We’re at Sean’s house, finished with playing Super Smash Brothers on his Wii U. Curiosity gets the better of us, and we decide to ask the question:
“What’s your Myers-Briggs type?”
According to the online tests I’ve taken, ENTJ. Consistently ENTJ. My friend Bryan is INTP, Nathan is INFP, Lucas is INFP too. We don’t know Sean’s, but we speculate it’s ISTJ. But our observations could be wrong.
Myers-Briggs is a very popular personality test, commonly used by businesses and often displayed on dating sites. Being so popular, surely it has some scientific weight behind it, right?
Several questions come to mind. Where did this come from? Why is it so popular? Is it harmful to use?
Not Your Type
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, also referred to as the MBTI, owes its legacy to the work of Carl Jung. Jung’s typological theory broke down people into specific categories based on psychological function.
Jung was not fond of statistical analysis, instead preferring interpretation of his patient’s personal anecdotes. As such, it represents a pre-scientific view of psychology.
The test itself was developed by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katherine Cook Briggs. Isabel’s background is not in psychology, but instead political science. Briggs received her degree in agriculture.
Of course, during this time psychology was in its infancy and as such it does not reflect the much improved scientific advances that have benefited the field.
The way that MBTI works is that it assigns four aspects of one’s personality, with two permutations of each of those aspects.
Introverted(I) versus extroverted(E).
Intuitive(N) versus sensing(S).
Thinking(T) versus feeling(F).
Judging(J) versus perceiving(P).
A total of 16 different personality types are possible. These personality types are often attached to a career. Schools and businesses alike both make use of the MBTI to pick candidates.
But there are definite problems. The MBTI is notoriously unreliable, meaning that taking the test twice over time could result in very different personalities. This has about a 50 percent chance of occuring. In the case of Dr. Adam Grant, whose article is linked above, his personality changed from INTJ to ESFP. Yet, his personality has likely not changed in any significant way. In his own words, he is not schizophrenic. Psychologists have largely abandoned the MBTI in favor of other personality assessments. The HEXACO model is gaining support in psychology.
What concerns me is that despite these sustained critiques, which have not been refuted in any serious capacity, it is still being employed. College students are making decisions based on an unreliable test, putting them on pathways that are more rigid than they ought to be. Businesses are selecting for people who have personalities that match them, even though a few months later it could change in an instant.
But what if your skillset, interests, experience, and work output doesn’t match the personality assigned to you? For example, my personality (ENTJ) is highly prized as being excellent for leadership positions. Yet, I would argue that my skills are more suited for journalism. I enjoy the process of research, writing, interviewing, and every other facet that journalism has to offer. But, according to MBTI, my personality is wrong. I am supposed to be ESFP.
Of course, I would argue that someone’s level of introversion or extroversion is context-sensitive. In certain cases, I absolutely relish being the center of attention. In others, I wish to go about my business without making a fuss. MBTI does not account for this.
Nor does it handle its other aspects with nuance or complexity, reducing them to dichotomous states that imply they are somehow mutually exclusive. Thinking and feeling, though often portrayed as being separate due to the split between Enlightenment and Romanticist values, are indeed interconnected . It is also possible to use one’s sense and intuition in conjunction with one another, a practice I am certainly familiar with. Similarly, perception and judgment interact with each other, each influencing the other.
The aforementioned “right personality type” for an occupation touches on a dark implication. That implication is that there is a single personality suited for an occupation. Why? To fit someone into such a rigid, narrow confine is not only ill-thought out, but unethical.
Why is it unethical? Once employers have determined a personality type that is suited for the job, they can freely reject people who they deem as incompatible. The appeal of MBTI is the fact that it can allow an employer to make quick decisions about a candidate’s capability with little evaluation. It is a way of making the personality into a surface level identifier, such as skin color, gender, or sexual orientation. It becomes another axis of discriminatory practices.
Yet, I would wager that most people are unaware of this criticism. For most, it’s just a part of their process. It’s accepted unquestionably or considered harmless. But what happens when someone begins to make decisions based on false information? Real consequences.
The prioritization on MBTI means people will be encouraged to leave careers they possess skill within in favor of one that is attached to their personality type, changes be damned. Skills, interest, experience, and work output are deemed secondary under MBTI.
Ultimately, MBTI should be abandoned as a metric of personality. For now, the most I can do is take it off my OKCupid profile. I would hope that whoever decides to date me would make a better effort to get to know me by reading my profile instead of basing it off an unreliable and reductive test result.