 My­ers-Briggs revisited What’s the true value of the much-used per­son­al­ity test­ing method?

The My­ers-Briggs per­son­al­ity test is used by firms world­wide to as­sess their em­ploy­ees. In her new book, aca­demic Merve Emre looks at the sys­tem’s cu­ri­ous ori­gins – and ques­tions its va­lid­ity. By Tim Lewis

The Observer - The New Review - - Agenda -

Merve Emre was 22 when she found out she was an ENTJ, though she was yet to un­der­stand what an im­pact it would have on her life. Emre had re­cently grad­u­ated from Har­vard Univer­sity and was work­ing as an as­so­ciate con­sul­tant at Bain & Com­pany, one of the “big three” man­age­ment con­sul­tants. Two weeks in, she and the rest of her in­take went to a lux­u­ri­ous off­site fa­cil­ity. Here a ca­reer coun­sel­lor told them to work through an “in­stru­ment” – de­cid­edly not a “test” – called the My­ers-Briggs Type In­di­ca­tor. The MBTI is the world’s dom­i­nant per­son­al­ity ques­tion­naire: more than 50 mil­lion peo­ple around the globe are es­ti­mated to have taken it. It has been ad­min­is­tered since the 1940s (though its ori­gins date to 1917) and now con­sists of 93 ques­tions to which you an­swer A or B. At the end, you are as­signed one of 16 dif­fer­ent types. Many con­sider this “score” to be mean­ing­less, no more sci­en­tif­i­cally valid than your star sign. But oth­ers – in­clud­ing com­pa­nies

such as Bain, the BBC and many uni­ver­si­ties – clearly do not.

The in­di­ca­tor found Emre to be more ex­tro­vert (E) than in­tro­vert (I), in­clined to use in­tu­ition (N) over sens­ing (S), think­ing (T) more than feel­ing (F), and prone to judg­ing (J) rather than per­ceiv­ing (P). Hence ENTJ. The coun­sel­lor gave those let­ters some con­text for Emre and she re­calls find­ing the ques­tion­naire both re­ward­ing and re­veal­ing. “I re­mem­ber be­ing ut­terly fas­ci­nated by it,” she says. “I’d never be­fore en­coun­tered what seemed to me then like a rel­a­tively rig­or­ous lan­guage for think­ing about why I was the way that I was. And for feel­ing re­ally proud about the way that I was.”

No one type is bet­ter than an­other. The cre­ators of the MBTI – two Amer­i­can women, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daugh­ter, Is­abel Briggs My­ers – imag­ined it as pri­mar­ily a tool for self-dis­cov­ery. But that doesn’t mean all types are equal. ENTJs, the clas­si­fi­ca­tion Emre scored, have gained no­to­ri­ety as the “CEO type”. Don­ald Trump is said to be one, as is ev­ery­one from Hitler to Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates to Ge­orge Clooney. The MBTI de­fines them as: “Frank, de­ci­sive, as­sume lead­er­ship read­ily. Quickly see il­log­i­cal and in­ef­fi­cient pro­ce­dures and poli­cies, de­velop and im­ple­ment com­pre­hen­sive sys­tems to solve or­gan­i­sa­tional prob­lems.”

“I was com­pletely se­duced by it,” says Emre. “This was in part be­cause I was work­ing at a large, pres­ti­gious cor­po­ra­tion and I was be­ing told that my per­son­al­ity made me very suit­able for be­com­ing a leader in this cor­po­rate be­he­moth.” She laughs. “At 22 there was some­thing at­trac­tive about that.”

So, did Emre rise as fast and smoothly at Bain & Com­pany as her My­ers-Briggs type might have pro­jected then? “Oh no, I was a ter­ri­ble con­sul­tant,” she replies. “I was re­ally bad at my job! Nine months af­ter I took the in­di­ca­tor, I de­cided I wanted to go to grad­u­ate school and I got a PhD in lit­er­a­ture. Yeah, it’s re­ally funny to think that it made me bet­ter qual­i­fied to do any­thing. What did I know about busi­ness at all? I spent all of col­lege read­ing nov­els.”

That was a decade ago. To­day, Emre is a 33-year-old as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford. She has swapped the cor­po­rate world for a cosy, book-lined of­fice just off the main quad­ran­gle of Worces­ter Col­lege. She has given up un­lim­ited bagels and barista cof­fee for Ni­cholas Hawks mo or de­signed build­ings and award win­ning gar­dens that have their own blog. This af­ter­noon, as the sun shines and windfall pears dot the or­chard floor, it doesn’t seem like a ter­ri­ble trade.

