The Cognitive Functions Explained

A digital illustration of two hands clasping together with outlines of tulips in front.

I don’t want this post to become concerningly long, so I will keep the preamble to a minimum. The first of two theories I’d like to illustrate is that of cognitive functions, and how they combine with the grant stack to form the system I follow.

You’ve probably heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) through online tests, the most famous of which is 16Personalities. There are a number of problems with this simplistic system, not to mention Myer and Briggs’ deeply held eugenicist beliefs that were a key motivator for their adaptation of Carl Jung’s book Psychological Types.

Divorced from those creators, Psychological Types is the original source of modern-day cognitive function theory (or type dynamics, as he called it); Jung uses the 4-letter format as shorthand for arrangements of different functions. This system can take a while to wrap your head around, but I’ll try to break it down in simple terms (I personally had to practice deciphering types for a while before I didn’t have to look them up each time).

First off, there are 8 functions total which are further grouped into 4 introverted and 4 extraverted subsets, as well as 4 judging and 4 perceiving functions. The most popular way to assemble these functions is with the Howard Grant cognitive function stack, which I will be using for this blog. Many people in the typology community have started shifting to Jung’s stack as of late, but I have yet to look into this myself.

This framework arranges the functions as either I-E-I-E or E-I-E-I (short for Introverted/Extraverted) and alternates between perceiving and judging. Such a stack would form into types like so:

Fe-Ni-Se-Ti (ENFJ)
Fe-Si-Ne-Ti (ESFJ)
Te-Ni-Se-Fi (ENTJ)
Te-Si-Ne-Fi (ESTJ)
Se-Fi-Te-Ni (ESFP)
Se-Ti-Fe-Ni (ESTP)
Ne-Fi-Te-Si (ENFP)
Ne-Ti-Fe-Si (ENTP)
Fi-Ne-Si-Te (INFP)
Fi-Se-Ni-Te (ISFP)
Ti-Ne-Si-Fe (INTP)
Ti-Se-Ni-Fe (ISTP)
Si-Fe-Ti-Ne (ISFJ)
Si-Te-Fi-Ne (ISTJ)
Ni-Fe-Ti-Se (INFJ)
Ni-Te-Fi-Se (INTJ)

To decode a 4-letter type, you would look at the first letter (I/E) to determine stack order, then the last letter (J/P) to figure out whether the first extraverted function is judging (Feeling/Thinking) or perceiving (Sensing/iNtuition). Finally, the middle two letters stand for the dominant and secondary functions in whichever order that works with the previous rules.

Therefore, even types which share most of the same letters can be completely different, and vice versa; consider INFJ (Ni-Fe-Ti-Se) and INFP (Fi-Ne-Si-Te) for example. The functions are oftentimes referred to by their positions of dominant, secondary, tertiary, and inferior; these broadly describe which functions an individual prioritizes over others. 

Next, I’ll explain the functions themselves. There are many shortcuts to remember what each function represents, but I encourage you to take care in preventing stereotypes or oversimplifications. The cognitive functions are made to serve us in understanding ourselves and other people, not the other way around.

It’s also important to note that these functions cannot meaningfully be interpreted on their lonesome; each introverted function has a corresponding extraverted function of the opposite (ie: Fi-Te, Ti-Fe, Ni-Se, Si-Ne).

Judging functions work by making decisions and judgements about the observations made by perceiving functions

Fe (Extraverted Feeling):

  • Innately notices other people’s emotional state
  • Tends to the needs of others, whether said individuals’ wants are outwardly shown or not
  • Greatly values inclusion and harmony between people
  • Acts on ethics based on what is morally justifiable; similar to moral rationalism
  • Much respect paid to politeness and other social graces
  • Is balanced by Ti to consider more rational means of decision making

Fi (Introverted Feeling):

