ISTP Personality: Traits, Relationships, Career Matches
Quiet, calculating, and skeptical, ISTPs can have a tough exterior and a strong independent streak.
The ISTP is one of 16 types from the popular Myers-Briggs tradition. In this post, you’ll learn about how the ISTP type is related to the modern, scientific personality system known as the Big Five. You’ll also see the interpersonal behaviors and career interests that many ISTPs have in common.
You can jump straight to any section by clicking the links below. Otherwise, we’ll start with the classic definition of the ISTP personality type.
I. Definition of the ISTP Personality Type
II. Big Five Personality Dimensions of the ISTP
III. Remarkable Personality Patterns in ISTPs
I. Definition of the ISTP personality type
In the popular Myers-Briggs or 16-personalities tradition, all personalities belong to one of 16 types. Each type is defined by preferences across four cognitive functions:
ISTPs are Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, and Perceiving.
Introverted people are focused inwards. They prefer the inner world of ideas and reflection over the external world of people and actions.
People who prefer Sensing tend to gather information through direct observation. They use their five senses to uncover facts and are more skeptical of more intuitive, theoretical approaches to learning and understanding.
People who prefer Thinking often lean heavily on logic, consistency, and correctness when making decisions. Unlike those who prefer Feeling, they are less easily swayed by empathy or other social considerations when evaluating a course of action.
People who prefer Perceiving tend to relate to other people through their perceiving preference, which is Sensing for ISTPs. Other people will see SP-types, like the ISTP, as observant and more reactive to their sensory experience, rather than as slow and cautious decision-makers.
Beyond personality types
While the 16-personality framework and its complex cognitive functions are fun and intriguing, they are less useful for predicting important life outcomes, like relationships, health, happiness, hobbies, educational and career outcomes.
The reality of personality differences is much more complicated than 16 types. This complexity is why modern personality science uses dimensions or traits to describe personalities, rather than simple categories or types.
For example, labeling someone as “Extraverted” or “Introverted” is a vast oversimplification. Every individual falls somewhere on a broad spectrum between highly extraverted and highly introverted.
Moreover, a single dimension like Extraversion/Introversion is inadequate for fully describing someone’s personality. In general, several dimensions are necessary to create a complete picture of an individual’s unique character.
Below, I’ll describe how ISTPs fit into the modern world of personality dimensions.
II. Big Five Personality Dimensions of the ISTP
In personality studies, scientific researchers often use a trait-based approach to describing the differences between people instead of using personality types. The most well-established method is the Big Five, which describes differences along five broad dimensions:
- Openness to Experience
Your combined positions across all Big Five dimensions describe your personality.
How does this relate to the ISTP? People with the same type tend to have similar (but not identical) Big Five dimensions.
The graph below shows how ISTPs score on the Big Five dimensions. Each blue dot is an ISTP, and darker blue areas mean more ISTPs are in that area.
For example, on the Agreeableness dimension, ISTPs tend to score lower than average, so the Low and Very Low areas are very dark blue. But, you might notice that there are a few blue dots in the High area of Agreeableness.
So, while most ISTPs tend to score lower than average on Agreeableness, there are a few exceptions.
Below, you can see more detail on how ISTPs score on each Big Five dimension.
Openness to Experience
ISTPs tend to score lower on Openness to Experience, meaning they are often more conventional or traditional. About 85% of ISTPs score below average on Openness to Experience.
Openness to Experience describes your need for new information, feelings, and experiences.
Less open people prefer the familiar ways of doing things. They are less interested in trying new things or seeking out new experiences. They also tend to be less eccentric and have more conventional tastes in hobbies, music, and reading material.
Highly open people have diverse interests, and they may feel a constant need to learn and try new things.
Almost all ISTPs fall below the average on Conscientiousness.
Conscientiousness describes your tendency to plan, organize, and persistently focus on long-term goals.
Highly conscientious people are more likely to set goals far in the future, then come up with detailed plans on how to achieve these goals. They are also more likely to stick to the goals they set and more persistent in working through difficulty to reach them.
Less conscientious people tend to be more spontaneous or impulsive. They are more interested in the present or short-term future, and more likely to change their mind, or change direction when obstacles arise.
ISTPs usually score lower on Extraversion, with about 80% of ISTPs scoring below average or on the more introverted side of the scale.
Extraversion describes your assertiveness, enthusiasm, and experiences of positive emotions.
Highly introverted people, like many ISTPs, are more socially reserved and quiet. They have a lower tolerance for highly stimulating environments and often retreat to calm and quiet situations in solitude. They also experience positive emotions less intensely and less frequently. For example, others may notice that introverts tend to smile and laugh less often than most.
