Knowing Yourself & Others: A Self-Reflection for Memorial Day Weekend
Memorial Day reminds us to stop and reflect, to remember, but also to resolve. We have been gifted with tremendous freedom, but how do we continue to live wisely and well? Today, we’re going to focus on a tool that grew out of two global conflicts, and that has helped millions of people to better connect with each other at a fundamentally human level.
So, what is this mysterious resource? And how can we use it to honor the men and women who have sacrificed, and continue to sacrifice, so much on our behalf?
(Bear with us, because the answer is a bit convoluted…)
Back in the Beginning: Diagnosing Personality
People have been trying to figure each other out from the beginning—why does he do that? How can I make her notice me? How do I persuade them to follow me?
Even very ancient manuscripts from Egypt, India, and Mesopotamia hint at answers to these questions—suggesting that we aren’t just individuals, but that human behavior follows a handful of predictable patterns. But the first organized system of personality diagnostic can be traced the Greek philosopher Alcmaeon of Croton and to the physician Hippocrates (yes, the dude with the oath), who adapted Croton’s concept for medical diagnosis. To be clear, these systems were very primitive, but they were the first step in a critical journey of human understanding.
Basically, Hippocrates thought that all people have four humors (blood, yellow bile, phlegm, and black bile), and that each person would have a dominant humor which would affect his or her personality.
Blood (Sanguine Temperament): active, social, charismatic and enthusiastic. Sanguines can easily be distracted and are rarely peaceful. They are natural risk-takers and adventurers.
Yellow Bile (Choleric Temperament): independent, goal-oriented, ambitious, and decisive. Cholerics are easily angered, and can be violently vengeful. Natural leaders.
Black Bile (Melancholic Temperament): analytical, detail-oriented, and deeply thoughtful. Melancholics can easily become depressed and withdrawn. They are natural perfectionists.
Phlegm (Phlegmatic Temperament): relaxed, sympathetic, peaceful, quiet, and easy-going. Phlegmatics can also be lazy, excessively abstracted, and fearful of conflict. They are natural peacemakers.
In a rudimentary sense, the humors were simplified descriptions of chemical hormones. Unfortunately, the Medieval physicians didn’t know much about how hormones worked (and even less about how the brain works), and so they developed a nasty habit of poisoning and bleeding various patients to death, in various attempts to “balance the humors.” (For most of the Middle Ages, visiting a doctor would actually decrease your life expectancy.)
But if you fast-forward to the late 19th century (when the field of psychology was just coming into being, but horrifying Medieval medicine was long a thing of the past), the early psychologists were once again fascinated by the idea that human personalities could be grouped into predictable clusters.
Yet, all of this research took on a new urgency when the advent of WWI made it obvious that advances in human technology would enable conflict at a truly unprecedented scale. Could psychology develop mechanisms to diffuse conflict faster than humans could invent weapons of global destruction?
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung theorized that all people can be grouped into eight underlying personality types. According to him, people primarily rely on one of four functions of consciousness (sensation, intuition, thinking, and feeling), each modified by one of two attitude types (extroversion or introversion). He published his theory in 1921, and while parts of it became influential, the combinations weren’t strong enough to be more comprehensively compelling.
The Myers-Briggs “16 Personalities” Test
But while Jung was developing his theories in Europe, the American scholar Katharine Briggs was busily writing treatises on children’s education and theories of social development. In 1917, she created a vocation test that would help children to identify their best educational trajectory. Initially, she focused on four categories: meditative types, spontaneous types, executive types, and sociable types, but she knew that the theory needed a stronger underlying framework.
In 1923, Briggs found Jung’s treatise, and combined it with her own findings to fully pursue a comprehensive theory of human personality types. Through years of observation, interviews, discussion, and research, she reworked Jung’s ideas into new constellations. But again, global events added fresh urgency to this groundbreaking psychological research.
With the advent of WWII, Katharine’s daughter Isabel joined her mother in trying to define and validate critical personality types. As part of that work, Isabel created a test that would help match volunteers to critical war-related jobs, but their focus was still overwhelmingly on the pursuit of something more fundamental. And, by 1945, Myers and Briggs were ready to test the first version of what would become the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
Because the test was designed to help people better understand both themselves and each other, the MBTI very helpfully focuses on four issues that are hotspots for personal conflict:
When you are physically and emotionally exhausted, how do you recharge your energy?
Extrovert (E): Energized by human interaction. (“When I’m stressed, I go down to the pub and blow off steam with my fifty closest friends.”)
Introvert (I): Energized by solitude. (“When I’m stressed, I settle down in a quiet place with a good book, a cushy chair, and a glass of wine.”)
When you look at the world, how do you interpret information?
