Anne Diebel

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The Per­son­al­ity Bro­kers: The Strange His­tory of My­ers-Briggs and the Birth of Per­son­al­ity Test­ing by Merve Emre

The Per­son­al­ity Bro­kers:

The Strange His­tory of My­ers-Briggs and the Birth of Per­son­al­ity Test­ing by Merve Emre.

Doubleday, 307 pp., $27.95

“Per­son­al­ity is never gen­eral; it is al­ways par­tic­u­lar,” wrote Gor­don All­port, a Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist, in 1938. While “per­son­al­ity” once meant merely per­son­hood, since the late eigh­teenth cen­tury it has re­ferred to the qual­i­ties that make a per­son dis­tinc­tive. Within the field of psy­chol­ogy, the term was ini­tially used of ab­nor­mal clin­i­cal phe­nom­ena, such as the “al­ter­nat­ing” and “dou­ble” per­son­al­ity Wil­liam James dis­cussed in The Prin­ci­ples of Psy­chol­ogy or the “dis­so­ci­a­tion of per­son­al­ity” that Mor­ton Prince ex­am­ined in his 1906 book of that name. But in the 1920s and 1930s, in part through All­port’s work, per­son­al­ity — in­clud­ing the “nor­mal” kind—be­came a cen­tral con­cern of psy­cho­log­i­cal re­search, with jour­nals, text­books, cour­ses, and con­fer­ences de­voted to the sub­ject. In 1930 All­port re­marked that in­ter­est in per­son­al­ity had reached “as­ton­ish­ing pro­por­tions,” and in 1938 he de­clared “the dis­cov­ery of per­son­al­ity” to be “one of the out­stand­ing events in psy­chol­ogy of the present cen­tury.” But he wor­ried that his col­leagues had be­come too con­cerned with mea­sure­ment and the search for gen­eral laws, and he cau­tioned against the as­sump­tion that one could un­der­stand “the to­tal­ity of a per­son­al­ity by hav­ing a se­ries of scores.” The first per­son­al­ity test in the US was the Wood­worth Per­sonal Data Sheet, which was de­vel­oped dur­ing World War I as a way of iden­ti­fy­ing re­cruits who might be sus­cep­ti­ble to shell shock. It con­sisted of 116 ques­tions that mea­sured neu­roti­cism, such as, “Are you of­ten fright­ened in the mid­dle of the night?” Nu­mer­ous self-re­port ques­tion­naires fol­lowed. The Thur­stone Per­son­al­ity Sched­ule and the Bern­reuter Per­son­al­ity In­ven­tory, which ap­peared around 1930, posed dozens of yes-or-no ques­tions that yielded scores on sev­eral scales, in­clud­ing ex­tro­ver­sion– in­tro­ver­sion. The Min­nesota Mul­tipha­sic Per­son­al­ity In­ven­tory (MMPI), pub­lished in the early 1940s, con­sisted of 504 state­ments, to which test-tak­ers were to re­spond “True,” “False,” or “Can­not Say”: “I loved my father”; “I have never had any black, tarry-look­ing bowel move­ments.” There were also “pro­jec­tive” tests, with no set an­swers: Her­mann Rorschach’s inkblots, in­tro­duced in Switzer­land in 1921 and pop­u­lar­ized in the US in the 1930s; and the The­matic Ap­per­cep­tion Test (TAT), de­vel­oped in the 1930s by the Har­vard psy­chol­o­gist Henry Murray and his col­league and lover Chris­tiana Mor­gan, which asked the sub­ject to tell stories about a set of am­bigu­ous, un­set­tling draw­ings—a boy look­ing at a vi­olin, a woman clutch­ing the shoul­ders of a man whose face and body are averted from her.

