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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Psychologist Minds Our Ps and Js as a Decoder of Personality Types

July 08, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

When I got back to my office after interviewing psychologist David Kiersey, I discovered I'd left my briefcase in his office. He was expecting my call, listened silently while I berated myself for my stupidity, then said calmly, "You shouldn't be angry at yourself. What you did is perfectly in line with an NF personality type. You should be pleased that you're consistent."

That comment summarizes both the charm and the irritation that Kiersey can inspire in a listener. He knows what he knows and is glad to explain it to you but doesn't require that you accept it. What he knows has been set out in two books: "Please Understand Me," which has sold 750,000 copies since its first publication 10 years ago, and "Portraits of Temperament," published last year. In these books, Kiersey breaks all of us down into 16 basic personality types and describes each type in some detail.

"These books," he says, "are for laymen, and the major effect of reading them is to improve and enhance family relationships--with your spouse and children and parents--by better understanding them and yourself."

"Please Understand Me" contains a series of 70 questions that readers can answer and grade to discover their own personality types. There are lots of extra answer sheets for other members of the family. Theoretically, by understanding one another, family members can create a more harmonious home environment. Or, if they fight, they can understand why and do something about it.

Kiersey breaks his basic personality types down into four sets of preferences: extroversion (E) versus introversion (I), intuition (N) versus sensation (S), thinking (T) versus feeling (F) and judging (J) versus perceiving (P). Your combination of these preferences indicates your personality type--and Kiersey stresses that by far the most important are the middle pair. The NF--thinking and feeling--type, I learned, tend to leave briefcases in other people's offices.

In "Please Understand Me," Kiersey says extroverts "experience loneliness when they are not in contact with people. Introverts are likely to experience loneliness when they're in a crowd."

The sensation-preferring or "sensible" person wants facts, trusts facts and remembers facts. This type focuses on "what actually happened rather than worrying too much about what might have been or will be in the future." By contrast, the intuitive person seems "somewhat bothered by reality, constantly looking toward possibilities of changing or improving the actual." To the sensible, says Kiersey, "the intuitive frequently appears to be flighty, impractical and unrealistic," while the intuitive group views the sensibles "as plodding and exasperatingly slow to see possibilities in tomorrow."

The thinking types make choices impersonally while feeling types choose on a very personal basis. More men than women (60-40) report that they prefer to make decisions logically and objectively, on the basis of principles. Says Kiersey: "Both types can react with the same intensity; the 'F' person, however, tends to make his emotional reactions more visible, and others may see him as warmer and capable of deeper feelings. . . . Thus 'T' people are often described as cold and unemotional, while in reality they may be experiencing as intense emotion as an 'F' person."

And, finally, Judging types prefer closure and the settling of things, while the Perceiving type prefers to keep options open and fluid. Writes Kiersey: "The 'J' is apt to report a sense of urgency until he has made a pending decision and then be at rest once the decision is made. The 'P' person, in contrast, is more apt to experience resistance to making a decision, wishing that more data could be accumulated."

After you take the test and discover the four letters that best describe your temperament, Kiersey spends the rest of "Please Understand Me" and all of "Portraits of Temperament" telling you how to apply this information to live better both with yourself and those around you.

I found the assessment of my personality type uncannily accurate--which didn't please me a lot. But Kiersey understands that too. "The concept that people are fundamentally different is tough to accept for most of us. We go after our Significant Others because we don't understand or accept these fundamental differences in people. This disrupts a lot of marriages and drives a lot of children away."

Kiersey's basic premise is as simple as it is difficult to accept. "All of us," he says, "are born with a certain temperament, and that's it. Nothing in the world is going to change it."

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