Terribly Boring I: the Keirsey Temperament Sorter and the theory of democracy

Welcome to the first in my new Terribly Boring series, an extended tour of the pointless back alleys of the brain in which I expound two entirely separate thought systems, collide them forcibly and sweepingly with one another and see what happens. None of this, you understand, is to any real purpose beyond keeping me off the streets, but I venture to hope that it may occasionally induce exasperation, pity or puzzlement in you, the reader . . .

This week, Jungian psychological type-casting and democratic theory. You’re all quite grown-up enough to Wiki for yourselves, but here are the points which are relevant here:


Our particular form of democracy is founded on the principle that representatives can and will act in the best interests of the people, using powers that go beyond the literal proxy sense of representative. Whether this always necessarily means according to the people’s actual wishes on any one subject is a moot point. The consensus, given that our representatives are in place for a long cycle of time, is that actual wishes are not always taken into account. Actual participatory democracy by the people in governance and formulation of policy is very limited, and is becoming more so under the current government.

Our representative democracy is, peculiarly, fuelled by FPTP. The elected representative need only make a successful claim to articulate the thoughts and wishes of enough of their constituents, not necessarily a majority of them.

Carl Jung and his successors

Jung’s theory of psychology was based on typologies, that there were eight psychological “functions” split into four pairs. Every human being majors one way or t’other in each pair. Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers later carried the typology system to its logical conslusion, creating a psychological zodiac in which the entire population could be split into sixteen types by means of the four key pairs of variants.

Keirsey* then used this Myers Briggs Type Indicator as the basis for his theory of temperaments, and this is the system I am going to collide with democracy. It is an important concept in his system that human relationships will never be harmonious unless the essential differences in goals and outlook between these types is recognised (as far as possible) by all.

The four pairs of variants are:

Introverted or Extroverted – obvious

INtuitive or Sensory – are you more into ideas or things?

Thinking or Feeling – are you inclined to think rationally or emotionally?

Judgement or Perception – are you inclined to be structured and detail-focused or flexible and spontaneous?

There are plenty of variants of the test around – though many don’t carry the letter system as this is copyrighted. Here’s a good version from the Beeb. I generally come out as ENTP or INTP, because I am more extroverted than not, my world-view is conceptual (this is what the unlovely American “intuitive” means here) rather than based on, you know, stuff and things, I tend to base my decisions and reactions on thought rather than feeling, and I am more inclined to be flexible and disorganised, and tease out ever finer shades of meaning from a problem than I ever am to actually arrive at a conclusion or judgement, or just get my arse in gear generally. You can probably tell.

The collision 

We now exit the realm of the proveable and Wiki-able and enter MY HEAD.

The important bits, the operative bits, of a Kiersey typology are the two middle letters, and particularly that N or S. Whether you approach the world through abstract concepts or concrete things is absolutely fundamental. Now, an N-type person is not necessarily any more intelligent than an S-type person, we’re talking about different kinds of intelligence. But academia rewards the conceptual thinking of the N-type, and that is historically because all the people who set up and run educational systems, write IQ tests and so on, are themselves Ns. The capacity for abstract conceptual thought is what allowed humans to outstrip other mammals developmentally in the first place; it follows that an extra-refined capacity for conceptual thought within the human group allows those who possess it to design societal systems that advantage them over those who do not.

I’d be willing to bet (although totally unable to pay up), that you, dear reader, come out as N. Most of the blogosphere is by definition N, because you’re using a symbolic representational system composed of little wiggly black things on a screen, which is representative of the written alphabet, which itself is representative of all the various concepts in the world, physical and abstract, in order to define and advance your thought. Writing and reading are N activities.

I’d also bet, though less confidently, that you’re both I and T. The nature of the beast – communicating by computer – would suggest I. The nature of the subject broadly under discussion – polly-ticks – would suggest T, although there are a fair few sprinklings of you more passionate Fs out there as well.

On P and J, I don’t think there’s much of a bias, but I imagine that if you’re an elected representative or any other competent sort of person, you’ve come out as J. If you’re more of a rambling, dilettantish type whose train of thought can be derailed by. . . ooh look, a squirrel outside the window . . . sorry, where was I? Oh yes, if you’re like that then you’ve probably come out as P.