  • Prescribes value based on honesty and authenticity, with an aversion towards shallowness
  • Has strong opinions on what they like and dislike without much influence from other people
  • Self-reflects on own values often, refining their ideas of morality again and again
  • Trusts own values above all else and therefore can have trouble seeing alternative perspectives
  • Looks for and assigns deep meaning to seemingly menial aspects of life 
  • Te provides stronger evidence to back up their ideas

Te (Extraverted Thinking):

  • Preoccupied with concrete facts and efficiency
  • Trusts the objective truth and external laws or guidelines
  • Looks for consistency and follows through on plans
  • Sorts through information to cut out what is unnecessary 
  • Seeks to solve problems quickly without much contemplation
  • Fi brings own values into decision-making

Ti (Introverted Thinking):

  • Focuses on internal logical systems that are difficult to explain to others
  • Understands through taking apart, rearranging, etc
  • Compares new information to previous knowledge and only ‘lets in’ what makes sense to the user
  • Works backwards from the source of a problem to the solution using said framework
  • Seeks to be as objective as possible and explores concepts thoroughly
  • Considers others experiences more through use of Fe

Perceiving functions work by making observations or connecting thoughts, but don’t make decisions on their own

Se (Extraverted Sensing):

  • Mostly concerned with what is happening in the present and the real world
  • Takes in raw sensory information and endlessly seeks out new experiences
  • Can accurately judge physical properties
  • Prefers to work with their hands instead of theory and likes to push boundaries
  • Has an acute spatial awareness of how the body moves and interacts with environments, as if the external is merged into their internal
  • Se with poor Ni continues exploring the environment without discerning any meaning
  • Is filtered through Ni to find patterns, symbolism, and reach deductions

Si (Introverted Sensing):

  • Takes in information by classifying it into categories, like a branching directory
  • Utilizes successful past experiences and knowledge to approach new tasks
  • Concerned with subjective details and the familiar (how something feels to the individual)
  • Creates associations with emotions that later get brought up alongside the memories
  • Focuses on how the past can relate to the present/future, without discerning any hidden meaning
  • Si with poor Ne can become stuck in what they’ve always done and refuse change
  • Sorts information given by Ne into more practical and organized ideas

Ne (Extraverted iNtuition):

  • Approaches tasks with a need to experiment and brainstorm
  • Thinks of all kinds of ideas no matter how unrealistic for the task at hand
  • Branches off into seemingly unrelated topics but can explain how they connect together
  • Very broad in scope and can come up with endless what-ifs
  • Sees the world in terms of possibility and opportunity
  • Ne with poor Si never gets anything done, stuck in a loop of generating ideas
  • Allows Si to explore more ‘big picture’ concepts and take in abstract data

Ni (Introverted iNtuition):

  • Seeks out the deeper connection to everything, taking big unconscious leaps in train of thought
  • Arrives at deductions without being able to clearly explain thought process; extrapolates from data
  • Can be seen as filling in the blanks or condensing vast amounts of information into single concepts
  • Focused on the far future, patterns, and consistency, can be prone to overlooking concrete details
  • Is usually comfortable with guessing, because they trust to be correct in conclusions
  • Ni with poor Se get hung up on one idea without considering the actual facts
  • Se balances these symbolic undertones with more practical information

Finally, I will leave you with my go-to websites for further information about cognitive functions:

  • TypeinMind has a comprehensive and short assessment that can give a great foundation to self-exploration (it’s currently broken, but hopefully will come back!)
  • MistypeInvestigator is an 80-question test that tries to account for bias and search for possible mistypes; this should again be taken as an addition to your exploration
  • Sakinorva gives a well-researched account of the history of cognitive functions, and offers a more loose interpretation of typology (I find this to be an interesting perspective, despite my own opinions around each theory)
  • Reddit, PersonalityCafe, and similar forums can be good for finding a large variety of ideas around personality theory, but can be hit-or-miss due to the sheer number of users
  • Blogs are usually good sources of information, especially if they provide specific references
  • Quizzes, tests, and assessments should mainly be used as a starting point 

I’ll be writing up a post on the Enneagram next week, so stay tuned!


  • January 24, 2023
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