One of the interesting and perhaps confusing things about the study of personality types is the terminology. For example, “extraversion” means one thing in popular usage: it describes a person who is socially active. But in personality theory, it’s broader.
At 16Personalities, we use the term “Extravert” to describe someone who embraces their environment more enthusiastically. This includes the people in their environment – and much more. Extraverted personalities tend to be overall more adventurous. Their energy is fueled by the world beyond themselves. Simply put, our definition of Extraversion is more specialized than the commonly understood “social” meaning.
Intuition is similar. It’s one of those terms. Our concept – the Intuitive personality trait – may be confused with a more classic definition of intuition. Intuition is typically thought of as a flash of understanding that seems to occur without the benefit of conscious analysis. You suddenly realize something, and you’re not always sure why. Carl Jung, the modern father of personality theory, called it “perception via the unconscious.” You can’t always inventory the pieces that contributed to the sudden awareness. It’s that “I just knew” realization that people have all the time.
Is Intuition Mystical?
As a teen, I had a life-changing experience with small “i” intuition in a movie theater in the small New England town I grew up in. I can’t even remember the name of the movie. But there, cast on the screen, was a bright, sunny montage of Los Angeles. I remember a scene where the movie swooped down a wide street with palm trees and tall, gleaming buildings on both sides, as though it had been shot from a car. Later, I would be able to recognize that street as Sunset Boulevard.
And I remember suddenly knowing I would someday live in Los Angeles. Not wishing, not dreaming, not planning. Knowing. Somehow, in some way, a cold, hard fact seemed to emerge, and it was a solution to a problem I didn’t know I had.
Here’s the catch: nothing in the montage was all that attractive to me. I liked New England and wrapping up in layers for its snowy winters. I liked that every New England town seemed to be a college town with a lot of old buildings. Culture and learning seemed to be more important there, and that appealed to my bookish nature. And all the people I cared about at the time were also there. Life in New England fit me well.
In contrast, the Hollywood glitz and worship of the rich and famous, along with the city’s seeming dedication to materialism, meant nothing to me. Sure, that was just my opinion based on the stereotype of Los Angeles that I saw mostly on TV. It seemed loud, superficial, and gaudy to me. And I thought, Who wants to live on a freeway?
And yet, there I was, age 16 or 17, sitting in a dark New England theater, with a sense of certainty unlike any certainty I had experienced before. The feeling of almost inevitability shocked me. And – you guessed it – I then spent much of my adult life in Los Angeles and Southern California. I met wonderful people, had amazing experiences, and felt generally at home there. And it all goes back to that moment of instant realization.
My intuition had called it correctly. Horace Greeley’s advice to “go west, young man” was the same advice my intuition gave me. And it was good.
Was it a mystical prophecy, this sudden knowing? For a long time, it almost felt that way. But hindsight can be a powerful teacher. I soon figured out that my intuition was doing something rational by taking things that did not seem to fit me and using them to create a plan for achieving balance.
Even at that age, the idealism of my Advocate (INFJ) personality type had fully kicked in, and I was more serious than any adolescent should be. I needed to have more fun and to generally lighten up. I needed freedom from the safety of my cloistered New England life and my solemn routines in order to try new things and explore new ideas. I also needed the breezy, “Have a nice day!” attitude that LA is famous for.
If I wanted balance and a little youthful joy, I needed a different world to help bring that out – a geographic cure, if you will. And it seemed my intuition picked that up without consulting my conscious decision-making faculties at all.
While there may be many flavors of small “i” intuition, they’re all sort of like that. It could involve something as commonplace as adding cumin to a stew or to something as consequential as making a life-changing decision. It’s simply when one draws reasonable conclusions or makes reasonable decisions without trying. Some describe it as the brain being on “autopilot” as it automatically pulls the pieces together and arranges them for use. Sometimes it happens instantly, as in my example, and sometimes it takes time to bubble to the surface. It’s more casually called a “gut feeling.” And there are hundreds of articles online questioning whether people should trust theirs and to what degree.