The temp­ta­tion of a se­ries of scores was too great; sev­eral of these tests are still widely used, and are part of a multi-bil­lion-dol­lar in­dus­try fraught with ques­tion­able sci­ence and ques­tion­able ap­pli­ca­tions, as An­nie Mur­phy Paul dis­cusses in her metic­u­lously re­searched 2004 book, The Cult of Per­son­al­ity Test­ing. Although the tests’ cre­ators were thor­oughly cre­den­tialed—pro­fes­sors at top uni­ver­si­ties and doc­tors at top hos­pi­tals—their projects were shaped, as Paul ar­gues, “by the de­mands of in­dus­try and gov­ern­ment.” Some tests, in­clud­ing the Rorschach and the MMPI, were orig­i­nally in­tended for use with the men­tally ill but were even­tu­ally given to the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion as well; oth­ers were de­signed for “nor­mal” people, to mea­sure their ap­ti­tude for com­bat, school, or the work­place. The Hum­mWadsworth Tem­per­a­ment Scale, for ex­am­ple, was de­signed in 1935 by a psy­chol­o­gist and the vice pres­i­dent of a natural-gas com­pany to help per­son­nel de­part­ments. It was ex­tolled in a 1942 Reader’s Digest ar­ti­cle as a “peo­ple­sort­ing in­stru­ment” that could “place the worker in the proper niche, keep him happy, and in­crease production.” People-sorters, which had been around since the 1910s, were some­times used to screen out Com­mu­nists and union sym­pa­thiz­ers and to select “hen­pecked hus­bands” dis­posed to sub­mit to a boss. The Reader’s Digest ar­ti­cle pre­sented a hap­pier pic­ture, of man­agers con­struc­tively point­ing out their work­ers’ faults, which the work­ers would then gra­ciously tem­per.


Briggs My­ers, a house­wife in Swarth­more, Penn­syl­va­nia, read this ar­ti­cle with great in­ter­est and im­me­di­ately wrote to her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. These two women and the “In­di­ca­tor” they would cre­ate are the sub­ject of Merve Emre’s The Per­son­al­ity Bro­kers, an archivally rich mix of his­tory, bi­og­ra­phy, and a bit of re­port­ing. Katharine and Is­abel had no for­mal train­ing in psy­chol­ogy or psy­chi­a­try. In Emre’s telling, they sim­ply per­ceived “how hun­gry the masses were for simple, self-af­firm­ing an­swers to the prob­lem of self­knowl­edge.” They be­lieved they could “craft a lan­guage of the self that was free from judg­ment,” and they set out to help people put their “dif­fer­ent gifts” to ap­pro­pri­ate uses, par­tic­u­larly in the work­place.

Although Is­abel led the de­vel­op­ment of the My­ers-Briggs Type In­di­ca­tor, her mother had built its foun­da­tion through long study. Katharine was born in Michi­gan in 1875 to a zo­ol­o­gist father and a de­vout Chris­tian mother, and as a stu­dent at Michi­gan Agri­cul­tural Col­lege she was “wrenched and shaken” by her recog­ni­tion that “sci­ence may lack the data that the soul possesses.” She was con­cerned with the “prob­lem of per­sonal sal­va­tion” and came to be­lieve that spe­cial­ized la­bor—one line of work, pur­sued zeal­ously and for the so­cial good—would en­sure re­demp­tion. Af­ter col­lege, she mar­ried Ly­man Briggs and moved to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., where she turned her home into a “lab­o­ra­tory of baby train­ing,” in­still­ing obe­di­ence and cu­rios­ity in Is­abel, her only sur­viv­ing child, and re­port­ing on her ac­tiv­i­ties in mag­a­zine ar­ti­cles.

When Is­abel left for Swarth­more Col­lege, in 1915, the “ed­u­ca­tional ex­per­i­ment” that had oc­cu­pied Katharine for eigh­teen years came to an end, and she grew anx­ious and de­pressed. She in­vented and patented con­trap­tions for lug­gage and purses; she read works of bi­og­ra­phy and phi­los­o­phy; she wrote a screen­play and short stories; fi­nally, she spent much of her days play­ing soli­taire. In 1923, Katharine dis­cov­ered Carl Jung and, in­flamed with pas­sion—which ex­tended to Jung him­self, about whom she be­gan writ­ing gay erot­ica—she ded­i­cated her life to think­ing about “type.” “One need not be a psy­chol­o­gist in order to col­lect and iden­tify types,” Katharine wrote in a 1926 New Repub­lic ar­ti­cle ex­plain­ing and elab­o­rat­ing on Jung’s the­ory, “any more than one needs to be a botanist to col­lect and iden­tify plants.”

