How to Understand People’s Personality Types

UPDATED: February 6, 2023
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2023
women with different personalty types talking

Realizing that aspects of our personalities are engaged at various levels every day is one thing. Understanding how to use that knowledge is another. But it is important to be able to do so. Being able to identify different types of personality can help us exert our influence, improve relationships and communicate more effectively. Understanding people’s personality types can also help us achieve success in our pursuits, whether we’re attempting to get our kids to pick up their toys or motivating a sales team to reach a lofty goal.

Los Angeles-based author and researcher Dario Nardi, Ph.D., peers into the brain and maps ways to help explain what makes us tick. He came face-to-face with these realizations as his neuroscience research and training business began to grow.

“I’m not somebody who’s particularly gifted in anything managerial,” Nardi says. “I am an introvert, and very much do my own thing. Just to know that there are these different types of people out there, and to not force everybody into how I think, is a wonderful step. Listening to them, learning the keywords that they use so I can effectively communicate with them, is critical. It’s putting into practice all of the stuff that I think some people just come to naturally but a lot of folks need to learn somewhere along the way.”

Another expert in the field, John D. Mayer, Ph.D., author and professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire, is an innovator in the field of intelligence research.

“Does it matter that we know other people’s personalities?” he asks. “I do think that it matters because each of us has our zone of comfort and a zone of ability in which we can engage. By knowing our own zones of comfort and our own zones of challenges—what we’re able and not able to do—we can guide ourselves. And then if we know that about the people around us, we also can help guide ourselves amidst those people.”

How different types of personality affect the brain

Nardi, who has conducted neuroscience research since 2006, explains that a person’s psyche—the synergy of brain and mind—is a sum of forces that shape each other and coevolve into a compass that provides us direction.

“People of various personality types don’t merely rely on different brain regions,” Nardi says. “They use their brains in fundamentally different ways. Brain, mind context and culture all shape each other and coevolve. The horse shapes the rider’s options, while the rider shapes the horse’s options.”

For example, Nardi watches how his subjects’ brains light up as they engage in a series of tasks. When his electroencephalogram monitor turns a solid bright blue, his test subject is experiencing creative flow by doing something they are adept at. Nardi explores how we can activate these peak moments and keep nurturing them.

“We get into a zone one of two ways,” he says. “Often expertise comes from training. A professional musician gets in the zone while playing his songs. When we are really adept, closing our eyes and imagining the activity is enough to trigger us into the zone. Other times, peak moments relate to a person’s personality type, from reviewing the past to active listening, managing crises or imagining the future. Either way, being in the zone often provides us with an avalanche of nearly flawless creative output.”

A brief history of the different types of personality

Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl G. Jung introduced the concept of personality types with his book, Psychological Types, in 1921. In it, Jung identified four basic functions—sensation (S), intuition (N), thinking (T) and feeling (F)—and combined each with the extraverted and introverted types, creating a total of eight cognitive processes. Each process is expressed as a capital letter representing the function (S, N, T or F), plus a lowercase letter “e” (extraverted) or “i” (introverted) to indicate orientation. So “Se” indicates extraverted sensing, where sensing relates to engagement with the outside world.

In the mid-1900s, American author Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, created and published the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It’s a test aimed at making Jung’s theories “understandable and useful in people’s lives.” This research behind the test is continually evolving in order to “[provide] users with updated and new information about psychological type and its applications,” according to the Myers & Briggs Foundation.

Nardi cautions that training and a certain level of expertise are needed to effectively evaluate and act based on personality testing.

“Certification obviously is the first step toward knowing,” he says. “But even reading about the different personality types, if someone is not very familiar with them, can turn on some lightbulbs.”

People may go online to get the material, he says, “and it’s a real help to them, whether it is in the workplace or dealing with a difficult teenage child. It provides them an extra lens to sort of understand what’s going on with that person and the language to express what that is, and then usually gives them ideas of how to approach things differently. The idea is that this is just one more tool in our toolbox to help us grapple with other people.”

