Who do you think you are?

The cred­i­bil­ity of the world’s most pop­u­lar per­son­al­ity test has long been de­bunked yet the de­sire to un­der­stand our “type” re­mains.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Joanne Black

The cred­i­bil­ity of the world’s most pop­u­lar per­son­al­ity test has long been de­bunked yet the de­sire to un­der­stand our “type” re­mains.

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

The two women were in­stru­men­tal in start­ing what has be­come a US$2 bil­lion psy­cho­me­t­ric test­ing in­dus­try.

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.


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

“Per­son­al­ity tests en­cour­age self­com­modi­ti­sa­tion: cre­ate a ver­sion of your­self that you can sell to your po­ten­tial em­ploy­ers.”

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.


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.”


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 fourlet­ter re­sult that in­di­cates your “type”. Yo u 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

Briggs had her own ideas of how to train chil­dren to be obe­di­ent and cu­ri­ous – Is­abel was her shin­ing ex­am­ple.

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 sympa- thetic 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.

“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

“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.”

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.”


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

“It doesn’t make sense to talk about your per­son­al­ity chang­ing be­cause it was never some­thing fixed to be­gin with.”

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 whitecol­lar, 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.”

Carl Jung’s Psy­cho­log­i­cal Types in­spired Katharine Briggs (in­set, top) and her daugh­ter Is­abel Briggs My­ers.

Lan­guage of type: Merve Emre.

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