Do I still like MBTI? (Part 2)

In my last post I did some deconstructing of MBTI and the Jungian theory of psychological types that inspired it.

Now I’ll have a go at putting it back together again. Although, as with most of my attempts at reconstructing things I have dismantled, it won’t look the same and I’ll probably have a few bits left over!

I finished the last post by proposing that Jung had, in fact, developed a simple but elegant model of cognitive functions. I’ll start from there…

Starting simple

Let’s speculate about some basic brain functions and attach a bit of MBTI/Jung terminology to them.

The ins and outs of thinking

First the brain takes in bits of information from the outside world through the senses. We could call the various processes involved in this a set of extraverted perceiving functions (Pe).

As the information comes in, the brain has to decide which bits are important or significant. The stuff that is identified as being useful is somehow categorised and put into memory (working or long-term memory, implicit or explicit memory). This internal decision-making process, therefore, involves a set of introverted judging functions (Ji).

Now there needs to be a set of functions for retrieving and combining information stored in our memories as well as monitoring internal states (moods, arousal, etc.). Let’s call these the introverted perceiving functions (Pi).

This internal information is then used to make choices about what to do and say in the outside world. This involves a set of extraverted judging functions (Je).

There’s no way that the human brain is this simplistic in real life. There is a lot of overlap and feedback between the different functions within the brain. For example, when we remember a scene, some of the same bit of our brain light up as when we were actually seeing it (Slotnick, 2004).

However, even this simple model can help us to speculate about possible decision making difficulties that might arise if any of these functions are under-developed or under-utilised. To function effectively in the world, you would have to make use of all of these sets of functions. If any one of them was weak, it could lead to particular types of difficulties.

What could go wrong?

Weak Pe — The person might not notice what is going on around them. They would fail to pick up on feedback from other people or notice the effect they have on others. They might find it hard to take in new information that might change how they think about a particular situation. They are likely to have blind spots.

Weak Ji — This person might have difficulty forming the right sort of memories. They may emphasise things that are trivial and fail to register things that are significant. Perhaps they find it difficult to make sense of what is going on around them. They may not apply useful labels to their memories. For example, many students find it hard to think examples of when they have demonstrated leadership qualities. They often have lots of experiences that could fit the bill, but they haven’t filed those memories in the drawer marked ‘Leadership’.

Weak Pi — This person might have trouble actually remembering what they have done or thought. They could be prone to misremembering events or concepts (but this might be due to prior failings of Pe and Ji to store good memories in the first place).  They may also have a lack of awareness of their own emotional state and find it hard to answer the question ‘How do you feel about this?’

Weak Je — This person is likely to have difficulty making decisions about what to do.  This could lead them to attempt to avoid decisions or to pass the responsibility of making decisions to other people. Alternatively, their decisions may be erratic or inconsistent (although this could be due to erratic or inconsistent information provided by the other functions).

It’s pretty clear these different functions are interrelated, as they feed into each other, so it would be dangerous to assume that any difficulty in decision making is down to just one function not working properly.

Behaviour ranges

Using this model we can also speculate on possible ranges of behaviours. To do that, I’m going to make one more assumption: to function properly a Judging function has to be fed by a Perceiving function. This seems fairly logical as it’s pretty hard to make decisions on no information whatsoever.  (It is possible that a Judging function could fire all on its own without an input, but any output would be completely random and disconnected from reality.)

In some situations, such as when you are learning new things, you will be more reliant on the functions that bring information into your brain and produce memories. (Perceiving-oriented functions: Pe and Ji.)

In other situations, such as when you have to decide what to buy in the shop, you will be placing more emphasis on the functions that remember things and decide what to do (Judging-oriented functions: Pi and Je).

Most people should be able to switch from one orientation to the other as the situational demand changes. However people may have varying degrees of built-in preference for one orientation or the other. Those with a strong preference for Perceiving-oriented functions would be more drawn to behaviours and situations that emphasise observing and experiencing. Those with a strong preference for Judging-oriented functions would be drawn to behaviours and situations that involve deciding and taking action. The stronger the preference, the more likely the person is to have difficulty with the opposite activities.

Perceiving-oriented people are likely to be stimulus or opportunity driven. They may frequently ‘fall into’ jobs because they are less well equipped at making decisions and planning.

Judging-oriented people are likely to be goal driven. They may become a bit blinkered and have difficulty spotting alternatives to their plans.

Rumination and Reaction

Rumination and reaction

Rumination and reaction – two extremes

The rule that a Judging function has to be fed by a Perceiving function allows for another arrangement (see the picture).