In his 1921 Psy­cho­log­i­cal Types, Jung pro­posed that people could be clas­si­fied ac­cord­ing to their ba­sic psy­cho­log­i­cal func­tions and at­ti­tudes. Katharine im­pressed Jung’s im­por­tance on Is­abel, who in 1942 would draw on his “mag­nif­i­cent idea” and pos­tu­late six­teen pos­si­ble types made up of four bi­na­ries, ex­pressed in pairs of let­ters: ex­tro­ver­sion (E) or in­tro­ver­sion (I), in­tu­ition (N) or sens­ing (S), think­ing (T) or feel­ing (F), judg­ing (J) or per­ceiv­ing (P). The In­di­ca­tor was de­signed not to iden­tify “prob­lems” (traits that might cause trou­ble on a bat­tle­field or a production line, for in­stance) but to de­scribe psy­cho­log­i­cally un­re­mark­able people in a neu­tral or pos­i­tive way. From the be­gin­ning, Katharine un­der­stood the im­por­tance of equal­ity. In 1926 she noted that “nei­ther credit nor dis­credit is at­tached to mem­ber­ship in any type, since each has its fail­ures, its medi­oc­ri­ties, and its suc­cesses.” The first pub­lished ver­sion of the In­di­ca­tor, from 1943, of­fered com­fort­ing in­struc­tions: it was “not, strictly speak­ing, a test,” for there were “no right or wrong an­swers,” and what­ever the re­sults, “each type has its own spe­cial ad­van­tages.”

This non­judg­men­tal tone and lack of hi­er­ar­chy, and the pre­sump­tion of uni­ver­sal spe­cial­ness, help ac­count for the en­dur­ing pop­u­lar­ity of the MBTI (as it is now known), which boasts some two mil­lion users per year. For­tune 500 com­pa­nies, Sil­i­con Val­ley star­tups, fi­nan­cial and con­sult­ing firms, and US gov­ern­ment agen­cies rou­tinely use it to screen ap­pli­cants and to gain in­sight into em­ploy­ees, and it’s a com­mon fea­ture of ex­ec­u­tive train­ing ses­sions and staff re­treats. The Fi­nan­cial Times re­ports that McKin­sey em­ploy­ees’ in­ter­nal pro­file pages list their MBTI types. It’s used by re­li­gious schools to eval­u­ate ap­pli­cants, and by all kinds of ca­reer coun­selors. Many people choose to take it on their own, drawn in by the prom­ise of recog­ni­tion and be­long­ing. The “min­i­mal group par­a­digm” of so­cial psy­chol­ogy de­scribes how people ran­domly as­signed to triv­ially de­fined groups (the Klee or Kandin­sky types, the red shirts or the blue shirts) will of­ten iden­tify with and fa­vor their own group at the ex­pense of oth­ers. There is an in­ter­na­tional net­work of MBTI mee­tups for those who wish to con­gre­gate with their own type.

Cru­cial to the MBTI’s suc­cess as a tool of both self-dis­cov­ery and the as­sess­ment and man­age­ment of oth­ers is a con­cep­tion of per­son­al­ity as im­mutable, even con­gen­i­tal. “Ev­ery one of us is born ei­ther an ex­travert or an in­tro­vert, and re­mains ex­travert and in­tro­vert to the end of his days,” Katharine wrote. But although most con­sumers of the test pre­sume its pow­er­ful claims must have some kind of sci­en­tific ba­sis, for decades the MBTI has been re­garded

by sci­en­tists as ill-founded. It has been crit­i­cized for its strict di­chotomies— many people will be some­where in be­tween the two poles of a given cat­e­gory, and stud­ies show that around half of users re­tak­ing the same ques­tion­naire are as­signed a dif­fer­ent type—and for its fail­ure to pre­dict out­comes in such ar­eas as job per­for­mance and team ef­fec­tive­ness. It has been called “an act of ir­re­spon­si­ble arm­chair phi­los­o­phy,” “too slick and simple, pos­sess­ing an al­most horoscope-like qual­ity,” and “a party game.”

