Breaking Down MBTI Personality Types
Obligatory Note: I’m not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or licensed anything. This is just something that interests me, and is written and presented to the best of my understanding. I’ve found it incredibly useful in my life, but naturally, you should do your own research too.
I started reading about personality types in earnest starting sometime last year. I started with, and still focus on, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality types because it’s what I had heard about most often growing up and it seemed easy enough to get into. Turns out, it’s actually a lot more complex than I expected. But, there’s also some handy building blocks to the system that make it easier to conceptualize types if you don’t like memorizing things. Which made it exactly what I wanted.
This post is not going to go into great detail with each personality type. Instead, I want to focus on the cognitive functions that build each type, and a little about what they mean and how they work in theory. If you want detailed descriptions about personality types, I recommend starting with Personality Junkie’s Type Profiles.
So what are cognitive functions? They’re basically the building blocks of your mental processes; they outline how you think. In MBTI models, every person possesses four out of the possible eight cognitive functions based on their type, and also has a preferred order and method in which they use them.
There are four functions, and each can have an attitude focusing it outward (extroversion) or inward (introversion). Often, the function and attitude together is referred to as a cognitive function as well, and I’ll be referring to them as such through most of this post.
So first, let’s talk about the four functions, then I’ll move on to attach their attitudes afterward.
Thinking – Makes decisions based on reasoning or empirical information.
Feeling – Makes decisions based on values and emotion, whether their own or those of society.
Intuition – Takes in information by recognizing patterns, unconscious synthesis of other information, and putting the pieces together.
Sensing – Takes in information directly by observing it through the five senses.
Now, let’s add in some attitudes to flesh these out a bit more. You’ll see why this is important soon. I’ll explain judging and perceiving shortly below, but just know the labels are included here for a reason.
Extroverted Thinking (Te) – Makes decisions based on systems in the world and empirical evidence. Hard sciences, bureaucracy, and even MBTI are examples of such systems.
Introverted Thinking (Ti) – Makes decisions based on a carefully crafted internal logic that looks for accuracy based on reasoning. If Te is inclined to science, Ti would be inclined to philosophy.
Extroverted Feeling (Fe) – Makes decisions based on maintaining harmony amongst the group, often looks toward the greater social good.
Introverted Feeling (Fi) – Makes decisions based on core internal values, making sure to be true to themselves.
Extroverted iNtuition (Ne) – Perceives the world by trying and exploring and experimenting. Every new experience provides new information about the world.
Introverted iNtuition (Ni) – Perceives the world by synthesizing currently available information and forming it into a specific vision or perspective on the world or situation. Often directed toward the future.
Extroverted Sensing (Se) – Perceives the world directly through the five senses.Is focused on concrete information in the present.
Introverted Sensing (Si) – Perceives the world by remembering experiences so they can be called upon in the present. Often directed past to present.
It’s incredibly important to note that these are very simplified descriptions of each function, to give you a brief summary and jumping off point. You’ll definitely want to read more about cognitive functions from more detailed sources over time to get a better understanding of them. I really like Personality Hacker’s article on cognitive functions. That said, be aware this is also partially them explaining why they use different “nicknames” for cognitive functions as well. Still, I found it to be a nice, accessible way to learn more about them when I was starting out.
Now, lets start putting all of this together. In MBTI, the idea is that each personality type primarily uses four of the eight cognitive functions – this doesn’t mean that traits of a given function don’t exist in a person if they aren’t part of their “stack,” but the traits related to the four that a type possesses will be the most noticeable and best understood, with the first two functions being a person’s favorite to make use of.
Not only does each type have four functions, but four very specific functions; one introverted judging, one extroverted judging, one introverted perceiving, and one extroverted perceiving. Judging functions are how a type makes decisions, and what they base those decisions on. Perceiving functions are how a type takes in and synthesizes information about the world. So we have one function for making decisions based on internal information, one for making decisions based on external information, one for perceiving internal information, and one for perceiving external information.
One other important thing is that the order of the functions is very important. The first function is considered the dominant function, the second the auxiliary function, the third the tertiary function, and the fourth the inferior function. The dominant function is a person’s most preferred way of thinking. It is supported by the auxiliary function, and together these first two will provide one perceiving and one judging function, along with one introverted and one extroverted function.
These first two together give a person the tools they need to function in the world both inwardly and outwardly, as well as to perceive the world and decide what to do in the world. These are a person’s preferred functions, and most people will think in a manner consistent with these functions when possible.
From here, these two are further supported by the tertiary and inferior functions. The tertiary and inferior functions provide alternative means of making decisions and perceiving the world, and can be used to either supplement the dominant and auxiliary, or to deal with situations that a person’s preferred functions are ill equipped to deal with. These are not a person’s preferred way of thinking however, so it can be draining to use them in this way for too long. They are often less developed, especially earlier in life, though some types, particularly idealists who seek wholeness of self, tend to try to develop these parts of themselves when they are able.
