Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)
The Basic Idea
What’s your MBTI type? INTJ, ESFP, ISTP?
At some point in your life, you’ve likely done a personality test, and the most popular personality test worldwide is the MBTI: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Since the first official publication of the test in 1962, millions of people around the world have taken the test and discovered their “type”.¹
The framework divides people into 16 different human personality types, each made up of four binary preferences. According to the Myers-Briggs Foundation, these are:
Extroverted (E) or Introverted (I): This trait refers to our preference to focus on the world around us (Extroverted) or our inner world (Introverted), and how we get our energy from these systems.
Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N): How do we take in information? Do we pay attention to what we sense through our five basic senses (Sensing) or do we focus more on the meanings and patterns in what we see (Intuitive)?
Thinking (T) or Feeling (F): The preference between thinking and feeling describes how we make decisions. Some of us value objectivity and an impersonal approach (Thinking), while others put more weight on personal and social factors (Feeling).
Judging (J) or Perceiving (P): The final preference covers how we behave, or our “orientation to the outer world”. We might favor a decided way of life (Judging) or we could prefer a more adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving).
These four traits combine to give us our personality type, a 4 letter “type” that can shed insight on anything from careers we might thrive in to our preferred parenting style. Given the test’s popularity, it’s likely you know people that identify strongly with their type and swear by the test.
Others, including the academic community, have not been as impressed with the test’s lack of foundation in research and inconsistent results. Despite the controversy, the test remains incredibly popular in workplaces and schools. The four preferences have become a language of their own that many psychologists, therapists, career counselors and recruiters heavily rely on today.
Theory, meet practice
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The MBTI test had humble beginnings. It came from an unlikely source in the early 20th century: a mother-daughter duo composed of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.² Although Cook Briggs was an impressive student, entering college at age 14 and finishing at the top of her class, she was not expected to pursue any occupation but motherhood. As a parent, Cook Briggs became obsessed with rearing techniques and personality.
Translating her academic talents to the domestic space, she undertook a laboratory-inspired approach to raising her daughter, Isabel. She observed the behaviour of children in her neighborhood and gave questionnaires to their parents about their preferences. From these “studies”, Cook Briggs created an initial set of child personality types that could be used to support children in developing into their best selves. As a deeply religious woman, Cook Briggs was concerned with the mission of discovering oneself and helping her child do the same. To her, the goal of life was self-actualization.
Later, once Isabel had left home for school, Cook Briggs became interested in Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s Personality Types, even going on to correspond with Jung about his ideas on personality. This source became an obsession for Cook Briggs, and provided additional ideas for how her rudimentary personality types could be further developed.
Cook Briggs’ theories and investment in Jung were later picked up by her daughter. As an accomplished student herself, Isabel set out to apply some of her mother’s home studies to personality assessments, in order to help adults find a suitable occupation. Isabel wanted to avoid labeling certain personalities as good or bad, instead focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of each personality to best match people to jobs. By the end of the Second World War, she was able to get her test into organizations like the precursor organization to the CIA, medical schools, and corporations such as General Electric. She marketed the test as a way to easily assign operatives, students, and workers into suitable jobs.³
Isabel gradually gained more opportunities to test students and employees of large companies to further develop her test. After decades of research and refinement of the test, she published the first official manual for the MBTI in 1962, detailing how the test should be administered and interpreted.⁴ Myers also established The Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT) with Mary McCaulley, a psychologist at the University of Florida, who would help Myers develop and research the MBTI starting in 1968.
The Myers-Briggs Company was formed to publish the test publicly for any organization or practitioner to use easily. Up until her death in 1980, Myers continued to write updated manuals and perform research related to the test.
Today, the official purpose of the Myers-Briggs Foundation is “to make the theory of psychological types described by C. G. Jung understandable and useful in people’s lives.”¹ The MBTI test is still updated regularly, with the latest update to the online test coming in 2019.⁵ Popular personality tests have also been based on Myers-Briggs while incorporating the latest research into personality. The 16 Personalities test, for instance, is based on the MBTI but adds another variable by incorporating research on the Big Five Personality traits.⁶
In addition to expanding our own self-knowledge, the MBTI has become a popular tool for workplaces and schools. You may have used the MBTI test to think of suitable career paths, or been asked to do the test as a way of assessing your fit for a company. As such, understanding the types and preferences of the MBTI can be critical to interpreting the results of these tests. The MBTI website offers training for practitioners in the MBTI for a variety of fields, from conflict management to career coaching – the applications are seemingly endless.
About 80% of Fortune 100 Companies use personality tests to improve the way their employees work together.⁷ One study found that training using the MBTI in teams at work can have a significant effect on that team’s performance.⁸ The study compared students in groups who received training in the form of doing the MBTI test and finding their personality type. The session included information on the different types, and how these types work together in a team environment. After an effectiveness questionnaire at the end of the semester, researchers found that the groups who had received the test performed more effectively, suggesting the MBTI can be a useful tool for facilitating teamwork in the workplace.
Isabel Briggs Myers initially hoped that understanding the different types of personalities in a group could help ease friction between differences. By seeing how others took in the information and made decisions, Briggs Myers believed, we could better appreciate why we have different personalities rather than shut down at our disagreements.