In­deed, although some de­fend­ers of the MBTI in­sist on its sci­en­tific va­lid­ity and re­li­a­bil­ity, the ideas un­der­ly­ing its cre­ation were drawn from Jung and from pop­u­lar cul­ture. The no­tion, em­braced by Katharine and Is­abel, that one’s defin­ing qual­i­ties never evolve or fluc­tu­ate rep­re­sented an evo­lu­tion in such pop­u­lar think­ing, a de­par­ture from both the Protes­tant ideal of char­ac­ter that pre­vailed in the nine­teenth cen­tury and the con­cep­tion of per­son­al­ity that emerged in the early twen­ti­eth. Char­ac­ter, ac­cord­ing to the ear­lier view, could be built: if you were not nat­u­rally en­dowed with a sense of right­ness and civic duty, you could just read a book of char­ac­ter stud­ies for em­u­la­tion. Start­ing in the early twen­ti­eth cen­tury, ac­cord­ing to the his­to­rian Warren Sus­man, this val­oriza­tion of char­ac­ter gave way to a fascination with per­son­al­ity. Like char­ac­ter, per­son­al­ity could be ac­quired, though to­ward dif­fer­ent ends. Self-help man­u­als in the 1910s and 1920s en­cour­aged read­ers to think of them­selves as some­bod­ies, and in­structed them on mat­ters such as poise, elo­cu­tion, and charm. “You can com­pel people to like you,” wrote the self-help guru Ori­son Swett Mar­den in Mas­ter­ful Per­son­al­ity (1921), a prospect most fa­mously ex­plored in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936). Although per­son­al­ity was thought by some to be a spe­cial prop­erty that select people had—“a cer­tain some­thing,” “an in­de­scrib­able some­thing,” “an in­de­fin­able qual­ity,” or just “It”—it was gen­er­ally thought to be avail­able to any­one who put in the ef­fort. It was less a par­tic­u­lar col­lec­tion of qual­i­ties than a blank­ness that in­vited pro­jec­tion and de­sire.

Most psy­chol­o­gists of the 1920s and 1930s held that ev­ery­one, by virtue of be­ing a per­son, al­ready had per­son­al­ity, though how in­di­vid­ual qual­i­ties could be mea­sured and clas­si­fied was an­other mat­ter. Af­ter read­ing the Reader’s Digest ar­ti­cle in 1942, Is­abel be­gan work­ing for Ed­ward N. Hay and As­so­ciates, a Philadel­phia firm that de­vel­oped work­place ap­ti­tude tests. She was tasked with val­i­dat­ing the Humm Wads worth Tem­per­a­ment Scale, which she pro­nounced use­less. Rather than peg work­ers as nor­mal or ab­nor­mal, Is­abel re­al­ized, man­age­ment should iden­tify work­ers’ strengths and strive to make ev­ery­one feel needed, in order to boost both morale and ef­fi­ciency. She soon be­gan de­vis­ing her own test. She for­mu­lated the six­teen type ta­ble; she drafted ques­tions she thought would re­veal a per­son’s na­ture—“Do you pre­fer to (a) eat to live, or (b) live to eat?”—and tried them on fam­ily and friends. In May 1943 Is­abel copy­righted the In­di­ca­tor, and in July she pitched it to Hay, who agreed to use and dis­trib­ute it. The In­di­ca­tor did not im­me­di­ately find its niche in the grow­ing per­son­al­ity test­ing in­dus­try, and it wasn’t un­til the mid-1970s that it be­came a fi­nan­cially suc­cess­ful prod­uct. Emre re­counts these early strug­gles and tri­umphs in great de­tail, a valu­able ex­pan­sion of the con­cise his­tory of­fered by An­nie Mur­phy Paul and oth­ers. Like her mother, Is­abel had tried her hand at many things. “What are the right things for me?” she wrote to Katharine in 1918 as she looked for a job in Mem­phis, where her hus­band, Clarence “Chief” My­ers, was train­ing to be a bomber pilot. The cou­ple soon moved to Philadel­phia, where Chief would at­tend law school, and in 1923 Is­abel moved in with her par­ents for a spell to save money. While there she started a “Di­ary of an In­tro­vert De­ter­mined to Ex­travert, Write, & Have a Lot of Chil­dren,” which con­tained Gatsby-like to-do lists (“Two hours writ­ing”; “Never wear anything soiled”). She had a son in 1926 and a daugh­ter the fol­low­ing year, and she raised them by her mother’s par­a­digm of obe­di­ence and cu­rios­ity.

In 1928 she saw an an­nounce­ment in New McClure’s Mag­a­zine for a mys­tery-novel con­test and re­solved to write a book by the dead­line, which was five months away. Her sub­mis­sion, Mur­der Yet to Come, won the con­test, earn­ing her a cash prize of $7,500 (more than $100,000 to­day), se­rial pub­li­ca­tion, and a two-book con­tract. But most of her prize money went into stocks that died in the crash, and although for a few years she kept writ­ing—in­clud­ing, with res­ig­na­tion, the second book she owed her pub­lisher, which was panned by re­view­ers—by 1934 she had recom­mit­ted to the vo­ca­tion of moth­er­hood. It would be an­other eight years be­fore she turned to people-sort­ing, which would oc­cupy her for the rest of her life.