Af­ter leav­ing Bain, Emre didn’t re­flect much on the MBTI. She did her grad­u­ate stud­ies at Yale Univer­sity, be­came an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at McGill Univer­sity in Mon­treal, and wrote a book, Par­alit­er­ary, about “bad” read­ers who view fic­tion and po­etry as mere en­ter­tain­ment or dis­trac­tion. She started to re­search a sec­ond book about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween char­ac­ter and per­son­al­ity in lit­er­a­ture and this was when she be­gan to reconsider her own ex­pe­ri­ence with the My­ers-Briggs in­di­ca­tor.

“I found out first that it had been de­signed by two women, which I found fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause, like many of my read­ers, I’d al­ways as­sumed it was two men,” says Emre. She made con­tact with the My­ers & Briggs Foun­da­tion to see if she could gain ac­cess to the ar­chives of Is­abel Briggs My­ers, the daugh­ter, who had died in 1980. For al­most a year, the foun­da­tion made her jump through hoops: she had lunch with the vice pres­i­dent in New York; she spent $2,095 on a week-long cer­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gramme that made her qual­i­fied to ad­min­is­ter the MBTI. But even­tu­ally, a li­brar­ian told her that the foun­da­tion would never al­low her ac­cess to the pa­pers.

Clearly, they un­der­es­ti­mated the de­ter­mi­na­tion of an ENTJ, and the re­sult is an en­gross­ing new book, What’s Your Type? The Strange His­tory of My­ers-Briggs and the Birth of Per­son­al­ity Test­ing. “They didn’t re­alise that I’m the type of per­son who when de­nied ac­cess will not say ‘Well, I’m just not go­ing to write this book’ but that I’ll fig­ure out how to write this book with­out that par­tic­u­lar source,” says Emre. Emre says that by the time she pitched the book to pub­lish­ers, she was “just so ready to write a take­down” of the My­er­sBriggs in­di­ca­tor. But What’s Your Type? isn’t that. “The easy thing would have been to tell a story about these two women who wanted to make a quick buck and sold this in­di­ca­tor to a bunch of men who then used this in­di­ca­tor to ex­ploit their work­ers,” she says. “But that isn’t re­ally the story here.”

The deeper story, Emre found, be­gan with Katharine Cook Briggs who be­came be­sot­ted with the ideas of Carl Jung, the Swiss psy­cho­an­a­lyst. When her daugh­ter Is­abel was born in 1897, she turned their liv­ing room into a “cos­mic lab­o­ra­tory of baby train­ing”, con­duct­ing ex­per­i­ments and drills that would even­tu­ally form the ba­sis of a note­book called The Di­ary of an Obe­di­ence-Cu­rios­ity Mother. Katharine was re­spon­si­ble for the A-or-B ques­tion for­mat, but her main con­cern was in find­ing out what con­di­tions best al­lowed chil­dren to de­velop into “civilised adults”. Decades later, Is­abel re­alised that an adapted ques­tion­naire could be­come a “peo­ple sort­ing de­vice”, one that could eas­ily be trans­posed from chil­dren to or­gan­is­ing a work­force.

There is clearly an in­sid­i­ous idea here, or at least the po­ten­tial for one, as the My­ers-Briggs in­di­ca­tor found main­stream ac­cep­tance from the 1980s on­wards. Cer­tainly it can make in­di­vid­u­als seem dis­pos­able, just cogs in the ma­chine. Still, Emre be­lieves that Katharine and Is­abel were fun­da­men­tally well mean­ing. “I think they truly be­lieved they could fig­ure out a way to make peo­ple happy,” she says. “They be­lieved that as moth­ers that was what they had been trained to learn how to do: to try to keep many dif­fer­ent peo­ple with con­flict­ing de­sires and con­flict­ing pref­er­ences happy un­der one roof. And their ul­ti­mate endgame was hap­pi­ness but then also pro­duc­tiv­ity.

“What’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing about the in­di­ca­tor is that it ac­tu­ally pre­empts a lot of the more con­tem­po­rary cor­po­rate hap­pi­ness move­ments. The moves to­wards self-care and cor­po­rate psy­chol­ogy and the rise of cre­ativ­ity – these women were speak­ing that lan­guage long be­fore it be­came an am­bi­ent re­al­ity of our world.”

At­ti­tudes to­wards the My­er­sBriggs in­di­ca­tor have var­ied over the years. In its early in­car­na­tion, es­pe­cially the 1950s and 1960s, it was deemed more de­sir­able to be an in­tro­vert. “There was some­thing very sus­pi­cious about the ex­tro­vert,” Emre notes. “The ex­tro­vert is the peo­ple-pleaser, the so­cial man, the su­per­fi­cial one. And the in­tro­vert is the se­ri­ous, cre­ative in­tel­lec­tual who com­mands re­spect be­cause he or she will not change her­self to meet the de­mands of oth­ers.”

