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Personality Types

A few years ago, completely out of the blue, I got an email from someone who said it was obvious from my essays that I was an INTP. I was pretty impressed by that … I'd taken some kind of Myers-Briggs test in the past, and indeed, that's how it had turned out. What I was really amazed by, though, was the link ve sent, to a profile of what a typical INTP is like. It was long and detailed, and most of the details were exactly right.

Actually, I wasn't just amazed, I was also disturbed. Somewhere along the line, I'd become quite skeptical of personality tests, thinking of them as little more than horoscopes; but there I was, looking at an accurate and detailed description of myself. The skepticism of personality tests was well entrenched, but the existence of the profile was a plain fact; the tension between these two strong ideas powered a furious burst of mental activity. I imagine you know the feeling … you turn the ideas over and over, and generate all kinds of crazy auxiliary ideas, looking for a configuration where everything fits together and makes sense. (I still don't know if that conflict of ideas is properly called cognitive dissonance, but if it's not, it should be.) As an example of a crazy idea, I remember considering the possibility that the whole thing was a prank.

A more interesting possibility is that I was experiencing a selection effect … that by chance I happened to match the profile unusually well. If you pick a random number between 1 and 1000, and let a thousand people try to guess it, someone will probably get it right, and be disturbed by it. Other outcomes are possible, too. If you talk to lottery winners, they probably aren't disturbed, they're just fully convinced that they have a system that works; and similarly for most gambling, and for ill-informed stock trading.

That's not the idea-configuration I eventually settled into, though. Suppose we classify people along many different axes, so that each person is a point in some N-dimensional space of personalities. Will the points be distributed evenly over the space? Of course not! There will certainly be some kind of structure (clusters, filaments, walls, etc.), and that structure will represent real personality types and subtypes. Those real types won't be laid out in a convenient 2×2×2×2 grid à la Myers-Briggs; but if the volume that gets classified as INTP happens to contain just one cluster, well, that wouldn't be too surprising, would it?

Another thing that makes that view plausible is that INTP is a relatively rare type. The frequency, according to the profile, is 1%, much less than the average of 6.25% (1/16). If the real personality types were all clusters of the same size, that would yield about a hundred types, which sounds a lot better to me than having exactly sixteen. Actually, the rareness all by itself could explain everything. Even if the space of personalities doesn't have much structure, if you slice it up into small enough pieces, you can still say something pretty specific about each piece.

Anyway, that's enough generalities, now let's have some fun and walk through the profile. I'll point out several things that are very true, a few things that are false, and a few others that I just want to comment on. Everything else is more or less true, so you can judge for yourself whether the profile is accurate and detailed.

For here is the central goal of the INTP: to understand and seek truth.

I wouldn't say I seek truth, because I don't think there is such a thing—truth is not an element of reality. See Words Are Not Reality for more about that. Still, the basic idea is correct; see The Good for more about that.

Indeed, most primary interests of an INTP are things which he cannot fully understand, usually because they are highly complex or have some exotic, mystical element that does not yield to analysis.

You have to watch out for those mystical elements, they're a disease; see the quotation from Virus of the Mind toward the end of Religion.

The Ti-Ne axis leads to a curious overriding desire to observe from a detached position, …

Yup … that's objectivity. By the way, I don't understand all the talk about axes and functions, so I just gloss over those parts.

He may analyse his own thought processes as if his mind and body were separate from his conscious self. In wanting to understand his reactions to things, he may treat himself, even his own thoughts, as subjects for experiment.

Yes, exactly; see The Mind.

INTP's put great weight on being individuals and essentially different from other people, who they often view as being too alike and too interdependent.

I don't know if I put great weight on it, but it's certainly something I think about; see On Being Different.

Independence, derived primarily from strongly introverted Thinking, leads to perhaps the most difficult aspect (for others) of the INTP, namely stubbornness. If an INTP is pushed into doing something he will automatically resist. … He must be given the chance to reach an independent decision, approving or rejecting the action. … The best way to get an INTP to do something is to suggest the idea as an option and let him sleep on it.

All too true.

Taking things out of context is the chief source of humour and many an INTP is a Monty Pythonite.

It's … Monty Python's Flying Circus! I thought this point was remarkably specific.

They feel a distinct unease before most fixed appointments and cannot fully relax until the scheduled event is over, or at least in progress. … The source of the unease is simply the feeling that a planned schedule inhibits and robs the INTP of freedom.

For me, the problem with fixed appointments is that they cast a shadow backward in time and interfere with everything, even beyond the travel time and the time spent gathering what I need to bring. Even if I set an alarm, I can't help thinking about the upcoming appointment and being distracted by it. If I'm already working on something, it won't be the best work; and if I'm not already working, it's basically pointless to try and start. The hour before an appointment is often a complete waste.

The hour after is also often a waste, as I try to get back up to speed on whatever I was doing.

Air travel is an extreme case of the same thing … a whole series of little appointments one after the other. I'm so useless then, I might as well be packed into a box and shipped.

So, I wouldn't say that I feel some mysterious unease about appointments, I'd say that appointments are as a matter of fact quite disruptive.

One-to-one conversation is preferred in almost every situation.

It took me a long time to discover and accept that.

Generally, INTPs have a very strong requirement to keep their external, social world as simple and as uncluttered as they can so that they can focus as much energy as possible on their internal world of system analysis and theoretizing.


When an INTP lives alone, his home is usually spartan and utility-oriented.


Objects which lie unmoved for more than about 48 hours usually become invisible to the INTP, until such time as he has a use for them again.

I'd never stepped back and formulated the idea, but I'm very familiar with the effect. It's presented in the profile as kind of a feature, but in my experience it's more of a bug. For example, if I leave a videotape by the front door so that I'll remember to return it (see Association), it's very easy to stop noticing it after a few days, even if it's there in plain sight by itself.

Also, for what it's worth, I am in fact very tidy, with a place for everything and everything in its place, except in a few well-defined areas of clutter. The clutter consists of things I'm working on and of glue that I don't have a place for.

The net result of this concern for past experiences and of mood/atmosphere is that INTPs belong centrally to those types referred to as melancolic. The INTP melancolic is typically drawn to wild polar expanses, to mountain ranges and all places on the edges of civilisation.

Even now I don't see the connection between being melancholic and liking wilderness, but both points are definitely true.

Because the present is inextricably linked to a sense of the past, INTPs tend to hoard items which help solidify the connection to the past. They find it very difficult to let go of anything they have collected (or indeed created) and which may have a nostalgic meaning.

I can't even begin to tell you how true this is! I've mostly got it under control, in that I can avoid attaching sentiment to new objects, but objects from when I was young can still produce unbelievably strong feelings. Actually, “control” is probably the wrong word … more likely I've just fossilized, so that it takes a lot longer to form the necessary memories and associations.

The curious problem with any collection of an INTP is that he typically fails to enjoy it in the here and now. Items are stored away so that they can evoke this time at some point in the future, but such a point often never occurs.

Or, to put it another way, it already makes me happy to know that the objects are there, accessible; I don't need to look at them to enjoy them.

The one place the profile really misses the mark, for me, is in the discussion of photography and music. I do like to take pictures of things sometimes, especially on trips, but I don't care about the technical details at all. Music isn't a big interest, either. Sometimes I'll listen to some while doing other things, but then I'll forget and not listen to anything for months. See also Where's the Music?.


  See Also

  Story of My Room, The

@ November (2006)