Nothing Personal: The questionable Myers-Briggs test

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The Myers-Briggs personality test is used by companies the world over
but the evidence is that it’s nowhere near as useful as its popularity
suggests

I was recently reviewing some psychological lectures for my real job.
One of these was on personality tests. The speaker mentioned the
Myers-Briggs test, explaining that, while well known (I personally know
it from a Dilbert cartoon) the Myers-Briggs test isn’t recognised as being scientifically valid so is largely ignored by the field of psychology.
I tweeted this fact, thinking it would be of passing interest to a few
people. I was unprepared for the intensity of the replies I got. I
learned several things that day.

1. The Myers-Briggs Type
Indicator (MBTI) is used by countless organisations and industries,
although one of the few areas that doesn’t use it is psychology, which
says a lot.

2. Many people who have encountered the MBTI in the workplace really don’t have a lot of positive things to say about it.

3. For some organisations, use of the MBTI seemingly crosses the line into full-blown ideology.

So how did something that apparently lacks scientific credibility become such a popular and accepted tool?

Written By: Dean Burnett
continue to source article at guardian.co.uk

18 COMMENTS

  1. OK my alleged ENTP needed to be ENTJ for the top job but I got close!! It is an interesting game but being self judged it has flaws. I liked it when I was young and “in favour” based on type.

  2. This test became all the rage the last couple of years I worked in a corporation. People were ‘encouraged’ to take it, but by then I had enough seniority that I could ignore the ‘encouragement’. People were constantly talking about their results and comparing them with others, usually as light-hearted banter, but also as a way ‘for us to get to know each other’. I found the whole exercise an exercise in narcissism. There was no really bad combination of traits one wanted to avoid, but it seemed to just be another way for people to talk about themselves in a trivial and exhibitionistic way.

  3. Ironically I did this for work recently and we all got the results on Friday. The outcome was, I felt, broadly accurate in describing me – although there was no explanation of why I remain stuck in a low grade while supposedly sharing my results with most of the top people in the organisation.

    There may be some value in the sense of looking at oneself and understanding how one works but it’s limited. And potentially dangerous if used on an organisational level to classify people. One thing that strikes me is how like astrological signs the results are. Just as the descriptions of star signs all sound positive, there is no “bad” in Myers-Briggs. Every letter combination sounds like someone you would like to be.

    • In reply to #4 by Vorlund:

      Its probably as useful as astrology.

      Are you a bromide or a sulfate? Yeah, this is woo. It reminds me of Theosophy or a Cosmo Quiz.

      Personality appraisal differs with cultures around the world, so it seems to me that older tests are inherently irrelevant, if they were ever any good at all. I thought this test had fallen completely out of fashion and was just a quaint relic. Like astrology, it’s just another tool for the eagerly prejudiced.

      • In reply to #9 by This Is Not A Meme:

        Personality appraisal differs with cultures around the world,

        But personality itself does not. Genetically, races across the world differ more within their populations than between populations, and the majority of interrace differences are for superficial qualities such as skin colour and eye shape.

        so it seems to me that older tests are inherently irrelevant, if they were ever any good at all.

        I wouldn’t say that they were inherently irrelevant because it may be that they are mostly workable models that just don’t get all the details right. The test to decide their usefulness would have to be empirical: it couldn’t be done from an armchair.

        I thought this test had fallen completely out of fashion and was just a quaint relic. Like astrology, it’s just another tool for the eagerly prejudiced.

        I don’t agree that looking for personality differences is a tool for prejudice, if that’s what you are implying. The real problems are that a) astrology and so on aren’t good models of how it works and aren’t useful as a result, and b) people’s decisions on how to treat the differences can be, and often are, flawed.

        • In reply to #11 by Zeuglodon:

          But personality itself does not. Genetically, races across the world differ more within their populations than between populations, and the majority of interrace differences are for superficial qualities such as skin colour and eye shape.

          I don’t understand your genetic example, because it seems to imply personality is overwhelmingly genetic, and I don’t think that’s your point. Personality types are culture-bound.

          An anecdotal example to my point: I’m not Japanese but was raised in Japanese culture. None of my psych evals made any sense until I took Japanese evaluations. Personality archetypes are culture-bound, as are the means of determining them. I assert that culture changes enough to obsolete models. We can not apply contemporary Western models to Victorian Era women, nor can we apply them contemporary Japanese men. This is especially true of trivial, non-scientific models like the Briggs-Meyer.

          I don’t agree that looking for personality differences is a tool for prejudice, if that’s what you are implying. The real problems are that a) astrology and so on aren’t good models of how it works and aren’t useful as a result, and b) people’s decisions on how to treat the differences can be, and often are, flawed.

          I will agree that it is possible to construct an insightful test. I see no evidence of any existing outside of clinical settings. These models still require a lot of individual attention and work.