So now, I’m going to break down each type by their functions, then go over this in a bit more detail. You may also notice I’ve sorted them by Kiersey’s Temperaments if you’re familiar with his work or MBTI. This will be useful later too.
SJ, Introverted Sensors, Guardians:
ESTJ – Te Si Ne Fi
ESFJ – Fe Si Ne Ti
ISTJ – Si Te Fi Ne
ISFJ – Si Fe Ti Ne
SP, Extroverted Sensors, Artisans:
ESTP – Se Ti Fe Ni
ESFP – Se Fi Te Ni
ISTP – Ti Se Ni Fe
ISFP – Fi Se Ni Te
NF, Intuitive Feelers, Idealists:
ENFP – Ne Fi Te Si
ENFJ – Fe Ni Se Ti
INFP – Fi Ne Si Te
INFJ – Ni Fe Ti Se
NT, Intuitive Thinkers, Rationals:
ENTP – Ne Ti Fe Si
ENTJ – Te Ni Se Fi
INTP – Ti Ne Si Fe
INTJ – Ni Te Fi Se
Now, the next thing to recognize is the functions follow a certain pattern with each type, and this can help you easily work out the functions for any type. Then, if you know the functions for a type, you can get a basic feel for how they think. Combining that with Kiersey’s temperaments will give you a decent basic overview of a person based on their type. Or, to put the pieces together to make a reasonable guess at someone’s type if you know a bit about them already.
Let’s take my type, INFP, as an example. First, the I tells us that my dominant function is introverted. This means I lead with an introverted function. All stacks alternate introverted and extroverted functions, so we start with this pattern here:
i e i e
Next, the P means I’m a perceiver. What this means is that my preferred extroverted function is a perceiving function. Because my extroverted function is the second, or auxiliary, function, this will tell us my second function. In this case, that’s the N for intuition. This gives us the following:
i Ne i e
Next, my other preferred function, F for feeling, goes in the other open spot at the top of my stack. In this case, that’s the introverted dominant function. Let’s see where that puts us:
Fi Ne i e
Now, we pair these functions with their opposites. The second function pairs with the third, and the first pairs with the fourth. Ne pairs with Si, and Fi pairs with Te. Also worth noting, for other types, is that Ni pairs with Se, and Fe pairs with Ti. Knowing these opposite pairings, we get the following final stack:
Fi Ne Si Te
It’s worth noting that for introverts, whether you’re a judger or a perceiver tells you your second, or auxilary, function since judging and perceiving refers to the function you show others. For extroverts, where you fall on the judging or perceiving axis will tell you your first, or dominant, function, since extroverts will have their extroverted function as their dominant function. For both types, your other preferred function will then fill the role of the introverted function. And from there, you can pair them with their opposites to finish the stack.
Let’s do one more example to try and show this point. This time, I’ll break down the stack of the ESFJ.
Starting out, the ESFJ is an extroverted type. As such, we’ll begin with this pattern:
e i e i
Next, the ESFJ is a judging type. This means that they extrovert their preferred judging function, F for feeling. This leads us to the following:
Fe i e i
Now, we know the other preferred function they have is S for Sensing. This fills the other preferred spot in their stack, giving us this:
Fe Si e i
Now, like before, we pair the preferred functions with their opposites. This gives us the result:
Fe Si Ne Ti
This works for all sixteen personality types. You can also do this in reverse, if you can determine the ways a person prefers to think or sees the world, by pairing how they think with their cognitive functions, then extrapolating their type from that.
The reason recognizing this pattern is so useful is that you don’t have to memorize descriptions of types. You can just remember the pattern for determining the functions of a type, and remember what each function covers in terms of a person’s preferences.
Now, one other useful thing is recognizing Kiersey’s Temperaments. While the functional stack covers how a person processes information and makes decisions internally, the temperaments covers more how that thought process manifests externally. So let’s go over the temperaments here.
Guardians (SJs): Guardians tend to value responsibility and stability. They tend to trust authority and care about tradition and community.
Artisans (SPs): Artisans tend to strongly value freedom to do as they will at any given moment. They tend to be hands on, and skilled with physical tasks.
Idealists (NFs): Idealists tend to value unique identities and seek a sense of purpose in the world. They tend to be cooperative, avoid conflict, and express empathy for others.
Rationals (NTs): Rationals tend to value intelligence and logical consistency. They focus on learning about the the world as it is now and seek to create progress from there.
And like many earlier parts of this article, this is greatly simplified. For in depth information about the temperaments, I’d check out Kiersey.com’s Overview of the Four Temperaments.
So now, by looking at a type’s temperament and the make up of their functions, you can begin to piece together a reasonable model of someone’s thought processes along with their expression of that thought process. Of course, this is still a model; people have unique personalities, and no one will perfectly fit in a box by type. But this model can be helpful in seeing more about how you think, and how you may interact with others who think the same as you or differently from you. It can also, if you aren’t already aware of them, help you find where your blind spots may be in tandem with more in depth information on personality types, so you can use it as a tool to better develop yourself as a person if you so choose. It can also just be fun to see how well it matches up.