Highly extraverted people tend to be more socially outgoing and talkative, and they often seek out more stimulating environments (think loud, crowded, or risky and exciting situations). High extraverts also feel and express positive emotions (e.g., joy, laughter, excitement) more intensely and more frequently.
Almost all ISTPs fall below the average on Agreeableness.
Agreeableness describes your interpersonal warmth, politeness, and empathy.
Less agreeable (or more demanding) people, like most ISTPs, are often less concerned with others when pursuing their own goals. They are more willing to create conflict or express disagreement across most situations and feel less discomfort during interpersonal disputes.
Highly agreeable people feel a more substantial need to keep warmer, friendlier relationships with others and are naturally more hesitant to impose their will on others. They will be more considerate of how their actions impact others and try to reduce or resolve interpersonal conflicts when they arise.
ISTPs vary widely in Neuroticism, with no apparent trends between ISTPs and this dimension. You can find ISTPs across the entire range of Neuroticism.
Neuroticism describes how frequently and how intensely you experience negative emotions, like anxiety, anger, and sadness.
Highly neurotic people tend to worry more, have more frequent mood swings, withdraw when feeling distressed, and feel more self-conscious.
Less neurotic people are more easy-going, have more predictable moods, and are more resilient under stress. They also experience less of the harmful types of self-consciousness, like rumination and self-doubt, reported by more neurotic people.
III. Remarkable Personality Patterns in ISTPs
There are at least three exceptional patterns commonly seen in the ISTPs:
Cynical and defiant
ISTPs often score on the lower ends of Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, two dimensions closely related to trust and adherence to social norms. People who score low on both, like ISTPs, tend to be suspicious of others’ motives and have a greater distrust of individuals and institutions.
They may feel an inherent resistance to authority and certain social conventions. Rather than following others and trying to fit in, ISTPs have a strong independent streak and prefer to go their own way.
Terse and to the point
ISTJs will often say what they mean and use very few words to say it.
High Openness is related to using more sophisticated, abstract language, whereas lower Openness (as seen in ISTPs) correlates with simpler, more concrete words and phrases. Combined with this, most ISTPs tend to score lower on Agreeableness, which influences our use of polite, friendly language. The lower Agreeableness of many ISTPs may be behind their more direct and frank communication.
Quiet and unpredictable
Others may have difficulty reading ISTPs, who often have a quiet, reserved exterior but a spontaneous, impulsive mind. ISTPs usually have a blend of lower Extraversion and lower Conscientiousness, leading them to be more reserved and withdrawn, holding their opinions and thoughts back in most social situations and avoiding the spotlight.
Despite their quiet exterior, they often impulsively make decisions with their gut, rather than with careful planning. When possible, they will avoid sticking to a schedule and prefer the freedom to change their plans at the last minute.
How others describe the ISTP
How do other people see and describe ISTPs?
The wordcloud below shows over 50 words used to describe people with similar Big Five personality dimensions as a typical ISTP. Larger words describe the more prominent aspects of ISTPs.
Because no two ISTPs are the same, some of the words above may be better descriptors of a particular individual than others. You can see your personality’s own unique set of words with TraitLab’s free assessment.
Interpersonal style, strengths, and challenges
You might have noticed that some individuals have a consistent effect on you every time you interact with them. For example, one particular friend might make you consistently laugh and smile more than usual. Or, one reliably passive coworker or classmate may tend to bring out your bossier, more demanding side.
Each of us has a typical interpersonal style. This style influences how others think and feel when they are around you, and in turn, it can affect how they interact back with you.
A classic method of visualizing interpersonal style is using the circular figure below. The vertical axis shows your style in terms of dominance, with a highly assertive style at the top (Assured-Dominant) and a highly passive style at the bottom (Unassured-Submissive). The horizontal axis shows your style in terms of warmth, with a cold and impersonal style on the left (Cold-Aggressive) and a friendly, empathetic manner on the right (Warm-Agreeable).
The shaded blue area shows the typical interpersonal style of ISTPs across eight dimensions. Notice the areas where the blue area extends closer to the outer edges of the circle. These are the aspects that most heavily influence ISTPs’ interactions.
To summarize the graph above, three aspects most heavily influence ISTPs’ interpersonal style:
- They are forthright, firm, and speak their mind directly.
- At their best, they are fiercely independent and unaffected by the thoughts and opinions of others.
- They may be harsh, frank, or insensitive in their criticism of others.
- At their worst, they can be overly aggressive and too eager to fight and argue with others.