This flipped in the 1970s, Emre thinks, and since then we’ve lived in “the age of the ex­tro­verts”. She says: “De­spite the fact that in­tro­verts are be­ing sum­moned by some­one like Su­san Cain [in her book Quiet], there still is a re­ally strong bias to­wards ex­tro­ver­sion. To­wards a per­son who is in­cred­i­bly flex­i­ble with their per­son­al­ity and who can change them­selves to meet the de­mands of any given sit­u­a­tion. In some ways it is be­cause that’s what is ut­terly nec­es­sary to suc­ceed in to­day’s econ­omy, right? You have to be a kind of con­stantly flex­i­ble labourer.”

There are clearly prob­lems, though, with read­ing too much into a My­ers-Briggs score. Peer-re­viewed sci­en­tific pa­pers on the ef­fec­tive­ness of the in­di­ca­tor are hard to find. It is crit­i­cised for giv­ing bi­nary out­comes – you’re ei­ther ex­tro­vert or in­tro­vert – and hu­man per­son­al­ity is of­ten more slip­pery and change­able. More­over, one of the cen­tral tenets of the in­stru­ment is that you can’t change your type: it is in­nate, fixed from birth. Yet the com­pany that now pub­lishes the MBTI con­cedes that half of sub­jects change at least

There is a strong bias to­wards ex­tro­verts. You have to be a kind of con­stantly flex­i­ble labourer

one of their four types when they an­swer the ques­tions a sec­ond time.

For Emre, that the My­ers-Briggs in­dic­tor lacks sci­en­tific rigour al­most misses the point. Like­wise the fact that it is par­o­died by on­line click­bait such as the Buz­zFeed quiz, which asks ran­dom ques­tions and then tells you which char­ac­ter you are from, say, Game of Thrones or Suc­ces­sion. The My­ers-Briggs in­di­ca­tor is en­trenched now: the per­fect tool for the Cen­tury of the Self and be­yond. “I don’t re­ally see it go­ing away,” says Emre. “I mean, it’s re­ally sur­vived at­tack af­ter at­tack.”

Cer­tainly, when you know about My­ers-Briggs, you start to no­tice those strange clumps of four let­ters ev­ery­where. They are com­mon on dat­ing pro­files and there is a re­silient idea that if you share the same type as some­one else you are more likely to bond (or, if they are very dif­fer­ent, that you’ll be at each other’s throats). On Twit­ter, some­one con­tacted JK Rowl­ing and sug­gested that, as fel­low INFPs, they should be friends. The author replied that she was ac­tu­ally an INFJ: “con­sci­en­tious and com­mit­ted to their firm val­ues”, in the My­ers-Briggs ar­got. But she went on, “That doesn’t mean we can’t be bud­dies, though.”

As we’re pack­ing up, I men­tion to Emre that I’ve never taken the MBTI. “Let’s just do it right now,” she says. She grabs a pen, and for the next 20 min­utes we’re dis­cussing in­tro­ver­sion ver­sus ex­tro­ver­sion, logic or gut in­stinct, how much I al­low my heart to rule my head and vice versa. At times My­ers-Briggs can be con­fus­ing – for ex­am­ple, I’m not sure why the in­di­ca­tor makes me de­cide if I’d rather be “com­pe­tent” or “com­pas­sion­ate” – but it does make you think about your so­cial in­ter­ac­tions, how you take de­ci­sions and why you are how you are.

When we fin­ish, Emre has four let­ters scrib­bled on her hand: ISTJ. Later, I look up the def­i­ni­tion. “Quiet, se­ri­ous, earn suc­cess through thor­ough­ness and de­pend­abil­ity,” it reads. “De­cide log­i­cally what should be done and work to­ward it steadily, re­gard­less of dis­trac­tions.”

I wouldn’t ve­he­mently dis­agree with that assess­ment, even if I’d like to feel it’s a lit­tle re­duc­tive. And of course my first in­stinct is to find out which celebri­ties this links me to. Emre pulls out her lap­top: “Queen Elizabeth II,” she chuck­les. “Jeff Be­zos, Sig­mund Freud, Jean-Claude Van Damme.”

Not ideal, I note, but not Hitler. “Ge­orge HW Bush, Thomas Hobbes,” Emre con­tin­ues. “Oh, you have some nasty, brutish peo­ple in your cor­ner, too. Any­way, that’s some­thing for you to chew on on your train ride home.”

What’s Your Type: The Strange His­tory of My­ers-Briggs and the Birth of Per­son­al­ity Test­ing by Merve Emre is pub­lished by HarperCollins (£20). To or­der a copy for £17 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0330 333 6846

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