Saturday, March 25, 2006

Against Personality Stereotyping

Every once in awhile (and always too often) I hear someone or oneself described in a serious of four letters. This is from a personality test, the Myers-Briggs, which is Jungian in its assumptions. Jung's psychology is not to be trusted for many reasons (first and foremost because he was a gnostic), but I absolutely rebel against personality typecasting. We are individuals, not abstractions, which are created by so-called experts who have never met us. This personality stereotyping goes very deep in American culture: ministries use these tests, as do many other organizations. It is but another attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, to make the qualitative and unique into a faceless category to be manipulated and processed by pundits.

Yes, there are broad generalizations that can be made about people, but often they are constricting. For years, I viewed myself as an introvert. That is, until someone challenged that view after noting my behavior in a group. It turns out that he (Jim Howard, thank you) was right. I enjoy the presence of people, or at least the right kind of people, although I also need time alone, especially to study. I don't fear being alone; but I don't dislike certain social settings either. So hang the "introvert" and "extrovert" categories--as well as strings of letters to describe individuals made in the divine image. This labeling another sad case of a technology usurping the need for spiritual discernment--testing the character of oneself and others--which comes through conversations, prayer, and just being-with another qua another, not the other as the instantiation of an abstract category dreamed up by a psychologist or psychiatrist. I am a human being. Do not label me--or anyone else, especially in psychological categories. Think up your adjectives after divining the character of your neighbor (if you can). If not, hold your peace.


Michael Russell said...

Since I've used and still use (infrequently), as well as having taught, the MBTI I'll take a shot at explaining it's practical use and purpose. Not that I expect it will change anyone's mind but - hey! - everything is vacuous anyway, is it not?

Knowing whether you're an introvert vs. extrovert, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, or judging/perceiving has at least a few worthy applications.

But, by way of introduction, knowing your alphabet soup is like knowing if you're right- or left-handed. That's all. There are, however, advantages to knowing your preferences - and preference is all we're talking about here.

When I've taught classes on the MBTI, I begin by having everyone write their names on the front of their notebook. When they finish, I tell them to write their names again, but this time using their other hand. Then I ask them what they noticed about the difference between the two; they say things like,

"It was easier the first time."

"The second time took more concentration."

"It took a lot longer."

"The first one looks a whole lot better than the second one."

Then I tell them that this is what the Types are all about: preferences. We all have them and, just like being right-handed is neither better nor worse than left-handed, it's simply a part of how we've been created.

Three quick observations and one story:

1. If you're in a situation or job which requires you to go against your preference, it will create more stress (i.e., demand upon you) and you need to allow for it.

2. Knowing your preferences tells you (a) how you may tend to distort information - including the Bible - and (b) what you need to work on to achieve more balance.

For example, back when I played basketball I preferred to dribble and shoot with my right hand, but I worked hard to be almost as good dribbling and shooting with my left. Unguarded, I shot with my right; in other situations, though, being able to go to and shoot lefty was a tremendous advantage.

3. People invariably ask me, "What do you think Jesus was?" They are hoping, of course, that I'll say He was whatever type they happen to be. I tell them that He was as comfortable in any of the preferences as He was in its opposite: He was balanced. There were times when He was introverted, times when He was extroverted; times when He was more concered with purpose than He was with people. He was whatever He needed to be according to the situation. Why? Because the Holy Spirit does not have preferences and Jesus lived His life in complete and constant dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Hmmm, is there a lesson in there for me?

Finally, I am an introvert - even as you were accused - but my wife used to be perplexed when we went to parties: I was all over the place, talking to everyone, smiling, laughing, and having a good time. This is not the behavior of a strong introvert (which I am). But when she began to listen to the conversations I was having, she noticed that I was always asking questions of the other person, drawing them out, listening carefully (I am a counselor, after all, not a philosopher - jk), and never talking much about myself. It was/is my way of handling situations which are contrary to my likes, i.e., preferences. I would also like to think that I am learning to be more extroverted and more balanced. But I still prefer one-on-one conversations, a small group, or - best of all - being alone.

Counseling - like teaching - is a perfect career for an introvert: we get to be near without really being close. When we do choose to be close, it's our choice and we typically do it in small doses.

All of the above is to say that types do have their purpose, even if some eschew them (such people are typically Ps: Perceivers who like to keep their options open and hate being stereotyped. I know because I am one.) Going too far with types is like making a parable walk on all fours: it's simply beyond the purpose of the instrument.