- They are realists who perceive things and people clearly, without being overly optimistic.
- At their best, they are practical skeptics who are comfortable holding and sharing unorthodox, unpopular views.
- They may be too skeptical and suspicious, and they may have difficulty trusting others.
- At their worst, they can struggle to make new friends and socialize, and have a hard time showing affection and admiration for others.
- They are assertive, competitive, and like a good challenge.
- At their best, they are bold and confident leaders who are willing to take unpopular action.
- They may be overly proud, boisterous, and willing to manipulate others to achieve their goals.
- At their worst, they can be narcissistic, overly focused on their own needs, and lack empathy for others.
The chart below shows how the personality traits of ISTPs are related to the classic RIASEC career interests: Realistic, Investigative, Artistic, Social, Enterprising, and Conventional. Your unique blend of these interests dramatically influences how well a career feels like a good fit.
On each dimension, you’ll see areas where ISTPs tend to crowd up (shown by the dark blue bars). These are the areas where ISTPs are most likely to fall.
But, you’ll also find ISTPs the entire range of each dimension. While most ISTPs tend to have relatively higher Artistic interests, there are still a few ISTPs who score very low on them.
Most ISTPs tend to have the following pattern of interests:
High Realistic interests (Doers): People with high Realistic interests enjoy careers that allow them to work with their hands or tools to get a job done, rather than thinking or talking about it. They may also gravitate towards jobs with opportunities for working outdoors, competition, and risk-taking. Examples include police officers, military officers, professional athletes, farmers, builders, mechanics, forest rangers, and woodworkers.
High Conventional interests (Organizers): People with strong Conventional interests excel in roles that require categorizing, planning, and systematizing information and processes. Examples include financial officers, budget analysts, office managers, database analysts, and systems administrators.
Average Investigative interests (Thinkers): People with strong Investigative interests prefer roles that require observation, researching, and understanding ideas. They tend to prefer working with data and ideas rather than working closely with other people. Examples include medical researchers, chemists, software engineers, scientific reporters, and statisticians.
Low Enterprising interests (Persuaders): People with strong Enterprising interests are often skilled communicators who enjoy influencing, persuading, and leading others. They actively pursue leadership roles and opportunities to bolster their status and reputation. Examples include sales and marketing directors, politicians and political organizers, and executives.
Low Artistic interests (Creators): People with strong Artistic interests prefer jobs that require innovation through artistic and intuitive skills in less structured tasks and environments. Examples include artists, novelists, actors or actresses, musicians, curators, and designers.
Low Social interests (Helpers): People with strong Social interests fit well with careers that involve helping, comforting, caring for, and teaching other people. Examples include physical therapists, counselors, clergy, social workers, doctors, and nurses.
Remember that these rankings only describe the average ISTP, and personality types can only offer very general descriptions of career interests. Even if you see yourself as an ISTP, your unique set of career interests may vary from the above descriptions.
Potential career matches
ISTPs’ two most consistent strengths are Realistic and Conventional interests, meaning they are more likely to thrive in more structured roles, doing hands-on work, or using machinery or tools. They may also prefer working with things and objects (repairing or crafting) over working directly with people.
Examples of careers that blend Realistic and Conventional interests include:
- Computer Scientists
- Microsystems Engineers
- Software Developers
- Robotics Engineers
- Mechanical Engineers
- Farm and Ranch Managers
- Construction Managers
- Pharmacy Technicians
- Fire Inspectors
- Watch Repairers
- Radiologic Technicians
- Police Officers
- Food Science Technicians
- Construction and Building Inspectors
Careers to avoid
ISTPs are usually less interested in jobs with heavy Social, Artistic, and Enterprising demands. These positions tend to have less structure and focus on motivating, persuading, and helping others. ISTPs may be highly competent in any of these roles, but their natural strengths may be underused.
Examples of these roles include:
- Mental Health Counselors
- Marriage and Family Therapists
- Speech-Language Pathologists
- Kindergarten Teachers
- Secondary School Teachers
- Public Relations Specialists
- Music Directors
How to learn about your personality
Your personality type only gives you a rough approximation of your underlying traits. As described in this post, ISTPs can vary widely in their Big Five dimensions, interpersonal style, and career interests. Just knowing that you are an ISTP doesn’t tell you that much.
So what’s the next step? Skip the types entirely and learn about your unique blend of personality traits, interpersonal style, and career interests by directly measuring them here at TraitLab. Get started for free and see your Big Five dimensions with the Basic assessment.
Header photo by Maxime Agnelli
You might like these, too.