Most people have experienced going to sleep with a problem on their mind, then waking up the next morning knowing the solution in an instant. And we’ve all heard stories of scientists who have observed something in nature resulting in an instant solution to a tough problem. This is intuition (small “i”).
Classic intuition may, at times, look mystical, and some people even hold that mystical forms exist. (Jung created similar concepts that bordered on the paranormal, like synchronicity and the collective unconscious.) Until I achieve omniscience – and that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen anytime soon – I’ll not argue against some people’s more mystical beliefs. Telepathy and Star Trek-like “empaths” may exist. But there also might be a simpler answer. That’s perhaps where our use of the word “Intuitive” meets the classic definition.
Where the Intuitive Trait in Personality Theory Overlaps
To be clear, what people experience most commonly as classic intuition has its roots in something more mundane than the supernatural. People are, by nature, information gatherers. Intuition (small “i”) is part of the unconscious mind taking pieces of information and organizing them. Then it drops a conclusion, idea, or plan unexpectedly in one’s lap. It’s a natural, albeit hidden, form of processing information.
By that definition, classic intuition is something that both Intuitive and Observant personality types can share. For an Intuitive type, their small “i” intuition might involve something more abstract, symbolic, or theoretical. For an Observant type, it is more likely sensing that something with a more material focus is working or is not working. An Observant mechanic may hear an engine and vaguely know something isn’t right before reading the diagnostics. Their experience and information, stored from many previous encounters with engines, leaves an impression. They just know.
So, if everyone shares this “ability” to some degree, why is the Intuitive personality trait called what it is? Where does the common definition connect with our use of it? We certainly don’t mean that people with the Intuitive trait run from one flash of insight to another. But like classic intuition, those with the Intuitive trait are distinguished by the way they similarly use information.
An Intuitive personality type’s answer to the poet Gertrude Stein’s famous quote, “A rose is a rose is a rose” might be, “Yes, and much more.” When considering a rose, those with the Intuitive personality trait are likely to begin to think in terms of archetypes, emotional attachment, or cultural symbols. Those who prefer the Thinking trait in addition to their Intuitive trait might consider plant systems or how roses fit into the ecosystem. And so on. Their imaginations are likely to extend the meaning of a rose beyond its mere singular existence. Dots will be connected.
This doesn’t mean that people with an Intuitive personality type can’t simply enjoy a rose for its own sake. They may need to purposely focus on appreciating it on that level. But there will always be a subtle (or not-so-subtle) pull to think about it beyond the obvious.
The difference between our description of Intuitive personality types and classic intuition is that our theory includes a more deliberate, conscious effort to form conclusions using a style of thinking that connects various things. Not that sudden insights aren’t part of the Intuitive type’s repertoire. It might even be argued that, because of how Intuitive people think, such flashes happen more often and more naturally for them. Consistently practicing a similar style of thinking may make it easier to shift into autopilot when connecting dots. But our definition doesn’t limit Intuitive individuals to only that one phenomenon.
Of course, there is much more to the Intuitive trait and its Observant counterpart than can be discussed in a short article. In our Trait Scholar tool, you can explore the subgroups within the Intuitive and Observant traits: Imaginative vs. Practical, Theoretical vs. Experiential, and Envisioning vs. Scanning. In personality theory, it seems there is always a new layer to uncover.
Different, But Maybe Not So Different
Much like classic intuition, the Intuitive personality trait is about being able to cast a net that gathers many attributes of a thing – and all the things connected to that thing – and then using one’s imagination to construct a novel and meaningful whole out of the many parts. In that way, they are similar.
How do we quantify how much is an automatic, unconscious act of thinking, and how much is deliberate, imaginative thinking? With an Intuitive type constantly dipping into a vast reserve of information, the sheer quantity of thoughts almost demands some unconscious linking of ideas to streamline the process. While it’s safe to say there are some differences between our Intuitive personality trait and classic intuition, there may be more similarities.
So, tell us: What are some of your experiences with small “i” intuition? How do you think it works in relationship to your personality type? We’d love to hear from you.