November 9, 2011

The Intuitive Minority

Many people are skeptical about personality typing systems. Some complain about their over-generality.  Others simply dislike being categorized.  Personally, I have found them very useful for thinking about my own patterns of behaviour. They also help me to understand a person whose style is different from mine, and might otherwise be mystifying.
One of the most commonly used personality typing systems is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) .  It has four parameters with two settings for each: Extraversion vs Introversion (E vs I), Sensing vs Intuition (S vs N), Thinking vs Feeling (T vs F), and Judging vs Perceiving (J vs P).  Each personality type is composed of four letters, one from each pair.  For example, I am an ENTJ (Extraversion-Intuition-Thinking-Judging).
I want to focus in on one of these pairs, Sensing vs Intuition (S vs N).  If you take a look at MBTI type statistics, you will notice that most of the pairings are pretty close to 50-50, with a little bit of skew for T vs F and J vs P, but that there is a very noticeable bias in the S vs N category: 75% of the population are Sensing (S).
With a majority that big on the other side of the divide, it is pretty much guaranteed that anyone in the N camp is going to be perceived as slightly odd relative to the personality norms of society.  If you add N and T together, you get the NT temperament (sometimes known as “Rationals” ), which make up less than 10% of the population.  It is not surprising that some members of this group (especially the introverts) have sometimes been stigmatized as “nerds” by the majority.
The summary explanation of N vs S characteristics is this: the N is more oriented toward abstract ideas, the big picture, the past, the future and general theories of things.  If you need proof that I’m an N, this blog is proof enough: it is characteristic for an N to lump together superficially disparate areas such as, for example, philosophy, software development, and personality system, while presenting them as a coherent subject matter.
The S is a more concrete thinker, deeply rooted in their own direct experience, present circumstances, the nitty-gritty.  They tend to characterize particular things by visible attributes.   They tend not to like the kind of vague categorizations that Ns prefer.  My experience is that S types don’t think that much of personality type systems, except as a kind of game or as handy stereotypes, since they don’t really think in terms of systems and tend to be annoyed by generalization that goes beyond their experience.
Steve Jobs, whose recent passing has caused such a vast cultural effect, was almost certainly an N.  He saw beyond the current situation, persisted through some difficult times (such as the early days when Macs had a very small market share and his NeXT years) by focusing on what could be.  Ironically, he also now appeals to Ss since his vision has become concrete and present in their lives in an obvious way: an S does not argue with clear and present success.
In some ways, I think it makes sense that most people are S.  Paying attention to the here and now pays off more regularly, even though it has less potential to pay off big the way truly original and disruptive vision can.  Intuition is a high risk/high reward proposition. The conditions that make it pay off are more remote and less certain, but the advantage of being ahead of the game when change comes can be enormous.  A society without N would never progress, but a society with too much N might change too fast or fly off in too many directions.
As an N, I have found that understanding that most people don’t think like I do makes me a more effective communicator in practical situations.  For example, when I detect the tell-tale signs of scepticism or confusion when I’m explaining an idea or plan to someone, I find that giving concrete examples with illustrative detail is often a good place to start. (This can help communicate with Ns as well, since another N might want to detect the patterns for themselves in your data.)  When talking to an S, the trick is to choose examples that aren’t too different, to add in “irrelevant” detail for each, and then point out what the shared relevant details are that make the pattern.
To give an example, let’s say you want to make a point about luxury sports cars.  This is a simple enough abstract category that it likely won’t cause much communicative difficulty, but it would nonetheless be more effective to give a specific example, such as mentioning a Porsche, or even a better, a specific model, such as Porsche 911.  The extra detail, which can seem arbitrary to an N, helps to anchor the idea more concretely for an S.  An N’s instinct is to leave the question open, since the particular model doesn’t matter to the point, but for the S choosing an appropriate example with the right specifics does matter.
The flip side of this technique can be used in rapport building or social conversations when you find that the person you are speaking with is giving a lot of specific detail.  Instead of getting bored and tuning out, it can be helpful to pick out a particular detail that sounds interesting to you and ask for more context about it.  To pick up on our previous example, suppose an S is discussing sports cars, most likely mentioning a specific make, the Porsche 911.  You can ask the S what makes that particular make better/worse/special, depending on the context.  To make this more meaningful, you could provide a different specific make as a comparison example.  This helps to make the detail relevant to the N, while also engaging the S in a mode of conversation that is comfortable.
Careful observation of such interactions will lead to better results and more techniques.  Armed with knowledge of this phenomenon, I hope all Ns will learn to better cope in a world in which they are a minority.