If you tot up the stats from my Keirsey book, which are based on everyone who has ever taken the test, you find that about 30% of everyone is an N, and 70% of everyone is an S. Ns are a sizeable minority. They are also a highly visible minority. We’ve already said that educational systems advantage Ns. Anything involving writing and conceptual comprehension advantages Ns. It follows that the – let us say – governing, managerial classes are almost entirely composed of Ns.

These Ns talk to each other, formulate law, have abstract discussion, are friends with each other, and have invented and perpetuate the concept of democracy. But since 70% of the people for whose benefit and in whose name all this is done are S-types, it’s a slightly pointless, though good-hearted, exercise. An N is never going to articulate or explain governance in a way that naturally makes sense to the S.

Put simply, representative democracy is psychologically impossible. What is possible, is genuine, grassroots democracy, such as is desired by the Liberal Democrat mindset (an N party if ever there was one) because that will enable concrete participation by the S. Proportional representation also allows the S type to come back into balance with the N, as FTPT biases in favour of the votes of your generally more politically involved Ns.

Thus it follows that the Liberal Democrat model of democracy is the only psychologically defensible option. However, we would do well to bear in mind that grassroots democracy will be an S democracy and, well, to us Ns it’s going to look pretty odd.

Join me again next time on Terribly Boring when I will be bringing Herbert Butterfield’s critique of the Whiggish interpretation of history to bear on modern business consultancy models. Guess who comes off better.

* The precise terms of the interaction between Kiersey and Jung’s theories are disputed. For the current whimsical purposes, this doesn’t matter.


  1. Ooooof your brain is too big.

    You should probably read “The Political Brain” by Drew Westen. It might suggest representative democracy is more effective than you’d think – but I must admit I havent read it so that’s just a surmise.

    I’m going back to season 5 of the West Wing…

  2. You are too kind Ed, but alas, I think my brain is merely Too Boring.

    I might put that book on my Big Boring Christmas Book List! Hoorah!

  3. I wonder if there’s a difference between blog readers and blog writers in this? And indeed between bloggers and non-blogging activists?

    Whilst I’m certainly an “I”, probably a “T” (but with quite a strong “F” contingent) and definitely a “J”, I would actually argue that I’m a borderline “T” and most actual activists are definite “Ts” too.

    Indeed, sometimes I wish they’d be more N-like. Our N-like members tend to have relatively little to do with the local party despite my attempts and encouragement, because we’ve yet to convince them that we want them to use their N-ism (possibly, MatGB is a case in point?)

  4. ‘I would actually argue that I’m a borderline “T”’

    I take it you mean ‘S’ here, because you had already dealt with ‘T’ and ‘F’. If so, nah. I have now known you for some seven million years and you are definitely N. I think it’s possibly one of the quirks of extremely N people that they genuinely can’t comprehend how S other people can be.

    I think you’re really on to something about N members not feeling they have a place in the party on a local level. There is this sort of aggrieved sense that if you’re not delivering leaflets, you’re not doing anything useful, which is of course far from true. I assume it’s only ended up like that because delivering leaflets is the most obviously visible thing to do, and because the party pushes it strongly as a tactic.

  5. I did, of course, mean S (my excuse being a rushed post before out for lunch).

    I think perhaps you give me more N-credit than I’m due, and would still argue that I’m borderline N/S – the very nature of what I both do for work and for the Party requires a certain amount of S-ness, and limits my N-tendencies.

    As to getting N-members involved: I might controversially suggest that N-members also need to want to get involved locally, and to use their N-ness to become N-activists. I’m not sure that’s the case in many instances.

    It is true though that many S-activists only value the delivery of Focuses, and this needs to be combatted too.

  6. This is very interesting; I love Myers Briggs. I love your analysis along with Grammar PCSO’s.

    I would take care in assuming that the difference between introverted and extroverted means in the context of Myers Briggs. I am a INTJ, but in the normal course of things I would never be described as introverted…I’m quite noisy, love knowking on strangers doors and chatting to them etc, etc. However, in Myers Briggs introverted means (and these things are always difficult to describe), as I understand it, that they find their answers to themselves from within themselves rather than finding it in others. It’s not about being shy or not.

