Friday, September 03, 2004

INTP Thinking Patterns

by Asim Jalis

Here are some thoughts related to the INTP style of thinking. GENERALIZING AND SPECIALIZING 1. INTP thinking follows a pattern of generalizing and specializing. Going from the concrete to the abstract and then from the abstract to the concrete. The big payoff for INTP thinking is to (a) organize a multitude of seemingly disconnected phenomena as the manifestations of an underlying principle or concept, (b) to see something new as a special case of a previously known general principle. 2. In software the most satisfying kind of programming experience for this style of thinking is to stumble upon a generalization that subsumes all the special cases into a single geneal case. 3. The humor of the Onion (especially their news in brief) also follows this pattern. They take a piece of real news, abstract out the principle, and then apply it to a different situation. Here is a fake Onion news in brief: Kerry's aunt accuses him of throwing away the fruitcake she sent him for Christmas. 4. Note that this is precisely what I am doing as I write this. I state a general principle in statement 1. Then I provide specific examples of it in 2 and 3, and also in a weird self-referential way, in 4. SEQUENTIAL REASONING 5. The next point is an important one. This is not the only kind of logical thinking. There is some confusion in MBTI sites about the different kinds of logical thinking. The other important kind is what I would call sequential reasoning. You start with a premise and then you go to its implications, and then you go to the implications of the implications and so on. 6. This is the kind of reasoning used in mathematical proofs. However, the other kind (i.e. generalizing and specializing) is also used. I need a better name for it. But we'll discuss that later. 7. In mathematical proofs, while the mechanics of the proofs might use sequential logic, the idea for the proof is usually based on a generalization or specialization of an existing proof. For example, Cantor's diagonalization argument is generalized and specialized to prove that computationally undecidable problems exist. 8. Here is how the generalizing-specializing (G-S) process and the sequential reasoning process interact. You start with an idea, a strategy for the proof, that is provided to you by G-S. And then at the lower implementation layer you apply sequential reasoning to lay out the proof, and to test whether the proof really works or not. 9. Sequential reasoning is also used in programming. There is a natural sequential flow to programs that maps to sequential reasoning. And again in programming the two kinds of reasoning interact. 10. While G-S reasoning is fun and extremely enjoyable for INTPs, this is their natural style of thinking, sequential reasoning is more like work. While understanding the underlying system that is used in sequential reasoning is fun, especially the first time one encounters it, using the machinery over and over again is more like work than like play. 11. The same thing happens with calculus. While understanding it for the first time is fun and mind-expanding, using the machinery to crank out answers loses its appeal quickly. 12. The question that arises now is, what good is G-S? How can we use G-S to create value for other people, and to make a living? How can we find opportunities for maximizing the time we spend doing this G-S type of thinking. APPLICATIONS OF G-S REASONING 13. A disconcerting realization about abstractions (which are the product and currency of G-S reasoning) is that most of them are mental constructs. They don't correspond to entities in the real world. In most cases they are ways of organizing information. 14. The next few points discuss some places where abstractions are used: EXTERNAL MARKETING MESSAGE 15. Abstractions can be used to reduce the bandwidth of communication. For example, the Republicans have associated the label "flip-flop" with Kerry. By abstracting a lot of specific behavior into this mildly negative term, they turn volumes of details about his voting record into a small easily digestible pill, that their supporters can absorb instantly. 16. I should point out that I am using this example, not because I support the Republicans, but rather because it seems to me that they have a much better marketing campaign than the Democrats. The Democrats seem to not understand the idea that bandwidth is limited. While their platform might be appealing they have resisted abstracting it down to a few core principles. As a result the message is not well-understood, except by people who invest a lot of time understanding it. Compare this to the Republican message: Lower taxes and stronger defense. 17. The Republicans are much better at using abstraction than the Democrats. Abstraction and G-S thinking are extremely useful in marketing a new product and in communicating complex ideas to consumers. INTERNAL VISION 18. Abstractions are also useful in communicating ideas internally within organizations. E.g. Microsoft has defined itself as the company that empowers people to fulfill their potential. Whether this is correct or not, it's a single coherent message, that abstracts out the details of a lot of things the company does. And it does a reasonable job of this. You can see that Word, Powerpoint, Excel, Visual Studio and the other software products empower people to fulfill their potential. A single message like this allows a large organization to align itself with a common strategy. 19. Companies that don't spend the time to abstract out what it is that they really do end up becoming incoherent and chaotic, much like programs without a central vision. 20. Note that the vision does not need to precede the reality. It can emerge over time, and can be abstracted out from the specifics of what is really happening. 21. Having a single theory, a single abstract principle that summarizes all the details, allows an organization to align with itself. PHYSICAL UNIVERSE 22. Abstractions and the G-S reasoning process also appear to work well for describing and predicting physical reality. It's not obvious that this should be the case. But we happen to live in a universe where this is. 23. For example, in the stock market this model does not work quite so well. So it is not true that G-S reasoning and abstractions can always predict reality as well as they do in physics. But this happens to be the case in the physical sciences. 24. And yet, even in the stock market, G-S and abstractions can provide some value. They can be used to abstract out essential principles from the details, making it easier to remember how to behave and what to do to succeed. 25. Principles like Lower-The-Bar and Close-The-Loop are applications of G-S reasoning to messy every day life in which we have incomplete information and we need to act fast. 26. In daily living, G-S can provide useful value if we have a large enough sample to work with. We get data through action. So without action and interaction with reality G-S does not work so well. HUMOR 27. G-S can also be used to create humor, as the Onion sometimes does. Also Woody Allen's humor (especially in his books) has a strong G-S flavor. GENERAL STRATEGY FOR CREATING VALUE 28. It's important to use G-S to create value because otherwise its use won't be self-sustaining. If G-S does not pay the bills then I will end up spending more time doing things that do pay the bills and spending less time doing G-S. 29. G-S can also be used to create value in the career that one is already in.