Is­abel’s first client, Emre re­veals, was the Of­fice of Strate­gic Ser­vices, the fore­run­ner to the Cen­tral In­tel­li­gence Agency. The OSS had been charged with se­lect­ing and train­ing spies, for which it set up Sta­tion S, a se­cret as­sess­ment cen­ter on an es­tate out­side Wash­ing­ton, D.C. Op­er­a­tives were to be matched with the mis­sions best suited to their per­son­al­i­ties, a task that proved daunt­ing for the cen­ter’s leader, Henry Murray, the for­mer di­rec­tor of the Har­vard Psy­cho­log­i­cal Clinic and cocre­ator of the TAT, whose ideas about es­pi­onage came from nov­els. In 1944 Don­ald MacK­in­non, Murray’s grad­u­ate stu­dent, pur­chased the In­di­ca­tor and added it to the cen­ter’s in­take process. Af­ter the war, he used it in a se­ries of stud­ies on cre­ative people he con­ducted as the di­rec­tor of UC Berkeley’s new In­sti­tute of Per­son­al­ity As­sess­ment and Re­search (IPAR). IPAR in­vited writ­ers, painters, and ar­chi­tects to par­tic­i­pate in tests, games, and ther­apy, and to be ob­served in­ter­act­ing with one an­other. (Oddly, de­spite de­vot­ing chap­ters to both Sta­tion S and IPAR, Emre does not dis­cuss how or to what ex­tent the In­di­ca­tor was used by these in­sti­tu­tions—though she did post on Twit­ter a “type ta­ble,” ev­i­dently from IPAR’s archives, classifying Wil­liam Car­los Wil­liams as an INFJ and Tru­man Capote as an ENFP—or whether this use lent it le­git­i­macy.)

Emre, a scholar of post­war Amer­i­can cul­ture, presents the In­di­ca­tor as a naive in­stru­ment of a bullish era that pro­moted ad­just­ment and con­for­mity. In The Or­ga­ni­za­tion Man (1956), Wil­liam H. Whyte re­ported that 60 per­cent of the Amer­i­can com­pa­nies he had sur­veyed in 1954 were us­ing per­son­al­ity tests (his book in­cludes a de­light­ful ap­pen­dix: “How to Cheat on Per­son­al­ity Tests”). By the mid-1950s, util­i­ties, phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, and in­sur­ance com­pa­nies were or­der­ing large quan­ti­ties of the In­di­ca­tor and some­times re­quest­ing Is­abel’s help in un­der­stand­ing its broader im­pli­ca­tions, as Gen­eral Elec­tric did when it asked her to an­a­lyze its top ex­ec­u­tives.

In 1959 Henry Chauncey, a for­mer Har­vard dean and the founder and pres­i­dent of Ed­u­ca­tional Test­ing Ser­vices (ETS), which be­gan pub­lish­ing the Scholas­tic Ap­ti­tude Test (SAT) in 1943 and was now ex­plor­ing mass per­son­al­ity test­ing, of­fered Is­abel a con­tract, and the In­di­ca­tor gained other ma­jor clients, in­clud­ing the Protes­tant Epis­co­pal Church, Brown Univer­sity, and the Cal­i­for­nia State Depart­ment of Cor­rec­tions. But de­spite Chauncey’s en­thu­si­asm about the In­di­ca­tor, his col­leagues nearly all viewed it with skep­ti­cism. Try­ing to val­i­date it, they dis­cov­ered ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties. A statis­tics Ph.D. tasked with writ­ing a man­ual for the In­di­ca­tor sav­aged it in an in­ter­nal memo. The the­ory be­hind the In­di­ca­tor, he wrote, was Jun­gian but with even “less in the mean­ing of the terms.” “E-I merely mea­sured talkative­ness,” and “S-N was merely con­ser­vatism ver­sus lib­er­al­ism.”

