Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Personality and the Christian, Part 1: Introduction

One of the more popular series I have posted here is on cognitive bias – understanding how your brain’s mistakes and assumptions can lead us to bad decisions, and how that affects us as Christians.

Along similar lines, personality profiling has always been interesting to me. Although my background is engineering, I actually studied a bit of psychology as an undergraduate, and then organizational psychology as a graduate student. Post-graduation, I have participated in half a dozen personality profiling sessions (of all different kinds) at various companies. From these experiences I have found one set of personality profiles which are really accurate and useful—the Myers-Briggs profile as explained by Dr. Keirsey.

In this series, we will examine the 16 different types of personalities. It is critical to understand how God made you, in order to figure out what He made you to do. As an engineer, I would not make a knife in order to be used as a spoon, or a pot to be used as a footstool. Nor do I think that God makes someone one way and then gives them a mission which is in opposition to the personality that He gave them. As you go through this series, I hope that you learn something about yourself, God, and how to apply personality knowledge to your marriage, your vocation, your spirituality, and your parenting.

Remember – your personality is “fearfully and wonderfully made” by God, and there is nothing to be ashamed of. Embrace who you were made to be, and use it for God’s purposes.

Myers-Briggs-Keirsey Personality Profiling

Before starting this series, it is nice to know what your personality profile is (as well as that of your kids/spouse, if applicable). The best personality profiling system out there is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). From this type, a psychologist named Dr. Keirsey provides the most useful analysis and insight. So I will in this series be combining the typology of MBTI with the analysis of Keirsey.

There are plenty of free MBTI tests you can take online to determine your personality type. But I find that most people can very accurately answer their own personality given the definitions below. So let’s discuss each of the four basic categories below – and you jot down what applies to you.

1. Your Attitude: inward-turning (I) or external-turning (E).
This first description is sometimes called ‘intravert’ and ‘extravert’; I try to avoid those terms because they carry connotations that mislead people.

Essentially, the description of your attitude can be defined by how you generate your energy each day — what re-energizes you out of a rut or after a tiring day. When you need energy and renewal, does that come from internalization (quiet time, ‘decompressing’, prayer) or from external interactions (doing things, talking to people, etc.)?

I find it very useful to consider a scenario. I am an “E”, and my wife is an “I”. This was always very clear when we came home from work. I wanted to talk all about my day: what happened at work, what I read on the internet, what the kids were doing, what our plans were for tomorrow. I craved interaction in order to re-energize myself. My wife, on the other hand, wanted to eat a quiet dinner with her book, or take a candle-lit bath.

You see, I recharge through external interaction, which makes me an extravert or “E”. My wife recharges through quiet time and isolation from the craziness of the world, which makes her an intravert or “I”.

Now, being an “I” does not mean you dislike people or are bad with people, and being an “E” doesn’t mean you are good with people or popular. Instead, it describes how your personal energy level is developed and flows.

2. Receiving information: sensing (S) or intuition (N)
The second part of your personality profile is called your ‘perceiving function’—in other words, how do you bring information into your brain? In this regard, you can be a ‘sensor’ or an ‘intuitor’.

People who gather information through sensing tend to be more trustful of concrete things—what they can see, touch, taste, feel, and hear. They tend to distrust hunches and instead prefer things which have evidence or data. They find theoretical or philosophical discussions to be a bit of a waste of time: the practical is what matters. They learn with their hands and gain pleasure through touch and smell and sight and taste. If learning a new topic in math or science, they tend to want to learn the details first (how to do the problem) and only later does the big picture make sense. As businesspeople, they are more focused on today’s tasks and how to make tactical things better than in looking at the ‘big picture’—which seems like a waste of time, because too many things will change anyway. They learn in “sensing” ways: through pictures or writing or manipulating something with their hands. When studying the Bible, they tend to learn individual concepts rather than overarching interpretational frameworks. What matters to them is the concrete, specific facts of the Bible—not the theory or theological approaches.

On the other hand, intuitive people tend to be “big picture” people. They gather information through abstract theory and philosophical discussion. To understand a complex topic, they must always start with the ‘big picture’ and work down, rather than the details and work up. As scientists they tend toward the theoretical sciences rather than the experimental ones. In math, they need to learn the principles first, and save working the problems for later. As businesspeople, they start with the longterm strategy and then work downward into specific goals and (last of all) metrics to measure performance. When studying the Bible, they first take an interpretive framework and then begin to see how things tie together. What matters to these people is the abstract, the overarching ‘big picture’ that ties things together.

In case you are curious, I am an “N” here. So at this point, if you are scoring at home, I am an “EN”.

