Why the long-debunked Myers-Briggs personality test is still being used

by Joanne Black / 21 December, 2018
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

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The credibility of the world’s most popular personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, has long been debunked yet it is still used by career consultants, human resources department and others. Merve Emre investigated why.

If someone at a party introduced themselves as “an ENTJ”, would you a) embark on an animated discussion about personality types or b) run for the door?

To know that ENTJ stands for extroversion, intuition (yes, grammarians will be sidetracked wondering where the “I” went), thinking and judgment will probably reveal that you, too, have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It is an assessment – its promoters reject the term “test” – used by career consultants, human resources departments and others to evaluate personality.

Oxford University associate professor of English Merve Emre first came across it when she took a job as a management consultant. Hired by Bain and Co, one of the first things she had to do was take the MBTI herself.

The standard test involves 93 questions in which participants pick the answers they feel best reflect or describe their personal preferences and instincts. There are no right or wrong answers. Questions cover whether you prefer spontaneous or planned events and whether you like talking to strangers at parties or prefer talking to people you know. The possible answers are binary: if you like spontaneous and planned events, you are encouraged to pick the answer that most suits you.

The MBTI ranked Emre as an ENTJ. That is one of 16 different possible combinations that ascribe characteristics including extroversion or introversion, judging or perception, thinking or feeling.

The idea that “who you are” was not the sum of what you had done in the world and where you had come from, but was instead an innate and apparently immutable set of characteristics, entranced Emre.

“I thought my [ENTJ] type description fitted me to a T,” she tells the Listener. I felt really seen for the first time and I wanted to use that language of [personality] type.”

She did begin using “the language of type” and has continued to do so, even though nowadays she is an MBTI sceptic.

Language of type: Merve Emre. Photo/Supplied

No formal training

Casting around for a new subject after her PhD, Emre thought again about the MBTI. She was surprised to discover that, far from her assumption that Myers and Briggs were two men who had been laboratory colleagues somewhere, they were an American mother and daughter, Katharine Cook Briggs (1875-1968) and Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1980). The pair had no formal training in psychology or sociology, but being intelligent, curious and passionate about personality assessment, they had dedicated their professional lives to studying the subject. Briggs had her own ideas of how to train children to be obedient and curious – Isabel was her shining example – and had already developed theories and classifications of personalities when Carl Jung’s Psychological Types was published in 1921. She became a Jung disciple, preferring his categories of extrovert and introvert to her own descriptions of meditative, critical, sociable and spontaneous personalities. She met Jung when he visited the US, and they corresponded. It was Isabel who further developed what is now known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and, through it, the two women were instrumental in starting what has become a US$2 billion psychometric testing industry.

The MBTI has been used, and continues to be used, by thousands of companies, schools and institutions around the world to help make decisions about personnel recruitment, promotion, team-building and task-setting, as well as being used by career and life coaches, therapists and consultants.

Carl Jung. Photo/Getty Images

Carl Jung. Photo/Getty Images

Jealously guarded archives

Emre’s surprise that Myers and Briggs were women, and that little biographical detail about them was readily available, seems to be not only an example of women’s pioneering work not being recorded by history, but also the result of information being deliberately concealed.

In the introduction to her recently published book, What’s Your Type – The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Emre outlines the lengths she had to go to in order to access Briggs Myers’ archive, which was donated after her death to the University of Florida. Although the papers should have been available to researchers, permission was needed from the Centre for Applications of Psychological Type, which Briggs Myers had helped establish not long before her death. Emre was twice told by the university librarian that she would never receive permission to view the archive, because “the staff is very invested in protecting Isabel’s image”.

She was asked by the centre to undertake a Myers-Briggs “re-education programme” in Manhattan, which cost nearly US$2000. She and the 25 other participants were told they would learn to “speak type fluently” over the four-day course.

Various rules about “speaking type” were given: the supervisor asked participants to chant after her, “Type never changes! Type never changes!” Emre found the idea of a singular self that never changed “impossibly retrograde”.

Emre – who is not a psychologist – does not believe that personality is fixed. “Personality is always a series of expressions of oneself that are socially and culturally constructed and constrained,” she says. “In that case, it doesn’t make sense to talk about your personality changing because it was never something fixed to begin with. Those expressions of the self that we emit are almost always mediated by language, and I’m interested in the language we have formulated to describe ourselves and to create the illusion of ourselves as coherent and complete human beings who have some knowable interiority.” That idea, Emre says, is the fantasy promoted by fiction. “It is the idea that characters can be created that are complicated but ultimately knowable and we can set them on journeys of psychological development. It seems to me that personality testing and typing trades on precisely that kind of fantasy.”

Katharine Briggs. Photo/Supplied

Character building

When administered properly, the MBTI includes sitting with a certified assessor and telling them stories from your life and taking the questionnaire before coming up with the four-letter result that indicates your “type”. You then make plans about what you might want to do in future, based on your new understanding of your own personality.

“That whole experience, done properly, is supposed to take you from your past to your present to your future. It’s supposed to help you construct this story about who you are, then to send that version of yourself down some kind of trajectory to the future.”

By the time Emre took her week of “re-education”, she already knew enough about the MBTI to be a doubter. “I remember doing exercises with those people in the room for a week and thinking, ‘How do they do this so honestly?’ I could barely get myself to stand up and walk across the room when they said, ‘Okay, extroverts on this side, introverts on the other side’. It made me want to run into the hallway, screaming.” It was probably no surprise that, at the end of the course, the centre told her she would not be allowed access to the archive. “I thought, ‘Why all this fuss?’ What is in those archives and what is the story here that they don’t want people to know about, or that they want [only] someone who is a true believer to tell? That’s when I decided I had to write the book.”