Unknown said...

Here's four letters for you. AMEN.

Understanding each others personalities is helpful... but it definitely doesn't define us. And besides, God made us, and also changes us... and we're responsible for ourselves - not slaves to our personality.

Michael Russell said...

"not slaves to our personality"

That's an interesting statement. It assumes that I am other than my personality: metaphysically - let alone neurologically - I can't begin to get my mind around that.

In all likelihood, however, we simply have differing definitions of the term "personality." To me, it is a product of my human spirit and my physical brain. By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit (I hope that sounds sufficiently spiritual), my personality or mind - that is, I or me - can be changed and thus I am changed. Temperament - a very small part of which the types are identifying - is our human spirit; it, like everything else, has been corrupted by the Fall. Our brains - and this is more obvious in some than others (I am thinking of myself here) - are also profoundly disturbed by the Fall, i.e., they are broken.

When He who is the Holy Spirit is allowed by our human spirits to reign, He builds new pathways in our brains and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds/personality. But, alas, even He is stuck with our broken brain and obstinate human spirit, and thus our sanctification is stunted and distorted. This limiting or restricting of the Holy Spirit is especially evident in Christians who suffer severe brain trauma or devolve into Alzheimer's or some other form of vascular degeneration in the brain.

Enter the need for a new body, which includes a new brain, that is not soulish but spiritual. Our resurrected bodies and saved spirits will at last function according to God's original design and purpose for humankind.

Given all the work that He has to do in me - combined with my contrarian spirit - the parousia cannot come soon enough.

BJS said...

Alright, Dr. Mike, you got me thinking here... I guess I'm on the fence (kinda). But I'll try to defend Dr. G here. I've gone back and forth on this issue for years. But my inclinations tend to come back to rest on Dr. G's sentiments.

Here's what I don't like about the right-handed, left-handed analogy you offer. That is something that will (most likely) not affect how people act in any significant way. (Unless you are a baseball player, or some other athlete were being ambidextrous would help). That is, simply knowing you are right-handed (from the simple FACT that you are right-handed) will most likely have you write things with your right (or left) hand. But this is utterly trivial. "Knowing", however, that you are some predefined set of personality traits may actually cause some people (directly or indirectly) to restrict themselves in their thinking on what they can do and how they are "supposed" to act. Worse, it may affect their thinking on literally "who" they are. It really does happen. And I can't get over seeing people discus MBT stuff as if it is FACT about who they are (like being right-handed, etc.) instead of treating it as a rough guide to some of the mere tendencies of their personalities. I see this happen over and over again... I've even had a few people start conversations with me by asking, "I'm a XYXY, what are you?" -- ("thanks," I want to say, "I guess that's easier than actually getting to know me, eh?") -- and when I challenge them on the whole putting themselves in a box idea of it, they defend it passionately: "No, XYXY is who I am!" and so forth.

One would think it seems to me, that a human being is far, far, far greater in complexity than a MBT could quantify. And I have to agree with Dr. G: trying to quantify the unquantifiable leads to more harm than good. (At least that's where my intuitions lead me on the matter).

I am reminded of Psalm 20:5 "The heart of man is deep waters" (I'm not sure what the TNIV translation is, pardon my older usage). I see the MBT and similiar tests as trying to capture the deep waters of the glorious complexity of a human being in a small bucket and then claiming to have explained it all. And then I see people point to this little bucket of water and say, "look, that's me!" And that's just sad.

But I'll admit that I'm torn. Perhaps the benefits of these personality test things outweighs the negatives of trying to "quantify the unquantifiable". But I am as yet unconvinced. Sway me. If you're convinced they are so helpful, prove it to me. If I am in error in this position, I'd like to know about it.

Craig Fletcher said...

I have a good friend who is really into these tests. He told me what I would "rate" in the Myers-Briggs before I took it, and he was dead on. So what, I thought.... this guy knows me pretty well, and these are just four areas of general personality description - they only scratch the surface, there is no depth to them. This is basically my position still. These tests reveal vague generalities about us that are only true sometimes. (Can I be any more vague and general? Get the point?)

