Friday, January 9, 2015

Typing Others: The Disagreement Problem

When one does a cursory search on the internet for any celebrity or famous figure, a wide number of results come up. Out of idle curiosity, I recently searched for Obama's Myers-Briggs type. I steered clear of forums and Tumblr, restricting myself to major blog news sources, political sites and websites with some sort of Jungian expertise. I found the following types assigned to Obama: ISTP, INTJ, ENFP, ENTP, ENTJ, ENFJ, INFJ and ESTJ. Apparently, it's quite easy to be able to claim you have the same type as Obama.

It's not restricted to the Myers-Briggs either. On the enneagram, I've seen debates among trained enneagram professionals about Steve Jobs' type. I've seen him typed as a 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8. Indeed, his type was so hard to pin down that some suggested the incorporation of the rather questionable notion of a binary type.

This phenomenon sets off alarms for people both in the type communities and outside of them. The conclusion, they argue, can only be that there's some substantial problem in the theory and quite possibly little more than a Barnum Effect at work. While I understand why they might reach the conclusion, it misses some key psychological concepts that better explain the phenomenon, which is simply that any sort of distance diagnosis is going to be problematic. Social Psychology has repeatedly shown that our social judgments are often incorrect. Whereas we may examine our own motives and behavior thoroughly and put them in the context of what is or is not part of our personality, we are considerably more inclined to generalize (even over-generalize) others based on a few choice instances.

Back when I was an undergrad at Wayne State, there was an incident that captured this phenomenon in a nutshell. I was grabbing my morning coffee at the campus cafe, which happened (as often was the case) to have a very long line. Service tended to be hit or miss at the cafe depending both on who was working and how busy it was. At one point, a woman two spots ahead of me got angry, said a few choice words to the cashier and stormed off. The woman in front of me saw this, turned to me and snickered at the other woman's outburst in a way that suggested she hoped I would join in on making fun of this woman. (I wouldn't.) When it was that woman's turn in line, however, the cashier was unable to accommodate her request. Furious, she, too, blew up at the cashier and stormed out. Now, I don't know what went through her mind afterwards or if she ever connected it to her mockery of the woman in front of her. However, my impression was that when she saw the woman in front of her, she saw that woman's outburst as central to her character whereas she saw her own outburst as justifiable in the face of what (to her) were unreasonable circumstances. Both probably made their own judgments about the character of the woman behind the counter as well. The thing is, all of these behaviors were contextual. Everyone involved, including the cashier, was a student, which means most were likely under a lot of stress. No one likes long lines, either the people in them or the people working them. Catch any of these people under a different set of circumstances and you might get a very different picture. When we're dealing with such a limited lens, we make these judgments. All of us do this at some point or other, it's a very common thing…it just isn't very reliable.

What this means is that the best way to know what someone is like is to see them in a variety of different contexts. Put any one of us in our favorite and most memorable college class, and you'd get a very different perspective than you would of any of us on that one morning. The best people to tell us about ourselves aren't people that see us in a limited context but the ones that have seen us in a multitude of contexts over a long period of time. As much as I loved it when a tarot reader in New Orleans told me how "nice and easy to get along with" I clearly was, she's probably not who I should look to for self-knowledge. Rather, I want to ask my husband or a close family member or maybe that friend I've known for decades.

The reason why it's so hard to type famous people and get agreement is that it's a very limited, and arguably very controlled, lens. Even biographies aren't terribly reliable since the biographer may have certain ideas about what to include (and what to exclude)and publishers may make decisions on that front as well. Even harder, though, is typing people online. I've seen people claim that as long as you know Jung's functions, you can quickly tell what type someone is purely by reading their posts. (Unfortunately, said people are unaware that Jung himself would have rejected such a thing as he thought any sort of quick-sorting of others' types amounted to a cheap parlor trick.) Of the many different contexts, online is the one that tends to be most removed from real life and certainly doesn't give you a sense of how someone is in various contexts. How could it? You don't even know their real name.