If you’ve been keeping up with this series, I hope you’re starting to feel like an expert in the theory of cognitive functions. At this point, you’ve learned the basics of the theory and the arguments supporting it. Supporters of the theory of cognitive functions argue that they allow you to understand why people act out of character in times of stress, and they can help you to determine which type you are.

Empirical vs. Anecdotal Evidence

On the other side, the anti-cognitive-functions camp argues that there is almost no empirical evidence to support the theory. While there is evidence of the reliability and validity of assessments rooted in the research of Myers and Briggs, the theory of cognitive functions is supported primarily by anecdotal evidence.

In Part 2 we talked about Naomi Quenk and the evidence she has provided in favor of cognitive functions. Quenk describes stress reactions that are meant to display the inferior function at work, but her critics hasten to point out that most of her evidence is anecdotal. That is to say, most of her arguments are based on happenstance observations, rather than rigorous, controlled studies with statistical significance.

There seems to be a general lack of research done to provide support for the theory of cognitive functions. As a result, the theory rides primarily on self-reported observations. And thus, remains a theory.

Scores on Myers-Briggs type assessments often line up with the Big 5, which is the most broadly accepted model of personality in academia. In fact, the only Big 5 factor which does not find its match in a four-letter type is neuroticism. (Although from personal experience, I believe it correlates strongly to INTJ.) There is no such evidence for cognitive functions, likely because very little research has been done on the theory!

For an excellent paper describing every flaw with the theory of cognitive functions and type dynamics that one could ever hope to think of, I would recommend the comprehensive “The Case Against Type Dynamics,” by James H. Reynierse. Reynierse essentially asserts that type dynamics and the four-letter typing established by Myers and Briggs are two separate systems that have been mashed together without any real support.

Reynierse argues that cognitive functions and the four-letter types should really be viewed and studied as two entirely separate systems of personality typing. Just because someone has one four-letter type based on the theory of Myers and Briggs doesn’t mean that their “cognitive stack”—or order of cognitive functions by preference and usage—would be the one laid out by the current predominating theory of type dynamics and cognitive functions.

With the current theory, my cognitive stack as an INTJ should be Ni-Te-Fi-Se. But really, is there a good reason why they would be in that order? Isn't it possible that an INTJ's dominant function could in fact be Thinking, and couldn't it be Te or Ti? And is there a real difference between Introverted and Extraverted Thinking? Even if we go along with the theory that there is a meaningful distinction between the possible directions (extraverted vs. introverted) of a function, would a specific type necessarily use one direction of a function more than the other?

Reynierse would argue that my cognitive stack doesn't necessarily need to be Ni-Te-Fi-Se. The assumption that this is my cognitive stack comes from forcing the theory of cognitive functions onto the original theory of Myers and Briggs that led to the four-letter typing system.

For example, the idea in type dynamics that your dominant and inferior functions must be opposite in direction but the same in nature (either a perceiving or a judging function) is a theoretical and arbitrary choice that W.H. Grant and Alan Brownsword made in the 1980s. The theory of cognitive functions was developed both subsequently and separately from the original theory of the four-letter types.

Alternative Theories

What’s especially interesting is that there are actually other theories about the arrangement of cognitive functions. The model that most of us know and that we’ve been discussing in this series is just based on the one theory that made it into the official Myers Briggs personality typing Manual. Reynierse has actually proposed an alternative model for cognitive functions in which the functions and the four-letters in the basic type are based on the strength of each preference relative to one another.

In this model, the preferences are put on a spectrum, rather than just a black and white, yes or no dichotomy. In the traditional model, I would be an INTJ, with a cognitive stack of Ni-Te-Fi-Se. But in Reynierse’s alternative theory, I might be an IJTN, if my strongest preference is for Introversion, my second strongest for Judging, and so on. Whenever I’ve taken a test that gives you numbers or percentages for each preference, I have always had the highest scores for Introversion and Judging.

Furthermore, the letters not present in my type (E, S, F, and P) could be represented as lowercase letters, in order of descending preference or usage. They would be a mirror of my preferred functions, so that my complete type in Reynierse’s model would be IJTNsfpe. This model shows that while I use Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving, and Extraverting less than the other four preferences, I still use Sensing and Feeling more than I use Perceiving or Extraverting.

For a comprehensive and empirical takedown of type dynamics, you should definitely read some of Reynierse’s work, such as the aforementioned “The Case Against Type Dynamics,” as well as “Toward an Empirically Sound and Radically Revised Type Theory.” But for an anecdotal argument against type dynamics—ironic, since most of the arguments for type dynamics are anecdotal—allow me to present myself again.

A Case Study of Myself

We’ve established that type dynamics would suggest that I use Introverted iNtuition (Ni) more than any other cognitive function. Now, if you’ve tried to read up on what Ni looks like, you may have gotten the impression that I can literally see the future. It has been said that Ni can reveal “a ‘vision’ or perception of what is to come,” along with other things that make dominant Ni-users sound more than a tad psychic. Overall, Ni descriptions are heavy on the touchy-feely and intangible, which quite offends me as an INTJ. There are some better ones out there, but in general, I feel like I am not nearly clairvoyant enough to be a dominant Ni-user. Extraverted Thinking, on the other hand, is something that I believe I use quite frequently—and aggressively, if you ask my ENTP boyfriend, who actually fits the theorized cognitive stack for his type (Ne-Ti-Fe-Si) fairly well.

If we go back to my type based on Reynierse’s model, which would be IJTNsfpe, we can extrapolate a different cognitive stack, still using the idea of dominant, auxiliary, tertiary, and inferior functions. It would make sense that my dominant function under this theory would be Thinking, but it is not clear what direction (Extraverted vs. Introverted) this would have, or if it would have a specific direction at all. Continuing with this theory, my auxiliary function would be iNtuition, my tertiary would be Sensing, and my inferior would be Feeling.

This order of things lines up a bit better with my personal view of myself. Of course, my own opinions about my personal cognitive stack have a sample size of n=1, so I recognize that they carry limited (if any) weight.

I’m eager to hear the thoughts of others on this issue. Which side are you on, when it comes to the theory of cognitive functions? Do you have any anecdotal or empirical evidence for me? Can you explain Introverted iNtuition to me in a way that doesn’t make me want to dive headfirst into my keyboard?

Rachel Suppok
Rachel holds a B.S. in Neuroscience and usually a cup of coffee. She is an INTJ, but she is not a super-villain. Yet. Folow Rachel on Twitter @rsuppok.