Science Feature: Friends and Lovers

Posted Monday, January 2nd, 2012 10:00 am GMT -4 by

You may have first learned your Myers-Briggs personality-type indicator (MBTI) through work. Perhaps you went for a job and they gave you a battery of psychometric tests; or maybe there was a team-building or personal development program and the instructor told you about the different personality types – usually they tell you it’s about how to get the best out of people.

Personality types are real and also say a lot about your friendships and relationships. Before we get deeper into this, you may need to discover your own personality type – take an assessment here.

Your personality type will be four letters: for example, my MBTI is INTP. In the Myers-Briggs theory (based on the work of Dr Carl Jung) people perceive the world primarily either through concepts (iNtuition) or real-world sensory input (Sensing); they act towards the world either in an objective, systematizing way (Thinking, or Tough-Minded) or in a values-driven, relationship-oriented way (Feeling).

The four cognitive functions, N, S, T, F are present in all of us, but in different priority orders of importance. Additionally, each of these functions can be either directed at the world (extraverted) or directed inwardly, (introverted). The sixteen psychological types of the MBTI represent different possible orderings and directions of the cognitive functions.

As an example, let’s take a look at the INTP personality type. Many researchers, programmers, designers, architects, and SF fans fall into this category: as do I. Here is the map of cognitive functions explained as it applies to me.


My dominant function is Ti, introverted Thinking, which means an orientation to theorizing, modeling, looking for patterns, spotting inconsistencies. You don’t see this because it’s interiorized, introverted, but ask yourself: why else am I writing this stuff?

The Ne is extraverted iNtuition which you do see … as the generation of creative new ideas in response to here-and-now stuff: present situation, conversation etc.

The tertiary Si is introverted Sensation, corresponding to memories, past experiences and stored knowledge. This is less central in driving my interior life but forms a backcloth to the Thinking function. Again, you don’t see it directly.

The Fe is extraverted Feeling which you do see: a kind of rather unsophisticated camaraderie used in engaging with others. Let’s not short-change myself here: there is a certain amount of warmth but it’s subservient to stronger internal masters.

So what this amounts to is that the interior Ti provides the hidden core of my personality-processes, backed up with Si, while the external public form or wrapping is provided by an ideas-oriented, affable persona NeFe.

The functions 5-8, my conscious orientations operating in their non-preferred way, are both weak in influence and unconscious. They are collectively called “the Shadow” and might manifest themselves in my behavior if I lost control of myself. People might say things like “He behaved totally out of character,” and it’s a possible defense in a court of law (let’s hope it never comes to that).

Now we understand the structure of the psyche we can use it to chart relationships. It’s well-known both from everyday experience (‘birds of a feather flock together’) and psychological research that friends are of a similar type. The reason is that their cognitive functions line up.

INTP talks to INTP

Suppose we get two INTPs talking to each other … it works surprisingly well.

When an INTP meets another INTP they have a shared interior life of systems building and theorizing. They both delight in the generation of ideas and the exploration of consequences, and they both share a general affability. The arrows go across horizontally.

They may enjoy a chat but do they care much about each other as people? No, not so much: that Fe function is the inferior function and is not much of a driver in the psyche. So the relationship is rather un-rooted and superficial.

Common wisdom has it than in romantic relationships, opposites attract. Psychological research backs that up, with the proviso that NTs and NFs seem to have a special bond, as do SPs and SJs.

INTP talks to INFP

These two types are close to my heart as my wife is INFP. Her dominant process is Fi which in plain English describes an internal drive for positive ethical outcomes, harmony and spirituality.

Note where that is in my list! And note where logical, systematizing Ti is in hers!

So the model predicts that we have common ground in ideas, concepts and shared experiences. But if my logical analysis and her moral values come into conflict we’re going to struggle to resolve things. And neither of us is much driven by Se, which you can read as either a lack of concern for the minutiae of the world around us, or as no common sense whatsoever: in the conversational domain, Se equates to small talk and we both conspicuously lack that.

Nothing is more pleasant than to be in the company of someone with natural warmth, which in MBTI terms is Fe dominant and extraverted. For us poor INTP-INFP couples, extraverted Fe has been pushed down into the subconscious – what a shame!

INTP talks to ISFP (or not)

Not all communication is so fluid. Here’s a case where an INTP talks to an ISFP – the diagram shows that the two people have no conscious functions in common. The INTP’s interest in organizing concepts meets the ISFP’s interest in relationship-oriented small talk. Wow!

This diagram is especially poignant because my mother is ISFP.

DIY relationship analysis

If you want to analyze your own friendships and romantic relationships get a sheet of lined paper and use the table below to chart your own and your friend/partner’s cognitive functions. Draw the arrows and prepare for insight into what works and what doesn’t work for the two of you.

Further Reading

This article is based on Linda Berens’ highly insightful Dynamics of Personality Type. There are many, many books on the market which explain personality type and the best to get started is Isabel Briggs Myers’ classic Gifts Differing.