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Guidelines for Typing Famous People

Socionists are very interested in determining the types of famous people and understanding how socionic type plays out in history, in the arts, in social life, and in other areas of human achievement. How can one analyze objectively people one doesn't know personally, who are long dead, or who appeared imbalanced and neurotic (like Hitler, for example)?

Theoretical background

Let us review for a moment some very fundamental concepts of socionics, taken from The Socion, or Socionics Basics, by Aushra Augusta (emphasis added by me):

The human brain, in reflecting external and internal reality, serves not only the individual himself, but society as well. To satisfy his own needs, a person needs to have an idea of the entire reality around him. People cooperate in serving the needs of society; individuals communicate to the community their impressions of only certain aspects of reality. The mechanism for this phenomenon, in our present understanding, is quite simple: various aspects of reality are reflected in the human brain with differing degrees of differentiation and awareness. Aspects that the individual only uses for himself are reflected in general, composite form and are remembered as images, experience, and skills. Other aspects, which the individual communicates information about to society, are perceived in well-differentiated form with an accuracy that allows the individual to relate information verbally...

...Because people cooperate in serving society's needs, and each individual person is a part of society, each person conveys to others information about some aspects of reality and receives information about other aspects from others.

In other words, all people have a lopsided information structure; some kinds of information they reflect upon within themselves but do not share with others, while other kinds of information they consistently convey to others and actively implement in their surroundings. Often a brief glance at a person or a superficial study of his life is sufficient to see which kinds of information he focuses on pursuing and passing on to others, and which he mostly ignores.

More quotes from Augusta:

An organism's survival depends on its adaptation to its environment and its ability to be in harmonious relations with this environment — including other organisms. A person's survival as an active social being requires not just harmony, but also a sort of fusing or interlocking with the IM mechanisms of other members of the socion...

...In addition, people feel acutely their inclusion in the socionic mechanism of society. There are people who lead a socially active life who feel that society needs their activity, and there are people who don't feel needed much or even at all, even though they read about how much society needs them in the papers. It's not enough to "know" — one must feel the seething pulse of life and his own part in it. For this to happen, it turns out, one needs a sufficient amount of contact with the IM types that one's specific type needs to be able to function properly. This feeling of being needed or not needed by society is apparently directly proportional to the individual's degree of inclusion in the socionic structure of society. Activity outside of society or activity where socionic ties are a rare fluke is always exhausting to the psyche; the individual's energy is expended and replenished very poorly, with a low coefficient of societal utility. Much energy is wasted simply trying to prove to oneself and others that one is worth something.

Here we see that effective functioning requires "meshing" one's type with those of other people in ways that allow one to vigorously apply one's strong functions. Otherwise, much energy is wasted and there is not enough demand for one's strengths to motivate the person to work hard. Studies of famous people show that — at least in the field of activity that made them famous — they meshed effectively with the world around them and found their strengths to be in high demand. This motivated them to single-mindedly give their all in this area, in the end making them famous for their achievements. In fact, it seems that for the most part famous people simply doggedly insisted on using their strengths and expected their surroundings to make up for the rest. This makes them easier to type than average people, whose information structure is usually not as clearly contoured.

Principles for typing famous people

The excerpts above lead us to some very basic conclusions that greatly simplify the task of typing famous people:

  1. Becoming famous implies consistently effective actions. Consistently effective actions imply effective socionic ties (cooperation with certain socionic types). Famous people must have effective socionic connections at least in the area of expertise that made them famous. If they didn't, they would be too busy inefficiently solving mundane problems to devote themselves to their work.
  2. Some facets of reality (information elements) one uses for one's personal needs, while other facets one consistently conveys to others. The greater one's fame and influence, the more apparent the structure of the information "message" one conveys to others through one's words and deeds. This message is what other people find most memorable about the person.

These principles are more applicable to people who are famous for complex achievements (requiring complex interaction with others) than for people who are famous for simple achievements that require doing only one thing well (fashion models or baseball players, for instance). Any sort of leadership or complicated teamwork involves complex interaction with others that brings out one's information structure. Here we can add a third typing principle:

  1. Effective leaders must lead with their strong functions. Otherwise, no one would follow them. This is mundane and is observed constantly in real life. People do not attract followers when they are operating with their weak functions, because their words and actions do not appear convincing or competent. The leader's strong functions are closely related to what is most memorable to his followers.

No need to "look beyond the mark"
Thus, we expect to find that famous people with complex achievements clearly display their strong functions and have people around them who effectively complement their weak functions. We do not need to peer deeply into the muck of people's repressed fears or read everything that has ever been written about them to understand their socionic type. With famous people, it should basically lie on the surface (especially those with complex achievements that required leadership and teamwork). Hence, the task is to:

  • correctly assess the person's most obvious and memorable qualities
  • relate these qualities to socionic concepts*

*Note: tacit socionic knowledge
The potential difficulty with the second point is that socionic concepts have not yet been defined in such a way that they can be applied literally and unambiguously. There is a lot of implicit knowledge "floating in the air" about socionic concepts and types, and those who have only read articles on socionics often do not have access to important mental images that are so decisive in type diagnosis and in interpreting key socionics concepts. These images are passed from person to person through non-verbal means and are hidden between the lines of written texts. The more skilled and experienced the socionist, the richer and more organized the mental images. Mental images, automatic reactions and judgments, and implicit knowledge in general play an key role in the acquisition of any craft and are passed on through observation and apprenticeship. However, mental images must be committed to paper to be considered a part of science. Differences in mental images of the 16 types are what make socionics and Meyers-Briggs typology more different than they appear to be just from reading type and dichotomy descriptions.

