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Identifying Type in Fictional Characters and Celebrities

ESTJ King Triton having a discussion with his ENFP mermaid daughter, Ariel.

On more than one occasion, I have been asked to identify the personality type of a fictional character or a celebrity.  It can be fascinating to speculate on what type an individual appears to be.  At the APTi 2011 conference, one of the evening activities was titled Type in the Movies. A panel of type experts, with input from the audience, debated the personality type of certain movie characters. While this was meant to be an entertaining exercise, it illustrated that one could potentially support multiple viewpoints when rendering a verdict on personality type.

Shortly after Steve Jobs died, a psychological type group on LinkedIn started a thread discussing Jobs’ type. The most frequently occurring response seemed to be INTP but there were other possibilities backed up by strong evidence. Some made the case for ENTP, INTJ, INFP as well as ISTJ. Unfortunately, his true type will remain a matter of conjecture in the absence of an assessment and the all-important type verification process.

I was further reminded at how important it is to verify type in one of my recent projects. Each participant in the project completed an MBTI® assessment. Of the 20 who participated, 5 individuals had a verified type that was different than the reported type. The most gratifying part of this exercise was to sense the resonance within the individual when the true type emerged.

Nevertheless, identifying psychological type in fictional characters and celebrities can be a useful exercise, if it helps to provide an archetype to illustrate general characteristics of a given personality type. Already, such archetypes exist in the psychological type literature:  the INTJ Mastermind or the ENFP Champion, for example. While this can create an oversimplification of the nuances present in each personality type, it can help to give an overall picture that can be easily grasped by a type novice.

That isn’t to say I haven’t struggled with a recent project in which a client has asked me to identify the psychological type of certain fictional characters. I can clearly see the value in using a general example to illustrate a certain personality type, be it a theoretical archetype such as The INTJ Mastermind or a fictional character such as Ariel the Mermaid being an ENFP. However, I find myself caught up in circular  thinking when trying to honor both the simple and the complex aspects of identifying psychological type.

Ariel the Mermaid wants to live on land and ignoring the “detail” of not having any legs is vintage ENFP-think. The ENFP tends to be long on both ideas and dreams, and yet a little short on details. Because she is out exploring, Ariel is never on time for singing practice with her mermaid sisters. That’s a pretty simple ENFP call.

However, there is rarely universal agreement on many other examples that are readily available and discussed on websites such as LinkedIn. Returning to the subject of Steve Jobs, there were hundreds of excellent arguments given by writers as to what type Jobs likely was. This is the conflicting perspectives that often bring me to a stalemate when someone asks me to type someone who either hasn’t revealed his/her MBTI verified results, or can’t because she lives under the sea in a mermaid kingdom.

So how do I tend to resolve this for a client?  I try to be clear about the distinction between the complexity of a verified personality type and the general characteristics that are observable and can be useful to illustrate a general archetype. Then I try to select examples that are pretty clear such as Ariel the Mermaid as an ENFP and to avoid characters where multiple perspectives are equally convincing.

I wonder what others think about this topic. Can fictional characters and celebrities serve as valid examples of type or should the practice of using them be avoided altogether?

Featured in The Bulletin for APTi , March 15, 2012 

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