The lacking descriptions of the MBTI
The widespread popularity of the MBTI in prominent companies and as an educational tool might suggest it is also well-respected in the academic community. However, the test is quite controversial, as most research has not supported this method of personality testing. While the test offers “intuitive appeal”, as one notable 2005 study observed, the MBTI leaves much to be desired in terms of academic support and backing.⁹
The design of the MBTI may be inadequate to describe human personalities. The test only assesses four variable aspects of personality, leaving out other important characteristics—like emotional sensitivity and conscientiousness—thereby producing an incomplete picture of who we are.¹⁰
We are also not always on one end of the spectrum. Often the traits lie on a bell curve, meaning most of us are somewhere between Extroverted and Introverted, for instance. These grey zones are not readily reflected in the MBTI, since it consists of binaries at opposite poles. This false dichotomy suggests that we can only be one version of each variable, like Thinking or Feeling, but not both. Yet, research has supported the idea that these characteristics can be separated, and just because we are objective does not mean we are not emotional.¹¹
Although it’s convenient to differentiate between personality types by assigning only one letter of each binary to people, this reflects a more simplistic personality than what is often the case. The test also suggests our personalities and preferences do not change – that there is an essential personality type at our core – and thus encourages a static view of the self. Since the MBTI describes each personality type as positive in its own way, it can be easy to get attached to our assigned type, even if it does not always accurately describe us.
The use of personality tests in hiring and management decisions has been criticized, specifically for the idea that it could put diversity at risk – managers may be inclined to pick people with similar personalities to themselves.¹²
As an often mandatory part of corporate retreats or recruitment processes, the MBTI may risk pigeon-holing a candidate into a personality type that isn’t valued as highly in the workplace. For instance, traits like extraversion are generally more frequently favored in North American work environments, so the MBTI may further exclude introverts from consideration for a promotion or job offer, even if they are a good fit for the position.
The predicted strengths and weaknesses of a particular personality type may not actually apply to all that test for this type, thereby misleading decision-makers in judging who would be best for a role. Returning to the MBTI’s implication that individuals have set personalities that do not change, this view in a company can hinder an employee’s progress within an organization or be used to rationalize the exclusion of already under-represented groups in the workplace. As a general tool to help guide us toward a potential career, or understand how we work with others, the MBTI may be a valuable resource. With hiring or admissions decisions, however, it would be misleading to rely completely on the test, since our types do not capture everything about us – including how well we will perform in particular jobs.
The successful advertising of ‘pseudoscience’
Some critics have suggested the appeal of the MBTI is similar to the appeal of astrology. The phenomenon of seeing oneself in general and vague descriptions, called the Barnum Effect, is thought to explain the popularity of astrology and may play into the success of other controversial personality assessments like the MBTI.¹³ As other “pseudoscience” personality constructs have become popular, researchers have become increasingly skeptical of the allure of seeing oneself in overly broad descriptors. Although the MBTI describes a wide range of types, with 16 different personalities, the positive language and common challenges described in each type could encourage people to overlook other aspects that do not match up as neatly.
Despite the controversy of the MBTI, it’s difficult to find an alternative personality test that is backed by research and provides good (or perhaps more importantly, attractive) insights into our strengths and weaknesses. Other tests that are used frequently in academic study and clinical psychology, like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), are intended to diagnose psychiatric disorders rather than characterize personalities.¹⁵ The most popular approach to personality “typing” in academia is known as the Big Five. Although this test was constructed and informed by research and has strong support from the academic community, it is not very popular with the general public. This reflects the importance of marketing and allure of positive communication in personality assessments; even though the Big Five offers a more comprehensive view of ourselves and has the scientific backing, it is not used nearly as often as the MBTI.¹⁰
In defense of the MBTI
The MBTI may have been underestimated due to its non-academic origins. Although many researchers believe the MBTI has been proven inaccurate, there are studies that support the test’s validity and reliability. Moreover, the Myers-Briggs Foundation argues that controversy surrounding the MBTI came from studies examining an older version of the test. In one review and meta-analysis of literature on the MBTI, researchers found the test was indeed sufficiently reliable in terms of re-testing, where study participants take the test multiple times to see if they continue to get the same result.¹⁶ Other researchers also supported the test’s construct validity and confirmed the consistency of participants’ results.¹⁷
As a result of these studies, some academics have defended the test against its critics, arguing that research has shown the MBTI to produce accurate and reproducible results, though it should not be taken as the only evidence of a person’s abilities and personality.⁵ There are now many versions of the test, and since its inception, many have taken the online questionnaire and self-evaluation. This may contribute to the inaccuracy of the test in some cases, since the Myers and Briggs Foundation encourages people to take the assessment with a certified MBTI practitioner who can go over the results one-on-one. The Foundation also insists the test is “descriptive” rather than “predictive”, although it is offered by many counsellors and consultants for purposes of predicting an individual’s success in a certain career.¹⁸
Merve Emre, the author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, suggested that both Katharine Cook Myers and Isabel Briggs Myers would likely be skeptical about the test’s uses today, if not completely disapproving.² Isabel’s MBTI was rigorous and its reputation might have been hampered by efforts to make the test more accessible and effortless. Katharine was skeptical that Jung’s personality types could be understood in a single questionnaire, since she had devoted much of her life to studying them. The MBTI has come a long way, but attempts to use the instrument for more than its original intentions may be largely responsible for the widespread academic pushback against the test.
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