Breaking down the different types of personality

The Myers-Briggs approach can be simplified to the following steps, according to SimplyPsychology:

  • Extraversion versus Introversion: “Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world?”
  • Sensing versus Intuition: “Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning?”
  • Thinking versus Feeling:When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances?”
  • Judging versus Perceiving: “In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options?”

The 16 personality types of the MBTI, each expressed as a four-letter code, are based on the combination of preferences in each category. According to the Myers & Briggs Foundation, “The goal of knowing about personality type is to understand and appreciate differences between people. As all types are equal, there is no best type.” Because the sorting is based on preferences, the MBTI is not a measure of “trait, ability or character.”

“If people differ systematically in what they perceive and in how they reach conclusions, then it is only reasonable for them to differ correspondingly in their interests, reactions, values, motivations and skills,” reads an excerpt from the MBTI® Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®.

The Big Five personality traits

Psychologists continue to try to make analysis of personality types more understandable. One popular way to measure personality traits is known as the Big Five. It’s also referred to by the mnemonics CANOE or OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Brian Little, Ph.D., is a senior fellow with the People Analytics Group at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. According to his website, “His pioneering research on how everyday personal projects and ‘free traits’ influence the course of our lives has become an important way of explaining and enhancing human flourishing.”

During a One Day University presentation in Dallas, Little used this anecdote to explain the gist of the Big Five. “Did you know that it is virtually impossible for an adult to lick the outside of his or her elbow?” he asked the audience. “And did you know that how you responded to that piece of information gives us a hint about your personality?”

Big Five personality trait: openness

Little then offered a brief explanation, following the OCEAN acronym. The first characteristic is openness to experience, he explained. “[Those who are more open] reach out. They explore. They’re curious. How would they handle the elbow example? I think they’re likely to actually try it. Perhaps in a subtle way, but they’re interested in that.”

Being open to experience is a very good predictor of various successes in life, he noted, particularly in issues that involve creative reframing of problems in our lives.

Big Five personality trait: conscientiousness

The second trait is conscientiousness, he said. “Those who are highly conscientious are characterized by a wide range of successes in their life,” he explained. “Academically, they tend to perform better. In jobs, they tend to have swifter trajectories of performance. They rise to higher levels, and perhaps surprisingly even with respect to their physical health, conscientious individuals outperform those who are less conscientious.

“So, how would they handle the elbow? One other characteristic is that they’re very orderly, planned. They scheme. They schedule. I don’t think they would have actually done anything with their elbow here, but they would have written a little note saying, ‘When you get home, check elbow.’”

Big Five personality trait: extraversion

Little moved to the E of OCEAN, extraversion. “The extraverted person has not only tried, and perhaps succeeded, at licking his or her own elbow, he or she has also successfully licked the elbow of the person sitting next to them,” he said, prompting audience laughter. “Extraverts like stimulation. They like to get engaged in things that bring reward. The more introverted person is less likely to have done anything.”

Big Five personality trait: agreeableness

On to the A, agreeableness. Little talked about how this person would think, How nice of the psychologist to take a complexly named process and statistics and make them homey and personally relevant to the audience by using the elbow anecdote. On the other hand, the disagreeable person might object and say they preferred statistics.

Big Five personality trait: neuroticism

Finally, Little moved to neurotics to complete OCEAN. “I prefer when I’m talking to people about neuroticism to avoid the clearly pejorative nature of the term itself to talk about highly, perhaps overly, sensitive individuals,” he said. “Oversensitivity can lead to some real pains and aches in one’s life. Neurotic individuals didn’t do anything with their elbows. But they said, ‘Oh my God, for years I’ve been resenting the fact that I can’t lick my elbow, and I think about this night after night. Am I crazy?’ Yes. That’s very likely.”

Putting different personality types in perspective

Little emphasizes that he wouldn’t classify any of these Big Five traits as good or bad. Rather, they’re profoundly different and each, in its own way, adaptive to problems people face in their lives. Ultimately, the path to self-awareness remains the goal.