Emre, too, is crit­i­cal of the MBTI, but who wouldn’t be? Its cheer­ful sim­plic­ity, its vague, mys­ti­cal un­der­pin­nings, its co­zi­ness with busi­ness psy­chol­ogy, the way it en­dorses nor­mal­ity in the guise of self-ac­cep­tance—it’s an easy tar­get. What dis­tin­guishes Emre’s book is its close, sym­pa­thetic study of the test’s cre­ators and their as­pi­ra­tions. They clearly had goals aside from mak­ing money, and they never did make much; the boom hap­pened af­ter Is­abel’s death in 1980. Katharine loftily “be­lieved that know­ing one’s type could save the soul of an in­di­vid­ual while prompt­ing him to as­sume the spe­cial­ized of­fices that would help him ad­vance civ­i­liza­tion.” Emre con­fesses in the book’s in­tro­duc­tion that at times she wanted it to be “a story of fem­i­nist tri­umph.” As sci­en­tif­i­cally un­sound as type has proven to be, it’s still painful to read about Is­abel’s be­ing dis­missed by the all-male ETS staff as “that hor­ri­ble woman.” She and Katharine were scrappy and de­ter­mined, and even when they crossed eth­i­cal lines— Katharine tried to “see [the] soul” of a teenage girl by an­a­lyz­ing her dreams (for which she was scolded by Jung), and Is­abel per­suaded the prin­ci­pal of her kids’ high school to give her copies of stu­dents’ per­ma­nent records and IQ tests—it’s hard not to ad­mire their bold­ness.

Is­abel’s father, mother, and forty­four-year-old daugh­ter died in the span of a decade, and in 1975 she learned she had tu­mors through­out her body. The same year, ETS, which had con­tin­ued to pub­lish the In­di­ca­tor de­spite its poor fi­nan­cial re­sults, for­mally ended its con­tract with her. But in her last years Is­abel laid the ground­work for the MBTI’s later suc­cess. She be­gan work­ing with Mary Haw­ley McCaul­ley, a psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Florida who would re­vive the In­di­ca­tor and

launch the Cen­ter for Ap­pli­ca­tions of Psy­cho­log­i­cal Type, where Is­abel’s pa­pers would be closely guarded (Emre was de­nied ac­cess to them). Is­abel and Mary found a new pub­lisher, Con­sult­ing Psy­chol­o­gists Press (CPP), which made the In­di­ca­tor shorter and its de­scrip­tions of type “less dog­matic,” and soon in­tro­duced a self-scor­ing ver­sion. CPP sold the In­di­ca­tor to any­one who would pay, and rev­enues climbed, from $10,000 in 1975 to $100,000 in 1979. (It is still pub­lished by CPP, for which it is the driv­ing force be­hind roughly $20 mil­lion of an­nual rev­enue.) By the time Is­abel died, in 1980, the In­di­ca­tor had al­ready achieved cult sta­tus: it was the topic of dis­ser­ta­tions and an an­nual in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence; it had se­cured a mot­ley global fol­low­ing, with, for in­stance, 250,000 users per year in Ja­pan; and a book adapt­ing Is­abel’s ideas, Please Un­der­stand Me (1978), was on its way to be­com­ing a best seller.

A ma­jor ten­dency in post­war clin­i­cal psy­chol­ogy has been to move away from bi­na­ries (nor­mal/ab­nor­mal, ex­tro­vert/ in­tro­vert, etc.) and to­ward ideas of a spec­trum or con­tin­uum. Start­ing in the 1950s, re­searchers seek­ing to iden­tify per­son­al­ity’s ba­sic com­po­nents kept ar­riv­ing at five es­sen­tial fac­tors: open­ness to ex­pe­ri­ence, con­sci­en­tious­ness, ex­tro­ver­sion, agree­able­ness, and neu­roti­cism, known since the 1980s as the “Big Five.” Big Five–based tests give users per­cent­ages or lev­els of each trait, rather than spit­ting out a four-letter ep­i­thet. But like the MBTI, these tests de­pend on self-re­port­ing, so their ac­cu­racy may be un­der­mined by sub­jects’ self-de­cep­tion, lack of self-aware­ness, or vary­ing abil­i­ties to com­pre­hend the ques­tions them­selves and the pos­si­ble in­tent be­hind them—a Key­ne­sian beauty con­test of gam­ing out the psy­cho­log­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance of se­lect­ing one an­swer over an­other.*