Eventually, Emre did get access to the material and her book is as much a sympathetic biography of the mother and daughter amateur psychologists as it is a critique of the famous personality type indicator that they pioneered.

It seems likely there were several things that the now Myers-Briggs company might prefer not to have become general knowledge, although none seems fatal to the MBTI’s popularity.

Emre accepts that despite the pair having no formal training in psychology or sociology, no cognisance of ethical guidelines, a complete lack of interest in racial, gender and class differences that might affect psychological profiles and the MBTI’s complete lack of scientific rigour, there are nevertheless people who find it compelling and helpful.

As long as people know the test’s limitations, and it is not being applied to make decisions for which it should not be relied upon, it is likely to be harmless to most, and possibly helpful to some, she says.

Isabel Briggs Myers. Photo/Supplied

“Learning that language of type, especially for people who have not had other opportunities to really think about personality or the self or even their own motivations, can feel like a revelation and feel deeply empowering.”

In part, that is because the MBTI, with its 16 possible outcomes, insists that no personality type is better than any other. That made the indicator unusual at the time it was developed, when most psychological testing was designed to identify personality disorders or, at least, those who might be difficult in a workplace.

The MBTI offered acceptance of all types of people who did not have personality disorders, and hinted at the potential for workplace organisation to improve efficiency and happiness for both employers and employees if people could be assigned to tasks that suited them.

It also allowed people who took the test to have possible insights into their own character – an attribute of the MBTI that, Emre says, remains valid for some people.

“The MBTI tells people that you don’t have to apologise for who you are. You don’t have to make excuses for it, you can just own your own preferences and your habitual attitude towards the world and, knowing that, you can figure out what makes you happy.”

Where it can go wrong, it seems, is in its application. It remains widely used to test people’s suitability for jobs – either getting a job in the first place or for promotion or redeployment. It is used for helping to decide who works well in groups and who works better alone. Since writing the book, Emre has had many emails from people who have been discriminated against by employers because of the MBTI, or had it used insensitively by therapists. Equally, she says, “I’ve got a series of somewhat hostile emails from people saying, ‘You have done irreparable damage to something that makes people’s lives better. How could you?’”

Whether her book has damaged the MBTI depends on how you define damage, she says. “I would be very surprised if anybody stops buying the indicator because of this book. It’s been pretty clear for a long time that the MBTI is neither scientifically valid nor reliable, but I think it was kind of useful and helpful and compelling and people were buying it because of that.”

Open to satire

Rather than damage the MBTI, Emre encourages more transparency about what it is and what it is not. She points to the Buzzfeed online personality quizzes, which parody the logic of personality tests such as the MBTI. “For example, asking what your favourite cocktail says about which Taylor Swift song you are, to me, makes very clear the tenuous connection between the questions on a questionnaire like Myers-Briggs, and the results that are given. Buzzfeed has done a really good job of satirising that.”

The satirical quizzes, Emre thinks, also illustrate the commercially driven nature of personality testing – “what Commodity A tells you about which version of Commodity B you will like is really uncovering the self-commoditisation that is encouraged by personality tests – create a version of yourself that you can sell to your potential employers”.

Ultimately, Emre is no fan of any personality test. Inevitably, she says, any attempt to assess will be an attempt to flatten when people, and life, are naturally messy.

“We are often inscrutable even to ourselves, and personally, I like that inscrutability. I think we should preserve some of it and I think the fantasy of knowingness is ultimately just that – a fantasy, and not necessarily a desirable one, either.

“We live in an era of the self, of self-care and self-knowledge, and so we believe in the total mapping of our inner lives, but it is not at all clear to me that it is a desirable thing.”

Also, she says, it is most likely to be white-collar, affluent people involved in service work who take an MBTI or similar test. It is those people who are encouraged to think of themselves as individuals with creative agency, whereas others never get that opportunity.

“The issue isn’t that introverts might be discriminated against, the issue is that people with fewer educational opportunities and lower incomes, women and people of colour are already being discriminated against by not being offered the language of individuality.

“Independent of the fact that organisational psychology is a very credible and lucrative industry, and people are predictably narcissistic – even the least selfish and most outward-focused among us love talking about themselves – I don’t see why any personality test should ever exist.”

Adolf Hitler. Photo/Getty Images

Adolf Hitler. Photo/Getty Images

‘Ego-inflated go-getters’

Although Katharine Briggs’ interest in personality began with the children of friends and neighbours, famous figures were not immune from her attention.

German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was an extrovert and an “excessive and unmitigated thinker”, Briggs wrote on the small index cards she kept on the people she “typed”.

In a 1937 essay, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee – the Cult of Leadership”, Briggs wrote that the traditional German passion for efficiency and planning was “moderated by a collective morality based upon the Christian tradition”.

But once Christianity was pushed aside, “all the thinking is done to order by a few people while the vast majority, made completely gang-minded and irresponsible by their loss of their traditional morality, become body cells to the brain cells of ego-inflated politician go-getters”.

But, in Briggs opinion, there was one man even more dangerous than Hitler: US President Franklin Roosevelt. Like Hitler, Roosevelt was an extrovert, according to Briggs’ analysis, but, unlike Hitler, Roosevelt was a “feeler” rather than a thinker. He was “prone to making overly emotional appeals to ‘human rights’ over ‘property rights’.”

A lifelong Republican who had voted for Herbert Hoover – “introvert”, “thinker” – Briggs’ scrapbook, assembled during World War II, preserved dozens of pamphlets accusing Roosevelt of “state socialism”, emphasising his weak personality and questioning his fitness to lead the US. But the weakness of people may also be to blame, she postulated.

“Nothing in the modern scene is more pitiful than the masses of people who say their prayers to ‘Government’ and look to politicians for their salvation.”

This editorial was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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