Thursday, June 28, 2012

Academic Discipline and Types

Is there any benefit, I wonder, to associating certain academic disciplines with type? I mean, aside from the obvious one where it helps to "sell" career counselors on expensive personality tests? (And, in fact, at the MBTI workshop I attended, community college counselors were overrepresented among the participants.) Still, I've wondered if we can honestly say that personality dictates our tastes and interests. In the very least, it seems to be a less important factor than our early childhood experiences in various disciplines. If mom and dad are good at math, you'll get a head start on math and thus be ahead of the curve. Your teachers will express how impressed they are with you, you'll get better grades, perhaps they'll place you into more advanced classes. Math will become a source of confidence. At this point, you'd have to be pretty damned disposed towards hating math to not enjoy it. After all, it's a rewarding experience. By contrast, if your parents are both terrible at art and discourage your attempts at it, avoid any sort of art enrichment programs and so on, you'd have to be pretty damned in love with art to still pursue it. So, it seems that type would, in the very least, be secondary to the sorts of early experiences we have in various disciplines.

Most of the data on type and academic pursuits tend to be limited, old or both. Even if we had recent data, with large samples, replicated by different research teams, I wonder what it would get us. Even if you can demonstrate an overrepresentation in a field, a statistically significant number of a certain type in a field still does not mean that the type is a majority. Such data can cause all sorts of confusion, and often times both the layperson and the MBTI interpreter can come to think of the data as a hard and fast rule on which both type and ideal pursuits can be determined. (For example, when I took the MBTI/Strong awhile back, I was dissuaded from considering philosophical counseling as a career because I came out as INTJ and INTJs don't like "dealing with others' needs." Another time, when my Step II results were being interpreted and I wanted to explore T/F, I was told that my INTP results had to be accurate based on the fact that I'm getting a PhD in philosophy.)

At the same time, there tends to be a lot more heterogeneity among these disciplines than these associations might lead one to expect. One would think that you'd find a lot of Ts in Pre-Med, due to the emphasis on science. Yet, I once had a Pre-Med student give a classic "F" type response on an essay question when she complained that Aristotle ought not to say the things that he does because it could offend someone with different religious beliefs*. While I don't know her type, that combined with the general impression of her personality would make me guess, if I had to, that her preference was for Feeling rather than Thinking. Creative Writing and English Literature are commonly associated with NF, and while my mother (who received her MFA in Creative Writing when I was a kid) is some form of F, my father is most decidedly an ENTJ, has a PhD in Literature, and is a (now retired) Yeats scholar. No one that spent more than ten minutes with him would guess him to be anything other than a TJ. It seems that, much of the time, people confuse the values associated with a discipline with the actual types of the people in them.

The really confusing part about all of this, though, is the way it sort of gets back-doored into the concept. So, say you take the MBTI as part of a workshop. So, you go through this self-select process and pick out which preferences fit. After you've done that, you get your test results back. If you're one of the small handful of people whose self-select matches their test score, you're fine. If not, you're asked to look at short descriptions of your two competing types and choose based on that. So, you've done all of that. Then, though, you start hearing the speaker talk about how "NTs are the guys in IT jobs" and how "NFs are novelists because novels make us care about the characters."** Mentions of an INTJ writer are qualified with remarks about how rare it is for that type to want to write fiction. Even worse, the associations get muddled: in one breath, Feeling is associated with creative writing but in another breath, non-fiction is associated with Sensing. So, suddenly, after having already gone through a couple rounds of self-typing, you're mentally trying to align your various tastes and interests with those aligned to the type. Is it any wonder that during these workshops, people can change their self-typing two to three times during a four day course?

Finally, what type is found in your profession has little bearing on how much you'll enjoy studying it or how good you'll be at whatever application of that thing happens to be associated with developing expertise. The rationale is that we're better off in environments that attract people who are like us and involve lots of activities that come easy to us (typologically speaking). However, there are two big assumptions there: the assumption that we should always stick to what comes easily, for one*** and the assumption that we'll be happier if we're working with people who are typologically close to us. In the latter case, maybe we won't. Maybe we'll get there and find it's the psychological equivalent of being forced as a kid to smoke a whole carton of cigarettes after grandpa caught you smoking. It could just as easily result in conditioned aversion.

I can see no way in which these academic pursuits/type associations won't result in an unnecessary and artificial degree of self-restriction.

*This isn't to say that I don't think Fs can make logical arguments. Of course they can and some NFs, especially when out of preference on either Questioning or Logical,rather enjoy it. There are many NFs in both Philosophy and academia in general. However, the comment on the essay was one of those stereotypical "straight out of the manual" feeling responses.

** Apparently, the MBTI trainer in question thought that all fiction was romance, and didn't consider the existence of things like Mystery, Horror, Sci Fi and so forth.Even if you make the case that all genres involve some emotional connection to characters, that still doesn't negate INTJs as writers. After all, many INTJs want to and do get married, spend time with their families, form deep friendships and so forth.

***Jung would say that this completely misses the point, since we're supposed to move beyond the surface of our personality to incorporate our more unconscious functions.