Although there are tools for in­ves­ti­gat­ing per­son­al­ity that do not de­pend on sub­jects’ self-knowl­edge, in­clud­ing func­tional mag­netic-res­o­nance imag­ing (fMRI), which some re­searchers claim can show dif­fer­ences be­tween the brains of in­tro­verts and those of ex­tro­verts (among other things), such sci­en­tific ad­vances are not likely to threaten the MBTI and its kin, which serve a dif­fer­ent pur­pose. The MBTI is wildly un­em­pir­i­cal, but the need it an­swers is not fun­da­men­tally about knowl­edge. Like as­trol­ogy (which is newly *Keynes de­scribed a the­o­ret­i­cal con­test in which the par­tic­i­pants base their choices not on their true pref­er­ences but on what they per­ceive to be the un­der­ly­ing con­sen­sus about the best se­lec­tions. trendy and lacks the MBTI’s Boomer cor­po­ratism), or even the Hog­warts houses (which have been em­braced, with lev­ity and sin­cer­ity, by fans of the Harry Pot­ter nov­els), ty­pol­ogy need not be be­lieved to be found use­ful or di­vert­ing.

The MBTI is still thriv­ing. En­thu­si­asts claim that it has saved their mar­riages, or in­spired them to find new part­ners or new jobs; it has taught them to ac­cept them­selves and oth­ers, even helped them con­nect to God (“Je­sus was a clas­sic ENTP,” Paul dead­pans). They bla­zon their ini­tialisms on dat­ing and so­cial-me­dia pro­files. Thou­sands of people have paid thou­sands of dol­lars to be cer­ti­fied to ad­min­is­ter the MBTI. Of course, for many who en­counter it, in school, at work, or on the In­ter­net, it’s just an­other per­son­al­ity quiz: not par­tic­u­larly mean­ing­ful, but fun and harm­less—an at­ti­tude that helps ex­plain Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica’s suc­cess in de­ploy­ing Big Five–based per­son­al­ity ques­tion­naires to col­lect data about Face­book users. In the age of the tongue-in-cheek Buz­zFeed quiz, an­swer­ing a few ques­tions about your­self seems like no big deal.

But plac­ing one­self and oth­ers in cat­e­gories is per­ilous. Hir­ing and pro­mo­tion de­ci­sions can al­ways be at­trib­uted to “fit,” an omi­nously vague term that can cloak myr­iad forms of bias. A 2002 study found sev­eral per­va­sive mis­con­cep­tions among HR man­agers con­cern­ing the ef­fec­tive­ness of cer­tain staffing prac­tices; a ma­jor­ity of man­agers be­lieved “there are re­ally only four ba­sic di­men­sions of per­son­al­ity, as cap­tured by the My­ers-Briggs Type In­di­ca­tor,” and that con­sci­en­tious­ness was a bet­ter pre­dic­tor of job per­for­mance than in­tel­li­gence. Em­ploy­ers have been sued over their use of per­son­al­ity tests that ask ques­tions about re­li­gion, sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion, po­lit­i­cal be­liefs, and drug use. In 1994 a se­cu­rity com­pany was sued for ask­ing ap­pli­cants for se­cu­rity guard po­si­tions whether they thought “most com­pa­nies make too much profit” and “mar­i­juana should be le­gal­ized.” Although per­son­al­ity tests are not used in un­der­grad­u­ate ad­mis­sions, per­son­al­ity has been an im­por­tant— and neb­u­lous—area of as­sess­ment since the ad­vent of the “well-rounded” can­di­date and holis­tic re­view. The law­suit against Har­vard for dis­crim­i­nat­ing against Asian-Amer­i­can ap­pli­cants, who tended to be rated lower than oth­ers on such met­rics as “pos­i­tive per­son­al­ity” and “lik­a­bil­ity,” has re­newed ques­tions about the ex­tent to which such de­ci­sions should take into ac­count per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics, and how those can be fairly as­sessed.

Gifts Dif­fer­ing was the ti­tle of Is­abel’s book about psy­cho­log­i­cal type, which she fin­ished on her deathbed— but of course not all gifts are val­ued equally. The be­lief in un­chang­ing fun­da­men­tal per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics, which is a big part of her test’s re­as­sur­ing ap­peal, can eas­ily re­in­force a be­lief in natural hi­er­ar­chy. The very con­cept of type is con­ser­va­tive, premised on a sense that cer­tain things are pre­de­ter­mined, which can lead to con­trol as well as to ac­cep­tance.

Katharine Cook Briggs and her daugh­ter Is­abel, cre­ators of the My­ers-Briggs per­son­al­ity test, early 1900s

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