3. Processing information: thinking (T) or feeling (F)
The concepts of thinking versus feeling also have connotations. So let me be clear: you can be a “thinker” and still be completely stupid; you can be a “feeler” and still be smart. You can be a “thinker” and be compassionate; you can be a “feeler” and be heartless.

This part of your personality has nothing to do with your skillset for thinking or feeling; it has to do with which ‘filter’ you use when you process the information you have received.

“Thinkers” are people whose primary filter in processing information is logical and rules-based. They process information analytically, comparing the data to other data and the theories to other theories. They judge actions in terms of relationships to policy and procedure, rather than in relationship to the situation. They can be very emotional as well, but the emotions always come later--their primary way of dealing with a situation is always with their head rather than their heart.

By contrast, “feelers” are people whose primary filter in processing information is empathetic and heart-based. They process information by putting themselves in the other person’s shoes and analyzing the situation from their standpoint. They are more relational than analytical. They may still be brilliant, but their first method of dealing with incoming information is on a personal, relationship level.

For example, my best friend at work—who is extremely bright—is a feeler. When he and I are sitting there and a discipline issue is brought up with an employee, we have vastly different first approaches. My initial thought is, “What are the rules, and what were his actions”—in other words, I want to analytically understand the issue with regard to the factual events. His first reaction is, “What is the context? What made you want to do this thing?” So his first approach is to try and understand why someone did something. Thinkers worry about the who and what and when; feelers worry about the why and how.

It is true that men’s neurological wiring makes them tend to fall more on the ‘thinker’ side, and women are wired to be more on the ‘feeling’ side—but it is not exclusive. There is actually a good deal of overlap. I know many ‘feeling’ men, and many ’thinker’ women. And again, remember that it does not mean that you are more or less intelligent—my wife is a “feeler” and yet is one of the brightest people I have ever met; one of my coworkers is a “thinker”, and not at all intelligent.

Another good example for us Christians is to think about giving to the poor. Thinkers will say something like, “It makes sense—God gives to us so we should give to others. Plus, Jesus commands us.” Feelers say something like, “Think about how bad their life is. If it is in our power to do good, we should do good.” We both end at the same compassionate result—but the thinker came at it analytically, while the feeler came at it empathetically.

So, to add to my personality—I am an “ENT”.

4. Lifestyle preference: judging (J) or perceiving (P)
This is sometimes the hardest thing to pin down, because it is often misunderstood. A lot of people say you are a “J” if you are organized and a “P” if you are spontaneous—this is NOT true.

The MBTI profile says that when it comes to your second two letters: S/N or T/F, you have a “default” lifestyle—one of them is more dominant in your life than the other. One of those two is stronger than the others.

So for some people, the “perceiving” aspect of their personality (“S” or “N”) is the dominant force of their lifestyle. They feel very strongly about one or the other. Maybe they are an “S”, and they absolutely hate all theoretical discussions; they want to live in the moment of what they can physically experience. Or maybe they are an “N”, and they are completely absent-minded — the day to day is just not as important to them; their heads are always in the clouds. So the dominant aspect of their personality is how they perceive information—this makes them a “P”.

For others, the “judging” aspect of their personality (“T” or “F”) is the dominant force. They are not just analytical—it is the overarching word to describe them. Or they are not just feelers, but extremely empathetic. This makes them a “J”, because their dominant personality feature is how they analyze the information.

The best way to think about it is this: given your second two letters, how would someone describe you in one word? I am an NT—meaning that I am both analytical (T) and theoretical (N). If people could choose one word of those two words to describe me, the vast majority would say, “analytical”. Thus, my ‘judging’ function is the one that best defines me. My wife is an SF—meaning that she is both practical “S” and a feeler “F”. If you ask most of her friends to describe her, they will focus on the “F” part of her personality—that is, the judging feature.

To make it more clear, find your middle two letters below, and answer the question:
• NT: are you better described as “analytical” or “abstract”? If analytical, you are an NTJ. If abstract, you are an NTP.
• NF: are you better described as “empathetic” or “abstract”? If analytical, you are an NFJ. If abstract, you are an NFP.
• ST: are you better described as “analytical” or “practical”? If analytical, you are an STJ. If practical, you are an STP.
• SF: are you better described as “empathetic” or “practical”? If empathetic, you are an SFJ. If practical, you are an SFP.

So if you completed the above, you should know your personality. Mine is: ENTJ. This tells you a lot about me: I recharge by interactions with people; I gather information in theoretical/abstract ways; I process information analytically; and the dominant aspect of my personality is how I process information rather than how I perceive it.

As we shall see once we get into the profiling, knowing these things can tell us a tremendous amount about how to find joy, fulfill your God-desired vocation, identify ministries, and have strong relationships in the home.

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