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Understanding the MBTI?

In the MBTI™ there are four preferences scales –

Extraversion     Introversion
Sensing            iNtuition
Thinking           Feeling
Judgment         Perception

The questions in the Indicator are all either/or questions. They are deliberately designed to help us reveal which side of the scale we prefer. For example, do we prefer extraversion (E) over introversion (I) or thinking (T) over feeling (F)?  Preferences are expressed by the appropriate letter. As these preferences can combine in 16 different ways (e.g. ESTJ, INFP, ISTP etc) there are 16 different personality types described by the MBTI.

The concept of 'preference'

To understand what the MBTI is all about we must understand the concept of preference. When people are being introduced to the MBTI it is common to use a simple exercise to bring home what the concept of preference really means. This involves signing your name with the hand you normally use – the dominant or preferred hand - and then signing your name with your weak or non-preferred hand. If you have never done this then you might want to try it now.

People generally report that when they write with their preferred hand they don’t have to think about it. It seems comfortable, natural, automatic. Writing with the other hand, even if all that’s required is a simple signature, is a different story. Unless we are one of the few naturally ambidextrous folk around, we find writing with our weak hand awkward and exhausting and can only do so if we concentrate exclusively on the task. We feel we are going against the grain.

Handedness helps us think about MBTI preferences as it illustrates:

  • These types of preferences aren’t chosen by us. They are just part of who we are as a person.
  • Having a preference doesn’t mean we always choose to do things a certain way. For example, if we are right handed we still use our left hand for tasks such as changing gear in a car.
  • We have lots of latent ability in our non-preferred hand and can use it adequately if we have to, as is the case if we are in an accident.

Everyone uses all the preferences

Just as everyone uses both hands in normal life, even though one hand may be dominant, so too do we all use the MBTI preferences in the course of a normal day. So you can see why finding our true preferences can be difficult. We can’t ask ourselves “do I always do this and never do that” to understand our own preferences. In fact, sometimes in a person’s daily life, their career choice or domestic commitments, mean he or she may be using non-preferred ways of doing things lots of the time because that’s what their work or home life dictates.

Not everyone has clear preferences

It must always be borne in mind that some people do not have clear preferences. As we shall argue later, however, this is not always an advantage.


© Carol Craig

MBTI, Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries; OPP Ltd. has exclusive rights to these trademarks in the U.K.

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