“So maybe there are two aspects of knowing ourselves,” Mayer says. “One is knowing how our personalities operate, and the first building block of that is knowing the parts of personality, which in everyday lingo would be things like shy or outgoing, extraverted or introverted or conscientious or careless. Once you have those labels, the other part is knowing when and how to apply them.”

Self-knowledge and knowledge of other people is “a coming together of your abstract knowledge, if you will, of how personalities are the same and differ, then how to apply those labels accurately to yourself and other people,” Mayer says.

People who can discern what one another’s personalities are like have a natural adaptive advantage, he continues.

Living in the gray of personality types

And it is important to note that just as the world is not black and white, not all of us are either extraverts or introverts.

“When you take the Big Five inventory, and I hope you do, you may find yourself in the middle,” Little told his One Day University audience. “Most people are in the middle.”

These explorations of personality allow us to be open to what’s of value to other people and to listen for and understand the keywords that they use so we can effectively communicate with them, according to Nardi.

But the study of personality is anything but a closed book.

“We psychologists don’t know everything about personality yet,” Mayer says. “A number of years ago, I did a survey of personality textbooks, and I found there were over 400 parts of personality that were in the glossary of the first textbook. The Big Five are important things to look at, but those are far from all of the important aspects of an individual’s personality.”

Applying information about the different types of personality

In Neuroscience of Personality, Nardi offers the following tips:

1. Extraverted Sensing (Se)

Extraverted Sensing people perform best in a stimulating environment with rich sensory input—lots of windows, enticing views and interesting décor. When working with them, provide and encourage movement, use productive breaks such as walking meetings, and focus on challenges, allowing for resourceful responses.

2. Introverted Sensing (Si)

Introverted Sensing people prefer low-distraction environments and time to review experiences in order to ground new learnings. When working with them, use step-by-step methods to help them develop skills, with a road map to track progress. Recognize that they might want to focus on one path or goal longer than you might. Use care when providing feedback, including awareness of nonverbal clues such as facial expressions.

3. Extraverted Intuiting (Ne)

Extraverted Intuiting people prefer diverse inputs for brainstorming. When working with them, allow sensory distractions with television, radio and friends. Allow their goals to coalesce from various inputs, mental processes and side tracks rather than pushing a linear process. Focus on meanings and relationships between ideas, making sure that analogies work well. And use some humor, wordplay and similar cognitive games.

4. Introverted Intuiting (Ni)

Introverted Intuiting people need time away from external stimulation and mundane demands in order to access rich internal processes. When working with them, realize that they benefit from a physical or sensory focus (such as using a finger as a guide while reading) to stay focused. Make sure to carve out time for them to explore the future and visions of what will be, and to work on the specifics of accomplishing those visions.

5. Extraverted Thinking (Te)

Extraverted Thinking people use their brains in an energy-efficient way, relying chiefly on seeing measurable elements, hearing words and making decisions. They prefer to use and respond to facts and figures, and favor use of visual/spatial formats like charts, diagrams and grids. Do not mistake confidence and speed for competence.

6. Introverted Thinking (Ti)

Introverted Thinking people tend to rely on sophisticated, complex reasoning, utilizing reasoning methods such as deducing, categorizing, weighing odds, etc. Their thought processes are not directly linked to sensory inputs, so decision-making tends to be deep and detached. Allow time for clarification, as this person makes and corrects mistakes, striving for high accuracy before implementation. Provide techniques to help deal with excessive social and emotional data, which may overwhelm them.

7. Extraverted Feeling (Fe)

Extraverted Feeling people are attending to your words and how you may be evaluating them while showing very few outward physical signs of doing so. The ethics of people’s choices and failings are highly salient to them, so allow room to discuss considerations of justice and injustice. Use and respond to value-laden language, focusing on word choice more than their tone of voice, which may remain steady even when they are upset.

8. Introverted Feeling (Fi)

Introverted Feeling people listen intently, especially for tone of voice, motivations, words that link to your values and what’s left unsaid. Speak thoughtfully, take your time and don’t rush, because after listening, this person may seem surprisingly definitive about decisions. Speak to their values, especially positively felt ones, while staying true to yourself. 

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by Ground Picture/Shutterstock