Sensor (S): The world is discoverable, measurable, and concrete. (You say, “time;” I think, “right now, the clock says that it’s 10:52am.”)
Intuitive (N): The world is infinite, mutable, and subjective. (You say, “time;” I think, “cycles of life and rebirth.”)
When you experience conflict, how do you initially react?
Feeler (F): Initially reacts by emotionally relating to all of the characters involved in the conflict. (“I have to fire Elizabeth, but I know how hard that will be on her family.”) An F may then intellectually strategize about how to resolve a problem so that it’s emotionally satisfying. (“How can I cushion the transition and maximize Elizabeth’s chances of landing a new job quickly?”)
Thinker (T): Initially relates by intellectually evaluating the situation, for which the characters are important factors. (“The quality of Elizabeth’s work is below standard, and she’s holding back the team as a whole. I need to replace her, if we’re going to meet our annual goals.”) A T may then consider emotions as an intellectual factor but is more likely to think in utilitarian terms. (“It’s more important to prioritize the wellbeing of the team than the wellbeing of the individual.”)
When you look to the future, how do you plan?
Judger (J): Plans meticulously, accounting for as many variables as possible. (“While I’m in Paris, I want to be sure to see all twelve of the top tourist sites, so I need to choose a centrally located hotel and budget my time wisely.”)
Perceiver (P): Reacts spontaneously, flexibly adapting to new variables. (“I’m buying an open-ended Eurail pass, so that I can see where the adventure takes me!”)
Your answers in each of these categories determine your overall categorization (for example, ENTJ or ISFP). As Myers and Briggs started to give these tests to larger numbers of people, they were also able to draw inferences about each of the sixteen different personality constellations. An ISTJ, for example, is more likely to choose a career in research science, while an ENFP might be happier as a travelling stand-up comedian.
So, what is the value of such a test?
Throughout, their goal was to figure out how to connect people at a fundamentally human level—beyond nationality, race, class, religion, or gender. By helping people to better understand themselves and each other, Myers and Brigges were able to improve patterns of communication, so that people who study the MBTI are better equipped to appreciate their own strengths and weaknesses, and to avoid unnecessary conflict.
In fact, this mother-daughter team was so successful that the Myers-Briggs test is still widely used in any arena where humans are likely to come into conflict. For example, the MBTI is frequently used as a tool in marriage counseling…because it turns out that people who plan vacations down to the second (“We will depart at 0800 hours, and arrive at the theme park by 0934.”) tend to marry people who are die-hard spontaneous (“Are you doing anything this weekend? Want to go to Mexico?”) And this test was designed to give them language to bridge that gap. Instead of asking something confrontational like “Why are you always such a killjoy/flake?” you can more productively ask “How important is it that we go to Mexico?/be there at exactly 9:34?” By encouraging us to understand both our own personality type and the broad personality categories, Myers and Briggs invite us to find value in our different perspectives and to appreciate the fact that we’re not all wired in quite the same way.
The Future of the MBTI
However, Myers and Briggs also discovered that not all of the types were strongly fixed: while some people are very strong in one category or another, other people fall closer to the middle. (“When I’m stressed out, I might recharge by throwing an intimate dinner party for a few close friends, or I might recharge by spending time working in the garden, but I won’t mind if the neighborhood kids come to help dig in the dirt.”) And, as people mature, they often adopt type-behavior that they might initially find counterintuitive. (For example, if a strong Perceiver doesn’t want to starve, he might need to develop some concrete time-management and financial-planning skills. Conversely, if a strong Judger doesn’t want to have a heart attack at thirty, he might need to accept that he can’t control absolutely everything.) Because of that, contemporary MBTI practitioners, have begun to refer to Myers-Briggs categories as “traits” rather than “types,” because “trait” suggests a quality that’s a bit more mutable.
And while the bones of the test remain the same, the MBTI has continued to evolve long after the deaths of the founders. Most recently, the MBTI group added a fifth personality dynamic that addresses the question: “When you evaluate yourself, how confident are you in the decisions that you’ve made?” Assertive types are confident in themselves, more even-tempered and resistant to stress, but also less motivated to overcome perceived failures. Turbulent types are more volatile, and more prone to self-doubt, but also likely to push themselves much harder to achieve success. And if you know where you fall on that spectrum—you might find that you understand some of your key decisions better.
In other words, the better you know yourself, the better you can adapt—maximizing your strengths, and compensating for your weaknesses. And the better you know others, the more persuasive (and compassionate) you’ll be when you’re evaluating their decisions.
If you want to discover your Myers-Briggs type, you can take the test for free at: https://www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test.
This particular legacy grew out of war, but it was designed to promote healing—so let this Memorial Day also remind us to commit to the future while we honor the past.