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The Strange Attractor Within

Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D.
This article appeared in the Bulletin of Psychological Type, 1996, Vol 19, No 4, pp. 34-35.

After presenting “A Systems Perspective of Psychological Type” at both the Great Lakes and Southeast Regional APT conferences earlier this year, I received numerous comments from participants about their “aha!” experiences as a result of the presentations. Of particular interest was the concept of the “strange attractor” within each of us that shapes and gives form to our psychological Type. This article is an attempt to share a thumbnail sketch of one of the mysteries of the human psyche.

As we leave the 20th century, we do so with a new perspective on systems. Namely, that nature does not follow a linear pattern, and that linearity, if it exists in nature, is a special case of nonlinearity. Thus, the study of nonlinear systems, particularly chaos theory, is one of the three major scientific revolutions of the 20th century, not only from a mathematical perspective, but from a human and organizational dynamics framework. Underlying the enormous complexity of nonlinearity appear to be the relatively simple, yet secret, tenets of the behavioral control center of all complex systems, including the human psyche.

An amazing characteristic of nonlinearity in a system is that it contains its own capacity for transformation, requiring only the right conditions for activation. . . . nonlinear systems have locked up within their nonlinearity a tendency toward change, growth, and development. . . . essentially . . . transforming into greater and greater complexity. (Goldstein, 1994, p. 12)

A common misapplication of Type theory is to imply that ENFJ = E+N+F+J. Implicit in a linear, additive model such as this is the notion that to understand someone with an ENFJ preference, you must only understand the individual components E, N, F & J. This is an example of a Newtonian, reductionistic approach to understanding Type dynamics.

Human psychological Type systems, however, are nonlinear and contain a capacity for transformation that could be called a “personality DNA”—a Type development code that establishes rules and boundaries for Type development. The code might consist of a patterning, or sequencing, of the eight function-attitudes. For example, an ENFP might have a personality DNA strand that resembles NeFiTeSiNiFeTiSe, or an ISTJ might have a strand of SiTeFiNeSeTiFeNi. The personality DNA would account for a person’s biological predisposition toward a pattern of psychological development.

A characteristic of nonlinear systems is a feedback loop that feeds information back into the system where it is iterated, or used multiplicatively. This iterative process makes nonlinear systems extremely sensitive to even the smallest internal variations. An example of this sensitive dependence on initial conditions, known as the “butterfly effect,” was popularized by the movie Jurassic Park . In the movie, a mathematician talked about the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Tokyo having an influence on a tornado in Texas . The butterfly effect originated in the work of meteorologist (and mathematician) Edward N. Lorenz on weather models in the early 60s.

Mathematically, nonlinear systems are a version of the twilight zone (Briggs & Peat, 1989). Sudden changes from “normal” to alternate realities are common. A minute change in one variable can yield a vastly disproportionate change in the system at a later time. It is also difficult, if not impossible, to make exact predictions of how a system will behave in the future. Psychological Type systems are no exception—Jung admitted that it is sometimes impossible to determine a person’s “true” Type.

If Type is viewed as a system, then the interdependency between the components of a Type system creates a recognizable identification, or pattern, that separates the system from its environment. The point of transition from system to environment is the boundary of the system. Outer walls provide the boundary, or pattern, of a house. Skin provides the physical boundary of the human body and defines the visual pattern of a human. The boundaries of human behavior provide a recognizable pattern of psychological Type.

The pattern formed by nonlinear systems is controlled by one or more “attractors” operating within the system. The movement of a pendulum is influenced by a “point” attractor trying to bring it to rest in a vertical position. Tornados have a “limit cycle” attractor that tries to keep the air moving in a circle around the center of the funnel. More complex patterns, such as fractals, are formed by strange attractors. I believe the strange attractor is what drives the pattern of the human psyche, giving rise to behavioral, interactional and cognitive patterns commonly referred to as a psychological Type.

The strange attractor acts like a gyroscope, keeping the particular Type dynamic on course, as determined by the personality DNA. Outside forces such as stress can act on the strange attractor, forcing the Type to temporarily modify its pattern. “In the grip” behavior of a Type would be an example of this temporal pattern change. Fortunately, like the gyroscope, when the external force (stress in this case) is removed the pattern typically returns to near normal.

The MBTI ® recognizes 16 identifiable patterns (Types) and, consequently, at least 16 strange attractors, one for each psychological Type. The strange attractors can also be divided into four similar but not identical groups that account for the four temperament patterns. The benefits of recognizing psychological Type as a nonlinear system include a deeper understanding of Type dynamics and a realization that Type is in constant motion and under the control of a strange attractor.

When looking at a four-letter Type preference, we are really looking at a nonlinear system under the control of a strange attractor within the psyche, and we must avoid linear oversimplification. Peitgen warns:

[This is] one of the major surprising impacts of . . . chaos theory—that in the presence of a complex pattern there is a good chance that a very simple process is responsible for it. In other words, the simplicity of a process should not mislead us into concluding that it will be easy to understand its consequences. (Peitgen, et. al., 1992, p. 16)

Movement toward a systems perspective of Type is building momentum and will most likely be the dominant paradigm as we enter the 21st century.


Briggs, J. & Peat, F.D. (1989). Turbulent Mirror: An Illustrated Guide to Chaos Theory and the Science of Wholeness. New York , NY : Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.

Goldstein, J. (1994). The Unshackled Organization. Portland , OR : Productivity Press, Inc.

Peitgen, H-Z., Jurgens, H. & Saupe, D. (1992). Chaos and Fractals: New Frontiers of Science. New York , NY : Springer-Verlag.

Copyright © 1996 Henry L. Thompson, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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