Culture

The most popular personality test in the world is a joke

‘The Personality Brokers’ goes into the flawed, fraught history behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is about as psychologically credible as a BuzzFeed quiz.

Culture

The most popular personality test in the world is a joke

‘The Personality Brokers’ goes into the flawed, fraught history behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is about as psychologically credible as a BuzzFeed quiz.
Culture

The most popular personality test in the world is a joke

‘The Personality Brokers’ goes into the flawed, fraught history behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which is about as psychologically credible as a BuzzFeed quiz.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the most popular personality assessment in the world. You probably know how it works, or have at least seen people talking about it. There are 16 total personality types a taker can get, based on which side of four categories they fall. People are introverted (I) or extroverted (E), intuitive (N) or sensing (S), thinking (T) or feeling (F), and perceiving (P) or judging (J). Results are expressed in a simply four-letter code, like ENFP or ISTJ, and serve as a shorthand about the test taker’s personality.

The indicator is also psychologically invalid, for a reason so simple it’s almost surprising. When creating the test using Carl Jung’s theories, mother-daughter team Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers made a fundamental assumption that people’s personalities never changed, and so their results would also never change. This, obvious to anyone who has ever met a person, was not the case. “[Studies] by psychologists showed that people who take the test more than once, even just a few weeks apart, get classified as a different type more than 50 percent of the time,” writes Merve Emre in her new book about the test and its creators, The Personality Brokers. “The MBTI’s test-retest validity is well below acceptable levels of statistical significance.”

This is, for a lot of the indicator’s many fans, genuinely beside the point. Many people take it in the same context they take the Pottermore quiz sorting participants into one of the four houses at Hogwarts, before they proceed to put their four-letter descriptor in their Twitter or Tinder bios. To other people who revere the MBTI, broadcasting your indicator reads both as a useful introduction and an expression of shared interest. To those who don’t, it will either be meaningless or a signal to move on.

At this level, the whole thing operates like a knockoff BuzzFeed quiz. It’s accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and its impact is controlled by the individual, where it functions more or less as a tautological loop. Emre is careful to be generous to those who fit into this category, writing at the end of the book about the enthusiasts she encountered along the way. One said the indicator helped her understand why her and her mother fought so much; another said they felt empowered to find a job for which they felt were better suited.

There are other sectors, however, where the MBTI has lower visibility and much more influence. In almost every consequential sector of American life, the MBTI is used by decision makers to evaluate people whether they like it or not — even today, as skepticism over the test’s value continues to build. Emre writes:

By the late twentieth century, these institutions included corporations like Standard Oil and General Electric that used type to hire, fire, and promote employees; elite colleges like Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr that used type to admit students; churches that used type to ordain ministers; government bureaucracies that used type to appoint civil servants…Type was, in short, one of the bluntest and best disguised tools of modernity: a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Its expansive usage is not a result of the creators’ psychological bonafides, as they had none. One could forgive them that, seeing as many credentials in clinical psychology didn’t emerge until the post-war era. What we shouldn’t forgive is how Isabel Briggs Myers saw this corrosive usage as the test’s destiny; its widespread usage comes, in part, from her efforts marketing it to management and ownership whenever she could. Profit, not self-discovery, was for what the MBTI was designed. Knowing an employee’s type would be the key to making them as productive as possible.

Though the test is given to about two million people a year even its first client struggled with its flaws. In late 1943, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the predecessor to the Central Intelligence Agency, a personality assessment center for covert operatives was opened in Fairfax, Virginia. Hoping that testing their spies would lead to more successful missions, former director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic Henry Murray and his partner Donald MacKinnon instead found the MBTI to be extremely limited in its usefulness. As Emre writes, “its notion of the ‘true self’ was useful only under certain conditions” and, crucially, “[they] noted how many of their test subject took advantage of [training games] to assert their unchecked power as authority figures to harm others in ways their personality profiles had not anticipated.”

