The Mystery of the INTP

A few years ago, my friend told me that there was a book festival coming to our area. I wasn't very interested until she sent me a list of the authors that would be speaking, and I saw the name, Jane Smiley. You might as well have told me that Shakespeare was coming to town. Jane Smiley has been my favorite author for almost 20 years. She is remarkable because she can put herself into the minds of all her characters, even animals, and see life from their perspective. She captures perfectly the personalities you are likely to encounter every day, yet her observations on life are the kinds of things you would go on pilgrimages to learn.

After Jane Smiley spoke at the book festival, she signed books. When it came my turn, I asked her if she knew anything about the MBTI assessment, because it seemed like she had such insight into personality. She said she didn’t base her characters on personality types, but she had taken the MBTI instrument years ago, and came out an INTP.

I was stunned. I never would have guessed that she was an INTP. I just assumed that anyone with that much insight into people had to be an F. I remembered INTPs in interviews for The Type Reporter, telling me things like, "I have never understood people, and it doesn't get any better with age." I remembered the blunt comments of the INTPs in my social circle, uttered so guilelessly that I didn’t really take offence. Even Jane Smiley, when she was answering questions, said some things that could ruffle feathers a bit.

On the other hand, I also remembered that Carl Jung, the creator of the type theory, identified himself as an Introverted Thinking type, and since he was so abstract and symbolic, I’m assuming he was intuitive and thus an INTP. Also, David Keirsey, the creator of temperament theory, identified himself as an INTP. I have never had someone or something "get me" like the type and temperament theories do, and both of them were the creations of INTPs.

How is it that INTPs, who seem to be the least interested in how people work, can sometimes understand so much about how people work? How is it that they can sometimes so successfully describe other people’s thoughts, even people who are completely different from them? It's a mystery that has been at the back of my mind for decades.

It could be that empathy, which is the strength of the feeling type, helps in understanding the feelings that unite us. But INTPs, who will admit that empathy is not their strong suit, might be freer to notice the thoughts that divide us.        

Or it could be that INTPs don’t often turn their very focused attention to the human mind, but when they do, they are able to do the same thing they do when they become interested in anything... detect the patterns, the underlying structure, the architecture of the system. I don’t think Jung and Keirsey got the bulk of their insights from observing people’s personalities, as much as they were able to find the patterns in theories of personality.
Another thing about INTPs that might help them understand people is that they are not hampered by our shared thinking or accepted conventions. All intuitives ask "why," but INTPs ask why the most; they are the ultimate questioners. In fact, if I ever ask an INTP a question, and they don't immediately question my question, I'm going to die from shock.

I read a profile in The New Yorker magazine of an artist named Tino Sehgal. At the age of 11, Sehgal wrote a letter to his parents saying, "I don't want to be part of this Christmas thing."

"I rejected my presents,” he remembered. “This whole kind of Christian colonizing of what was a collective, pagan ritual...I was enraged, somehow, by that."

When I read that I thought, “This guy has got to be an INTP.”  Even the title of the article was, "The Question Artist." Someone that independent in their thinking, that free of the collective, might be the only one who can stand back far enough to notice the principle roles that everyone plays in the collective.   
That's my current thinking about the mystery of the INTP, but I expect that INTPs will question it. Even the author of The New Yorker article wrote, "I should acknowledge that there's a good chance that Sehgal would quarrel with everything I've just said."

Nevertheless, I want to thank INTPs for what they have contributed to humanity, not so much in social situations, but to our god-like understanding of so many things, including ourselves.


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  1. Tom Payne

    #1 by Tom Payne - October 15, 2013 at 9:53 PM

    A very enjoyable article. I am an INTJ, but my brother is an INTP. He taught his kids Latin by having them stage plays in this dead language--and they are good kids, well-behaved and bright. My approach is this. I use corrosive doubt to question everything. Once something is disproved, I move on. But I am open-ended to what may eventually pass the test. And then, when I find it, I focus on it relentlessly until it is achieved. Yeah. INTJ and not INTP. Thank you for your entertaining article.
  2. Pam Hollister

    #2 by Pam Hollister - October 20, 2013 at 10:42 AM

    This post is "right on"! My deceased husband was INTP and was so adept at recognizing patterns in people's personalities that I relied on his insight. A number of years ago I read that INTPs and INTJs are a wonderful combination in a relationship and that was certainly true with the two of us.
  3. Susan Scanlon

    #3 by Susan Scanlon - October 29, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    Thank you Tom and Pam for your comments, and for adding interesting information about INTPs (and INTJs).
    Tom, it speaks well for the type theory that it passed your test.
  4. Patrick Brady

    #4 by Patrick Brady - November 1, 2013 at 4:10 PM

    Well done, Susan. I think you've nailed one of the fundamental strengths (if not THE fundamental strength) of INTPs. I'm one and while I rue my lack of natural empathy daily, I'm adroit in picking up patterns in behavior. I can type most people in a matter of minutes. My ability to pick up on recurring behaviors has helped me as a writer, but I've had to learn to slow down and explain what I see to others. There are times when people flat-out don't believe that I've picked up on what seems so obvious to me. And being an INTP, I tend to be pretty sure of myself, which isn't always dynamite, but does allow me to question conventions that don't really add up. A simple case in point: That Harry Potter MBTI chart? I think it gets Harry and Hermione wrong, among others.
  5. Lelouch