This friend of mine, Mike, recently had a conflict with a superior of his at work. He put the Myers-Briggs stereotyping to the test. He has some sort of "guide book" that basically told him: "since you are type xyzx, and the other guy is adfe (whatever it was), then you should 'stand up to him' the next time he disrespects you. He will respect you mcuh more after this and things will get better."

So Mike told me was going to do this, and he did... and now the other guy treats him dramatically differently and they get along much better now.

Michael Russell said...

I don't think this whole issue is really that important, so I won't say much more. But I will ask this question: Which has the greater potential for damage or stunted growth: calling yourself an INFP or thinking of yourself as a Baptist (or Charismatic or Reformed or whatever).

The latter labels, in my book, are far more dangerous because they tend to color our approaches to certain truths and usually determine or restrict whom we read or to whom we listen. Sure, it's not supposed to do that but in the real world it does exactly that for most people in the pews.

For example, consider the following two fictitious exchanges and then decide which label will have the greater influence.

Chip Christian: "Hey, Wayne Grudem has a new book out and it looks pretty interesting!"
Susie Saint: "Did you know he's an introvert?"
Chip: "Really? Well, so what?"

Chip Christian: "Hey, Wayne Grudem has a new book out and it looks pretty interesting!"
Susie Saint: "Did you know he's a charismatic?"
Chip: "Oh. Huh. Hmmm. Well, I've got a lot of other books to read anyway."

The whole MBTI issue is a pretty benign matter, IMHO. We've got a whole lot of camels in our throats to be worrying about straining out gnats.

Susan said...

The truth that personality tests have replaced the gift of discernment should be spread abroad!

What's more, the Spirit does not seek to box people up into neat static identities. Whenever we see people authoritatively defining others for them you can be sure they are nosing in on a private and intimate relationship between Creator and creature, and sinning.

Personality test are helpful only to the extent that they are able to assist us in understanding how God has fashioned us (and most of the popular "team-building" tests used in corporate America and also in the church, unfortunately, are little more than horoscopes, affording nothing toward authentic self-knowledge) but when we are forced into boxes by these devices, and related to according to a pre-determined character map, we become "woebegone" characters...and as such, I lament.

I am definitely introverted, but never needed the MBTI to tell me that! Introverts do not despise fellowship, by the way, nor are they shy. They are simply not able to sustain long periods of extended social activity without getting quite worn out mentally, and seem to need periods of solitude in order to recoup and reflect. Why do we need a personality test to justify one's attention to a God-ordained proclivity for a life of reflection? This I have pondered in times of solitude, with "Do Not Disturb, INFJ in Session" hanging on my office door.

Jeremy Pierce said...

No one thinks the Myers-Briggs typings are supposed to be genetically deterministic categories that tell you what people will do. All it is is an attempt to capture different sorts of preferences. Some people tend to draw their energy more from people and the excitement of crowds, and others tend to draw their energy more in contexts where they are alone or in very small groups. This is just empirically demonstrable. That's all the MBTI says the introvert/extrovert distinction amounts to, and it's just an empirical fact. It's not as if they say everyone is an extreme in either category, since they have a scale according to which someone can very easily be right in the middle. I fail to see any philosophical, theological, or empirical objection to using this system.

I would say the same thing about people who are very good at focusing on the details but tend to miss the big picture (or vice versa), people who tend to be motivated more by deciding on the basis of facts and arguments and those who are motivated more by emotion, and people who tend to prefer closure and regularity vs. those who prefer open-endedness and variability. If you don't think people have such differences in preferences, I would have to say that you just don't know anything at all about people. If you do admit this but still oppose the MBTI typings, then I'd have to say you just don't understand what the typings are. Judging by how you describe them in your post, I'd have to say the latter is true.

hockeyboy5 said...

b.jay wrote:
I am reminded of Psalm 20:5 "The heart of man is deep waters"

Sorry, but that's from the Wild at Heart school of Biblical misquoting. You're thinking of Proverbs 20:5, which actually says, "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out."

hockeyboy5 said...

b.jay wrote:
I am reminded of Psalm 20:5 "The heart of man is deep waters"

Sorry, but that's from the Wild at Heart school of Biblical misquoting. You're thinking of Proverbs 20:5, which actually says, "The purposes of a man's heart are deep waters, but a man of understanding draws them out."

hockeyboy5 said...

Sorry for the redundancy. Blogger appeared to flake out, asking for a word verification four times and then suddenly posting two copies of the prior comment.