Despite this, Briggs Myers’s list of clients continued to slowly grow. By the mid-1950s, she was working with some of the biggest companies in the United States. A particularly horrifying example is her partnership with the Home Life Insurance Company, which, Emre writes, “purchased [the MBTI] twice: first to determine whether a job applicant would make for a successful life insurance salesman; then, to calculate whether a life insurance applicant should pay a larger premium on his insurance.” Briggs Myers believed that extroverted intuitive types were “more likely to exhibit risky behavior.” Later, a colleague of Briggs Myers wrote in his comprehensive dismissal of the test that instead of measuring anything of importance, the Extroverted-Introverted axis “merely measured talkativeness.”

A vital piece of the MBTI’s long life span is the Center for Applications of Psychological Types (CAPT), a nonprofit Briggs Myers started before her death that has evolved into an institution intended to protect the test’s legacy. Emre opens The Personality Brokers with a story about her attempt to acquire permission to access Myers Briggs’s papers. “After nine months of waiting to hear back about my application, I was asked by CAPT to prove my commitment to Myers-Briggs by undergoing a ‘re-education program’: a nearly two-thousand-dollar, four-day Myers-Briggs accreditation session.” Even after the effort, she was not approved. From her characterization, it seems that only the true believers are.

It’s difficult to encapsulate yourself in a short bio, but it’s easy to share your four letters.

CAPT and the MBTI are fitting institutions for the era that Lee McIntyre calls Post-Truth in his book of the same name, published in early 2018. McIntyre argues, as many have since November 2016, that the defining element of the post-truth phenomenon is, ”not just that truth is being challenged, but that it is being challenged as a mechanism for asserting political dominance,” (emphasis his). This is a useful starting framework for much of the bad faith argumentation typical of the powerful, though McIntyre makes a crucial misunderstanding by seeing politics in a narrow, electoral sense, and not in the broader allocation of power. He rightly notes that “[although] the Brexit vote and the US presidential election may seem inextricably tied up with post-truth, neither was the cause of it — they were the result,” but he fails to recognize that extremely similar factors led to the Iraq War, the repeated implementation of failed trickle-down economic policy, or any number of other policies that had no empirical basis but were foisted upon us anyways.

On the other hand, Emre’s book demonstrates the extent to which it is an eternal strategy, embodied in many ways by the MBTI. Aside from its implementation to benefit capitalists, Emre writes, “[it] promotes many disingenuous and dangerous ideas about race, gender, class, and social perfectibility, ideas that have motivated and continue to motivate terrible forms of bias and discrimination.” For example, Briggs Myers used the indicator to attempt to prove that black students had a “very undesirable pattern reflecting the shirking of responsibility.” They also frequently mobilized the tests of white, wealthy men to demonstrate that the existing order was a natural one.

In this way, it fits into the lineage of hoax and humbug that Kevin Young details in his excellent book, Bunk, released in the fall of 2017. His study, which covers American fakery from the mid-19th century to the present day, demonstrates the ways that charlatans have been pervasive in American society for almost 200 years. More crucially, Young demonstrates that the through line is white supremacy. From P.T. Barnum’s 1835 false claim that Joice Heath, an enslaved black woman, was 161-years-old and had been George Washington’s nurse, to Donald Trump’s successful bid for the Presidency, there is an impulse to dehumanize and otherize non-white people. The MBTI, as an institution, tracks nicely along those lines.

In Post-Truth, McIntyre describes an epochal change triggered by the mainstreaming of postmodernist thought and particularly shameless actors. What the popularity of the MBTI, the phenomenon in Bunk, and the general difficulty with disseminating accurate facts in the public discourse seems to demonstrate is a change in degree instead of a change in type. As the media stratifies and the velocity with which we do things accelerates, lies become easier to distribute and harder to refute. Alongside that, people search for quicker ways to express to the people around them who they are and what they’re all about. It’s difficult to encapsulate yourself in a short bio, but it’s easy to share your four letters.

To do this to learn as part of a process of understanding one’s self is perfectly understandable. To have it dictate the structure of your life without another option is not. The MBTI is a tool like any other: what functions perfectly fine in one context is a catastrophe in another. Unlike many other tools, the consequences are often unseen.

Bradley Babendir is a freelance writer living in Boston.
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