Regardless of what you think of Sonia Sotomayor’s politics, President Obama has touted his Supreme Court nominee as having two distinct qualities that he implies our judges don’t always have: practicality and empathy.
What is the likelihood that any such description of her is correct? And on what basis can we make such judgments?
A look at what we know about lawyers’ personal styles as shown on various assessments indicates that, indeed, lawyers are most likely to be "high concept" thinkers, or "Intuitors" according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Over half of lawyers are Intuitors, while only 1/4th of the general public are. That type of thinker stands in contrast to those who are more concrete and thus better able to see practical implications–the MBTI type called "Sensors." Almost 3/4th of the general public but less than half of lawyers are Sensors. Perhaps Sotomayor’s reputation for being practical arises from her being in that smaller group of more concrete lawyers.
Lawyers are also more likely than the general public to be MBTI "Thinkers" instead of "Feelers," a distinction that recognizes how people make decisions. Thinkers rely more heavily on objectivity–stepping away from the issue, while Feelers are more likely to make decisions using empathy–putting themselves into the scenario to see what it feels like. More than three-quarters of lawyers are Thinkers, while less than half of the general public is. This decision-making style is also the one MBTI type where gender plays a role–about half of men in the general population are Feelers, as are 2/3rds of women. Among lawyers, 4/5ths of male lawyers and 2/3rds of female lawyers are Thinkers. As a woman, Sotomayor has a statistically better chance of being more inclined to empathic decision making.
Armchair psychologizing obviously has its risks, but simply looking at the MBTI odds makes it likely that there is in fact a basis for thinking that practicality and empathy are in shorter supply among lawyers, and therefore among judges, than out in the rest of the world. So regardless of her various policy and political leanings, Ms. Sotomayor might in fact be able to bring those very attributes to the Supreme Court bench.