Practical typing tips

Typing actors
Each actor must develop a trademark acting presence in order to be memorable to filmmakers and moviegoers. It is natural that this trademark aura must be closely related to their type, since a person makes the greatest impression on others when he says and does things in ways related to their strongest function. In this state of mind a person feels a sense of personal power and self-confidence that is conveyed to those around him. Things said and done in such a state easily "infect" others and stimulate them to do, think, or feel certain things. This is an integral part of the definition of strong functions; they are well-differentiated and capable of generating unique, high-quality information that is highly relevant to the current situation. Successful actors (and highly successful people in general) must take advantage of their strong functions to grab and hold others' attention convincingly. As a result, we see that actors' work (especially their most convincing and renowned work) revolves around a set of similar roles where they play characters who are essentially reflections of their own personality. This provides an important criterion for identifying actors' socionic types.

Discerning information signals in famous peoples' work
Strong functions do not correspond to specific talents or knowledge (e.g. does not correspond to being an effective military general, nor does extraverted intuition correspond to being a gifted thinker, etc.). Instead, the strong functions and especially the leading function are like a common thread that runs through everything a person does and manifest themselves in the way the person applies his gift, the impression one consistently makes on others, and the motivation behind one's achievements. To distinguish between specific talents or knowledge and information signals related to type one needs to be at least superficially familiar with the field the person works or worked in. This allows the typer to separate out the person's distinct personal "take" on the subject or "vector" of interpretation from things that are considered standard practice in the field.

Typing writers and artists
Writers and artists (in the broadest sense of the word) have different motivations for engaging in their creative work. In each case there is something they want to "do" to their audience, for example:

  • convey to the audience a sense of enjoyment of life
  • show the audience what to think about things
  • enrich the audience spiritually
  • make an impression on or shock the audience
  • emotionally affect the audience
  • etc.

Each well-known writer or artist has a characteristic "signature" — or what they convey to others and the way they convey it. One's most consistent and overriding motivations and information "messages" are connected with one's strongest functions. Hence, writers' and artists' information structure and motivation for producing their works can be discerned by finding answers to the following questions:

  • What aspects does the author spend extra time describing/portraying/explaining in his or her works?
  • What aspects does the author ignore or limit discussion/portrayal of?
  • What do readers/viewers do, think, and feel as a result of reading/viewing their works?

Good writers and artists must develop a unique personal "voice" for the same reasons as actors (see section on actors above). They must learn to get their message across effectively to readers and convey what they intended to convey to a majority of their audience. If they do not do this, they cannot become memorable to their audience and withstand the competition. This principle can provide strong clues to writers' and artists' types.

Avoiding mistakes in typing "well-rounded people"
Winston Churchill, in addition to being Britain's great wartime leader, had a number of well-developed artistic pursuits, including painting. He was a gifted painter, but in his paintings he seems to emphasize different aspects than in his work as a political figure. How then do we type him? Very easily:

  • What things did Churchill do for society? What things did Churchill do just for himself?

It is obvious that Churchill and those around him perceived his political and wartime service to be his main contribution to society, while painting was an artistic outlet intended for personal use and pleasure (he began painting at age 40). He put everything he had into his political service, applying all his cunning, wit, and energy. His painting was, by contrast, a relaxing past-time that provided balance to his primary activities. Thus, we type him based on his primary contribution to society and view his painting as an expression of his Super-Id or Id functions.

Examples of typing famous people

To illustrate what I have talked about above, let me give a couple examples. These analyses might be unsatisfying to those who want greater detail, but they show the angle that I and many other socionists take when studying famous people. The innovation I have introduced here is the idea of finding what is most memorable about the person to the rest of the world. I personally find this quite easy to pick up on and can check my impressions relatively easily by scanning the information that is available about the person on the web. Sometimes one's personal reaction a famous person doesn't match what society at large finds memorable about them, which is captured best by competent historians, writers, culturologists, and encyclopedists. A rule of thumb is to go with what these people say, since they almost always possess more information and rarely contradict each other in the big picture.

Other people may have greater difficulty producing a general snapshot of people this way and may prefer to use different methods to arrive at a type hypothesis. In any event, the principles I have listed above still apply.

Marlon Brando (click on link to see pictures)
Everything you read about Marlon Brando sends a single message: he was most memorable to the world for his raw energy, fierce independence, and primal sexuality. This kind of impression is already enough to suggest SLE as his type. Indeed, when we look at his photographs, we get the same impression: a readiness for battle and confrontation, a lusty animal gaze, etc. When we look closer at his life, we find confirmations of these traits in his personal and professional life, and, if we dig deeper, we can see manifestations of the other functions as well that fully match the SLE model.

Mahatma Gandhi
Gandhi made a very powerful impression on the world that is recorded in countless books, articles, and memoirs. He was known for his spiritual, mystic teachings along with his use of non-violence in threatening and violent situations. He had an interesting "complementary" relationship with power and aggression (i.e. he did not engage in it, but did not fear it and allowed himself to be drawn to it) that strongly suggests introverted intuition as a leading function. Indeed, when we look at his photographs we see a person who has cheerily given up all earthly cares and physiological needs and lays no claims on the material world. Looking closer at his life and teachings, we can easily find confirmation of the different functions of IEI and how we would expect them to manifest themselves.

Jacques Cousteau
The world remembers Cousteau first and foremost for his love of the sea and for life on earth. Everything you read about him conveys this message; Cousteau engaged audiences with cheerful, often climactic films of his undersea explorations and his great enthusiasm for the beauty he found there. What he passed on to others was specifically his love for the sea. This always came across clearer than the factual knowledge he conveyed. This is already enough to suggest ESE. His photographs show a cheerful, lively, and enthusiastic old man with a wide, sincere smile that confirms his popular image and memorable qualities. Looking closer at his life, we see a picture that fully matches our expectations of ESE.

See my further discussion of this topic at my blog.