    #5 by Lelouch - November 6, 2013 at 2:38 AM

    How is it that INTPs, who seem to be the least interested in how people work, can sometimes understand so much about how people work? The INTPs apparent lack of interest in people is based on a lack of interest in the content of thought those people have to discuss, and should not be misunderstood as a lack of interest in how people work all together. The cases where an INTP can understand how other people work are simply cases where INTPs have become curious about it and utilized their natural ability to develop a logically consistent internal model that accurately represents reality. It is still not necessarily an interest in individual people, so much as it is an interest in abstracting people to understand how they work in terms of a system. I know this, because I do this too. The only difference is I use inductive rather than deductive reasoning to build internal models; I save deduction for building external systems, and I am more interested in building new external systems rather than understanding systems that are already in place, but that's because I'm an INTJ.
  6. Susan Scanlon

    #6 by Susan Scanlon - November 12, 2013 at 12:51 PM

    Patrick, When you say that you are able to type people in minutes, do they agree with your assessments? I'm interested because I often think I am certain of someone's type, but end up being surprised when I share it with them. It's a nice surprise because I learn things about them that I didn't know, but if you are able to get them in a few minutes, that really is a gift.

    Lelouch, Your contrast between an INTP's curiosity about how people work rather than an interest in individual people has really helped me understand the mystery. Thank you.
    I think Fs might be more focused on how the relationship works, and making it more harmonious.
  7. Becky

    #7 by Becky - November 27, 2013 at 2:49 PM

    @Lelouch I am INTP and I approve this message.

    Feelers still think and THINKERS STILL FEEL. When an INTP feels an emotion (which they do just as much as the rest of the world), it is not their instinct to act on it, nor is it their instinct to ignore it. The instinct is to question why the emotion exists. When an INTP has identified lots of causes and effects between experiences and emotions they can become incredibly skilled at empathizing.
  8. JH

    #8 by JH - March 30, 2014 at 8:21 PM

    I am an INTP and I often ask questions-well, often isn't a good word, because I don't do anything else. Everything else is sublimated to this recurring drive.

    With people, I'm often pretty bad at coming up with a correct interpretation of a person. I can often understand a good reason why someone would(italics) do something, but there are so many possibilities and the mind is such a black box that I would not be able to pinpoint someone's routines until it was clear they were... routines. This is what getting to know someone means to me. It takes a few meetings with them until I see them clearly.
  9. Olen

    #9 by Olen - April 20, 2014 at 6:35 AM

    I'm really impressed with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is this a paid theme or did you modify it yourself? Either way keep up the excellent quality writing, it's rare to see a great blog like this one today.
  10. Julia

    #10 by Julia - September 23, 2014 at 6:30 PM

    I am INTP and I am also known for my insights into the decisions, personalities and thoughts of others. I think its a bit harsh to say INTP's aren't big on empathy. I feel I am very empathetic, but I don't buy into every sob story like many F type personalities. I think the difference is that INTP's like to imagine themselves in the shoes of others and analyse why they would make a certain decision or act in a certain way (in great detail). This gives us a good understanding of peoples behaviour as well as making us very picky on just who deserves our empathy.
  11. jessie

    #11 by jessie - January 26, 2015 at 7:28 AM

    what's your opinion if intp girl madly in love with intp boy.
    isn't that a bad choice ?
    what if better intp girl (me) to move to other boy wich has an other personality ?
  12. tina

    #12 by tina - August 24, 2016 at 7:07 AM

    I am an INTP and I think your article is a little bit right. As an INTP, I like to analyze people and that's why I seems can read people's minds. Btw, what is your personality type?
  13. Gefroh

    #13 by Gefroh - February 14, 2017 at 1:03 PM

    Interesting, I didn't know i was an INTP until 2015. As a kid in middle school, I realized I was different, and did not understand other people. So I watched, mostly at lunch time. I sat with my friends, I watched them interact, I watched other tables interact, and without realizing it I started to rebuild my model. I have a great many thoughts and ideas on that but I 'll skip all that to say this. I am not sure that we lack empathy, but more so we shut down overt feelings as they cloud our picture. I have found that I can see straight through people, I can tell you are selling, lying, disturbed, sad, dangerous, benign, fake, sincere, etc. But once I care about you, once you are "on the list" my objectivity wanes and the picture is clouded. Hence my list, and I would venture to guess our lists are very short.
  14. LCM

    #14 by LCM - August 30, 2018 at 3:32 PM

    So as a female INTP, I find one logical flaw in this, but it does illustrate us quite well. It isn't so much that we are indifferent, or that we view everyone else as just talking meat. INTPs actually tend to show an outward lack of interest in the things that interest them. Emotions and personality are foreign for us and therefore quite interesting. We like individuals if we find them stimulating and we like to observe the herd dynamic of the crowd. Our insights come mostly from our desire to delve into the things we don't get. People are definitely something we just do not get.

    TLDL: The assumption that we are not checked in and are not completely fond of people isn't completely accurate. We like the idea of you guys.
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