Does all this talk of Ambiversion mean the MBTI framework is out of date?

Posted 17 September 2015 by
John Hackston - Head of R&D at OPP

Extraverts? Haven’t heard from them in a while. Introverts? They’re SO last year. There are some new kids on the block – the Ambiverts – and they are sweeping everything before them. Apparently, Ambiverts are better leaders, make better salespeople, and are just all round better human beings. It appears that psychologists have just discovered that Ambiverts exist (hence all the recent press coverage); as a result, the old idea of a forced choice between Extraversion and Introversion, as encapsulated in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®), is clearly outmoded and should be abandoned.

But hang on a minute. Before we jump onto the Ambiversion bandwagon, let’s just take a moment to think about exactly what an Ambivert is, because the idea that there are three distinct categories – Extraverts, Ambiverts and Introverts – rests on a misunderstanding or misrepresentation of psychological Type. According to MBTI theory, we all have an underlying preference for either Extraversion or Introversion. Extraverts are energised by interacting with the outside world of people and things; Introverts get their energy from the inner world of thought and reflection, and this means that typically Extraverts and Introverts will tend to behave in different ways.

Whatever our underlying preference, however, we all do some tasks according to the opposite preference; all of us need to do some things in the external, Extraverted world and some things in the Introverted world inside our head. The other parts of our MBTI type (Sensing-iNtuition, Thinking-Feeling, Judging-Perceiving) will give clues as to what kinds of things we will do in an Extraverted way, and what we will do in an Introverted way. (More detail on how the different parts of our personality work together dynamically is given at the end of this article.)

If you look at the characteristics claimed for Ambiverts, you will see words or phrases like “flexible”, “balanced”, “can be comfortable both in social situations or alone” “knows when to listen and when to talk” and so on. From a Type perspective, this sounds remarkably like a person who has developed both the Extraverted and the Introverted sides of their personality. For me, there is actually no conflict between the MBTI approach and the concept of Ambiversion. In a sense we are all Ambiverts, or at least have the potential to be; it is actually the goal of good Type development to be able to choose when to behave in a more extraverted or a more introverted mode. Indeed, Type theory shows how each of us can develop through life, to a place where our behaviour may be indistinguishable in practice from that of the fabled Ambivert.

But underneath it all, we still have a preference for one side or the other, Extraversion or Introversion, at the core of our being. And of course, if an Ambivert is simply someone who has developed to use both the Extraverted and Introverted functions of their personality, it is a moot point as to how useful the term actually is; the richness of information that we can get from Type more than accounts for Ambiversion. Looked at from this perspective, it is not surprising that the idea of Ambiversion is not exactly new –  the word has been used, in its modern meaning, at least as far back as 1923, over 90 years ago.

There is of course a conflict between some people’s perception of the MBTI and a rigid view of Ambiversion. If you were to pretend that Extraverts have no inner life and Introverts never engage with the outside world, then the behaviours associated with Ambiversion could never exist.  However this is simply not what Extraversion and Introversion is about; it is a sad perversion of what Type is all about, one of the unhelpful beliefs that, as Type practitioners, we should avoid and indeed combat.

So is Ambiversion a useful concept? If it reminds us that everyone uses both Extraversion and Introversion, and that it is useful for people to develop all aspects of their personality in an appropriate way, then yes. If it makes us think that there are these special, different people called Ambiverts, then definitely not; Extraversion and Introversion are not just a perversion of Ambiversion.

An explanation of type dynamics

Type dynamics is the key to understanding how Extraversion and Introversion work together in a mature well-rounded human being. In developing his theory of psychological type, upon which the MBTI instrument is founded, Carl Jung suggested that at any one time we might be doing one of two things:

We might be taking in information from the environment, a process that Jung called Perceiving. There are two different ways in which we might do this:

OR we might be making a decision or judgment on the basis of this information, a process that Jung called Judging. Again, there are two different ways in which we might do this:

We all use all four of these functions, but there will be one of these that we use and trust most (our dominant function), and one we use in a support role to the dominant (our auxiliary function). For Extraverts, it is the Extraverted function that is in the driver’s seat, with the Introverted function acting in support; for Introverts things are the opposite way round, with the Introverted function in the dominant role. But in both cases, the other function still exists, acting as an auxiliary in support of the dominant function. By adulthood, the goal is to have both these functions well developed so that we have a reliable way of taking in information and of making decisions. In the second half of life, we integrate our less preferred functions (the ones that do not appear in our four-letter type code); these are our tertiary function and fourth or inferior functions.

Type Dynamics is the key to unlocking the power of the four-letter MBTI Type code. For more information, take a look at our previous blog post on the subject.

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