less related to each other since the underlying preference or  interaction of preferences will serve as the ‘glue’ that makes them cohere.”  In the type model there are no stand-alone traits.

In trait psychology, the number and kinds of traits that you have and the strength of those traits “add up” to who you are. Traits present themselves as  independent of a “main category”.  In type psychology, there are characteristics which develop as a result of habitual use of a preference that present as traits; these behavioral characteristics [traits] are expressions of type. Important to recognize is that there is no one characteristic present in everyone who shares a preference.  In other words, in type theory you cannot  say, “All people who prefer Extraversion are talkative”.

In trait theory, there is a “normal”, a “more than normal” and a “less than normal”.  Look at IQ for instance.  In trait terms, if you have the trait of Extraversion,  it implies you are strong in Extraversion and all of the behaviors that are normally associated with Extraversion – talking, socializing in general, being the life of the party –and  that you don’t have a lot of, or are weak in, the opposite thing, called “Introversion”.  In type terms, it means that you are born with being more comfortable in the outer world; it is where you get your energy and  how your energy naturally flows.

Myers’ created the Indicator to provide people with a doorway into what she considered to be a positive psychology; she wanted people to understand  and appreciate differences; she wanted to help people get along better  and come to understand themselves at a deeper level.  She wanted people to feel good about themselves, no matter their type.  In the Jung/Myers model, there is no normal type, therefore there are no “bad” types, worse types, abnormal types, weak or strong types (or preferences, attitudes, functions or function-attitudes).  There are appropriate ways of being in certain circumstances, and each type has associated gifts and blind spots.  All types are valuable.

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.  Take some time to read an illuminating article by Master Practitioner Vicky Jo Varner about the new type community on the internet and the implications for the future of type:

From my perspective, it is alarming to look at  psychological type through the lens of trait psychology because we are, I believe, in danger of losing the beauty of type theory and the richness for elegant applications, as well as the opportunity it provides for entering the lifelong development process that Jung called individuation. We are in danger of trivializing the instrument from which Jung’s rich theory can be accessed.

There are so many reasons for this pervasive misunderstanding of the MBTI instrument and Jungian typology.  Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that the study of psychology itself is a disciplined field of study, of which, most people are unfamiliar.  Perhaps it is the deceivingly simplistic nature of the 4-letters of the MBTI type code that leads people to believe they understand the instrument and type, just by looking atit.  I doesn’t help that there are thousands of imitation “tests” on the internet.  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.  The MBTI has become so popularized that the surface is replacing the depth; and even the popular understanding of the surface is wrought with error.

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 have to consider them as integral ingredients which interact or combine to make a whole system.  There are no stand-alone or independent traits within a type.  We cannot pull apart a system to determine percentage, strength, or weakness of any of the elements because in the Jung/Myers model, they don’t stand alone and cannot be independently measured.

As an ENFJ, I am not 90% feeling and 10% thinking.  I am not 80% extraverted feeling and 20%  introverted intuition.  The way  I experience life is that I am naturally, and always, concerned about how people feel about me, and about how they feel about other people involved in a situation; and when it comes to making a decision, I value and consider those feelings and let them guide me in the right direction; I just navigate my life that way.  I am acutely aware and naturally tuned into how my relationships and others’ relationships and the relationships within my groups or systems (family, work, teams I coach) are functioning; if they are not working I serve as a catalyst for healing and change.  That does not mean that I am not able to see things in a more objective way, although it may take me a bit longer to get there because it is not naturally how I see life.

Herein lies the major difference – we are quite simply born into our type; we are who we  are.   Our type lies within us and cannot be dissected from us.  Within the model, who we are and the complexity of our nature cant be boiled down to independent parts that somehow “add up” to make us so; it’s the other way around.  We have innately different ways in which we see the world; in the way we experience and live our lives; we have different drivers; value different things.  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 theworld into percentages, strengths, skills, or whatever terms you want to use.

And here is the beauty of that.  We don’t have to work to gain more of those independent “parts” in order to make us whole. We already are – in potentia (the inherent ability or capacity for growth, development, or coming into being) – whole.  Our work is to continually learn about who we are by opening our consciousness and becoming more aware of those parts of ourselves that we have kept in our unconscious – that we have disowned; this is Jungian individuation.  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?  Do we stop our efforts to correct those that characterize Jungian typology as trait psychology? No! In the words of Danielle Poirier, “We don’t want to mistake one for the other [type psychology and trait psychology] but they do co-exist!”

To  extend my use of metaphor (ok, I may be stretching it too far…) “Better  call the calling off off”!  And just for fun, if you become frustrated when you hear someone saying something like, “I am a strong F and that is why I am so emotional”- or something else equally off-base, listen to Louis and Ella for inspiration!
©Copyright,The People Skills Group, LLC, 2012

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