It’s possible that the more introverted someone becomes, the more their Introverted Judging (Ji) functions receives input from their Introverted Perceiving (Pi) functions. They recall memories and then re-evaluate them or re-classify them in a process of ruminative restructuring. There have been a number of brain studies that seem to indicate that introverted people tend to have brains that are very active even when there’s no external stimulation (see Stenberg et al., 1990; Kumari et al., 2004). This could indicate that internal perceptions are triggering internal memory making with no need of input from the outside world.

In the same way, increasing extraversion could lead to increasing input from the Extraverted Perceiving (Pe) function into the Extraverted Judging function (Je). Incoming stimuli would provoke automatic reactions with limited reference to previous memories.

Excessive rumination could lead to immobility, analysis paralysis or even depressive symptoms. Not enough new information is coming in and the person gets stuck in a cycle of rehashing and re-evaluating old experiences.

Excessive reaction could lead to erratic, inconsistent and possible manic behaviour because the person is just responding to external stimuli without reference to memories based on previous experience, values  or mental models.

Fast or slow

In the previous post I hinted at the fact that some functions in the brain seem to be geared towards circumstances where speed and efficiency are important (instinctive processes). Other functions are more under our conscious control but operate much more slowly as a result (deliberative processes).

Fuzzy-trace theory was developed by V. Reyna and C.J. Brainerd (1995) to explain anomalies in memories and reasoning processes in children. It suggests that we form different types of memories (or ‘traces’) from our experiences. These range from the detailed and factual ‘verbatim’ memories up through various levels of more abstract ‘fuzzy” memories which extract the ‘gist’ or meaning from the raw data. The evidence seems to indicate that we move from verbatim encoding of memories to gist encoding as we mature and gain more experience.

Krieshok et al. (2009) give an excellent summary of the various bits of theory and neuroscience research that have identified two distinct cognitive processes in humans.

  1. Rational or reflective system — Processing happens explicitly (you are consciously aware of the process). It involves the logical manipulation of abstract concepts, words and numbers. It seems to be suited to novel situations which call for flexible, deliberative thinking.
  2. Intuitive, experiential or reflexive system — Processing happens autonomously, outside conscious awareness (you you may be aware of the results but certainly not the process which produced the result). It involves the use of generalisations, rules and emotional responses derived from past experience. It is a rapid, instinctive process that lends itself to quick responses in familiar situations.

Oh, to be Jung again!

A more complex cognitive model showing deliberative and  instinctive functions

A bit more complex

So, we can take our simple model and divide each set of functions (Pe, Ji, Pi & Je) into two subsets of functions: one deliberative (when accuracy is important in new situations) and one instinctive (when speed is important in familiar situations).

Now we have something which comes close to the Jungian model, as long as we assume that:

  • Sensing (S) represents the set of deliberative Perceiving functions involved in the encoding or recalling of verbatim or concrete memories.
  • Intuition (N) represents the set of instinctive Perceiving functions involved in the encoding or recalling of gist or abstract memories.
  • Thinking (T) represents the set of deliberative Judging functions involved in the conscious, rational processing of information from explicit memories.
  • Feeling (F) represents the set of instinctive Judging functions involved in the non-conscious, reactive processing of experience-based generalisations from implicit memory.

OK, even though I’ve used the names of Jung’s functions, the concepts I have linked them to are not exactly the same as Jung’s ideas, but it’s quite close. What do you think?

This post has gone on longer than I expected, so I think I will finish it here.  I promise I will come back with a third instalment to look at how I use this model to understand clients’ career decision-making issues and help to address them. But I might have a little break and talk about something else first.

Further reading

  • Reyna, V., & Brainerd, C.J. (1995). Fuzzy-trace theory: An interim synthesis. Learning and Individual Differences, 7(1), 1-75 DOI: 10.1016/1041-6080(95)90031-4
  • Miller, P., & Bjorklund, D.F. (1998) Contemplating Fuzzy-Trace Theory: The gist of it. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 71(2), 184-193. DOI: 10.1006/jecp.1998.2471
  • Krieshok, T., Black, M., & McKay, R. (2009) Career decision making: The limits of rationality and the abundance of non-conscious processes. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 75(3), 275-290. DOI: 10.1016/j.jvb.2009.04.006
  • Slotnick, S.D. (2004) Visual memory and visual perception recruit common neural substrates. Behavioral and Cognitive Neuroscience Reviews, 3(4), 207-221. DOI: 10.1177/1534582304274070
  • Stenberg, G., Risberg, J., Warkentin, S. & Rosen, I. (1990) Regional patterns of cortical blood flow distinguish extraverts from introverts. Personality and Individual Differences, 11(7), 663-673. DOI: 10.1016/0191-8869(90)90251-L
  • Kumari, V., ffytche, D.H., Williams, S.C.R. & Gray, J.A. (2004) Personality predicts brain responses to cognitive demands. Journal of Neuroscience, 24(47), 10636-10641 DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3206-04.2004


Related post: Mine! All mine!


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