    Sometimes it’s easier to describe in examples – when given a project, I Project Mananger’s like me first go and write a plan and then show it to everybody for their input and agreement an E’s Project Mananger will immediately hold a workshop and get everybody to build up the plan. At the end of a days training on a residential course an E will go straight to the bar, whereas an I will have to go up stairs and have some time to themselves to recharge..before coming down to be the life and soul of the party. I’s tend to need time on their own, whilst just the thought of it can terrify an E.

    The N and S things is quite interesting; I like your description on the conceptual thinker (I do a great line in conceptual diagrams in my professional life)…when we did our assessment at work we were all shown a picture taken from the atrium of one of our company buildings…as an N I was looking to see if there was anyone that I recognised and whilst an S colleague of mine noted that the picture was taken at 9.30am, according to the clock on the wall!!!

    I think being a T is definately a function of Liberalism….and suits me down to the ground.

    Although I am generally a J, I can have P moments…however, I have noticed in many of the Lib Dem Comittees I have been on the J’s don’t seem to have been in the majority – they do tend to bring out the militant J in me!!

    I have tried using my N’ness at the local level, in terms of developing strategies, defining key messages acorss a year; but I don’t think I’ve been particualarly successful though…

    I’m holding a P&P on the topic of ‘Narrative’ on Saturday (7.30pm, Crystal Palace)which is an N subject, if ever there was one, and am really interested to see whether of any of our local, local S type activists turn up!

  7. I found the distinction between S and N people intriguing and I wonder whether successful political partnerships tend to operate as a combination of an S and an N. For instance, I think it would be fair to characterise Blair as an S and Brown as an N, and between them they managed to make Labour an electorally successful machine and, despite their personal differences, worked pretty closely together for 13 years or more. Other examples I could give are Clinton (S) and Gore (N) or Bush (S) and Cheney (N). In all three of these cases it’s the S who had the top job and I wonder whether S-type people have an advantage in electoral politics, with people preferring a more touchy-feely character to a more intellectual approach. If that is the case, then perhaps in the Lib Dem leadership contest Clegg’s had the advantage of being seen as more of an S to Huhne’s N, which may explain why he’s been seen as the favourite.

  8. Jo, thanks for that corrective, you’re quite right. It’s years since I read the book properly and that I/E bit was getting fuzzy in my mind. I come out as a crossover, because I seem to need a balance between drawing energy from reflection alone, and drawing energy from activity with others. Interestingly, in your project scenario, I can see myself responding in both ways… depending on how much I liked and felt confident with the project! Something that I didn’t have an instinctive feeling about how to solve, I’d put to a group straightaway.

    Bernard, I think you raise a fascinating possibility. I would say that, as individuals, these people are probably all N (maybe except Bush) because when you’re that involved in high level politics I think it must be a necessity. But it’s certainly true that one of each of those double acts might be *more* S than the other. Actually, I have always felt the either/or nature of Myers-Briggs is a bit unsophisticated – really it should be about a percentage divided between each pair.

    Having said that, as to touchy-feeliness, I think it’s the F characteristic that produces this effect – I’d say Clegg, for example, was ENFP whereas Huhne is, like a lot of leaders, a straight ENTJ.

    This is the trouble with Myers-Briggs. Once you get it into your head, you start to see the whole world through its terms…

  9. With Myers-Briggs you have to be careful with your terminology for all the reasons already given, but also because impassioned conversations about your own temperament or that of others can lead to such wonderful phrases as “My wife objects to my P-ness”, which was one of the funnier things said in a meeting of clergy I happened to be attending a few years ago!

  10. I recommend Professor of Cognitive Science George Lakoff’s latest book, “The Political Mind”. (“The Political Brain” title having already been taken by Drew Westen.) Us NTs have a knack for figuring out and explaining things in a clear manner. His best book yet, and an extremely important one if our country is to reverse this conservative destruction of democracy that has already occurred and few seems to notice.

  11. Keirsey has estimated that approximately 18%, not 30% of the population are N’s. And managerial classes would be heavily populated by the ESTJ temperment, at least that is my observation. I don’t find that managers are particularly able to see the big picture. They often are short-term focused and they emphasize the following of rules.

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