          • In reply to #14 by This Is Not A Meme:

            I don’t understand your genetic example, because it seems to imply personality is overwhelmingly genetic, and I don’t think that’s your point. Personality types are culture-bound.

            Nearly 50% of the behaviour and personality differences between individuals can be traced back to genetic differences. The empirical results have been available since Turkheimer summarized them in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2000, and Pinker summarizes them in The Blank Slate, Chapter 19.

            Long story short, personality is hugely genetic. How could it not be? The genes built the brain that acts out the behaviour in the first place.

            After that, the next biggest cause of differences is the individual’s life history. Comparisons between those of one shared upbringing with those of another – for instance, being raised in the same type of family as your neighbours – showed that there was nearly no correlation between upbringing type and personality differences.

            To put it briefly, what culture you are from, historical or modern, means diddly-squat as far as personality is concerned. An extrovert could be brought up a Japanese student, a Victorian noble, or an American middle-class worker, and they’d still be an extrovert.

  4. Garbage article.

    The writer never actually gets down to any of the real problems with MBTI, and instead criticises non-existent features, like this: “For example, in the category of extrovert v introvert, you’re either one or the other; there is no middle ground.” Actually, each category allows for a percentile score, so one can rank as a 5% introvert, or 40%, or 70%, etc… the same holds for any of the MBTI categories. The writer has simply not done their research, so they seem to be going by their cursory misapprehensions. That’s par for the course with the Guardian, perhaps, but it’s not credible.

    Current psychological science does subscribe to a notion of a Big Five list of personality traits, which is actually very similar to the four traits of MBTI. A comparison of these two personality theories would have been more illuminating.

  5. I hate this test along with the Enneagram. (INTJ, five with a four wing.) The MBTI is lacking and limited in its ways that it pigeonholes people. MBTI is akin to astrology in the way that paints people in an instant profile. It fails to realize that personality is not cut and dry and varies depending upon the situation. Many people even lack self-awareness to answer the test honestly. Statistics showing the percentage of people with certain personality types in various professions does not take into account excellence of ability. I assume even hacks are mixed in. Some people that rise up in certain profession may not be the most proficient, while people of a certain mastery may remain unknown somewhere in the shadows. (As a side opinion: Damien Hirst showed his hand at realism for a while. I can name many artists with superior artistry but you may not know their names.) Opinions are subjective and this test cannot eliminate people from projecting their opinion or standard of quality. And who are these psychologists? Wouldn’t their views be effected by the Dunning-Kruger effect?

    Introversion and Extroversion can shift depending on the social situation. Most people confuse extroversion with being social. It is simply a way of processing information and experiences. N and S also get confusing; maybe even more so than any other aspect of the test. I recall reading how a test of art students revealed 100% N – intuitive. Yes, most artists tend to be “big picture” global thinkers, etc. but many are not. I attended a workshop and one woman was a psychologist. We got onto the topic of MBTI and this issue. We stood around the room and together picked out the N and S artists – base only on their approach to painting. My guess is that most if not all people would test as an N because they are able to pick out the questions easily that resonate with someone being an artist. By aligning their answers with qualities of being an artist they are more likely to come up with the classic MBTI artist – INFP thus confirming that they are in fact and “artiste.”

    • In reply to #6 by QuestioningKat:

      PERSON has a point. There’s a difference between pointing out the way a personality test is used and criticizing the concept of personality, and I don’t find your criticism of the latter convincing. Personality isn’t absolute, and there’s no reason to think it has to be. A statistical tendency is enough. Indeed, personality is defined as behaviour patterns, particular to individuals, that vary within a species (so can’t be treated as phenotypic adaptations of the species).

      For instance, many introverts do indeed behave more like extroverts under certain conditions, but it’s still meaningful to describe them as distinct from extroverts because they have a bias towards e.g. not getting involved in social events, preferring their own company, and choosing solitary activities like reading. I haven’t verified the source yet, but according to 59 seconds by Richard Wiseman, extrovert brains have higher neurological stimulation thresholds and thus require higher arousal than introverts, explaining why they seek out more stimulating experiences more often and get bored faster. The Big Five might be legitimately criticized for not having a theoretical basis, but the empirical data behind it is real enough.

  6. QK, so isn’t the problem the way it’s used rather than the test itself? You seem to be saying that because people exhibit traits of all personality types, that there cannot be any personality types. That seems a flawed argument. What do you make of OCEAN and NEO PI-R?

  7. I’m a psychologist, we’d never use this.
    We would use tests such as the MMPI2-RF, and Personality Assessment Inventory (PAI).

    Scientific models of personality with good cross cultural coverage include:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HEXACO_model_of_personality_structure
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits
    While some cultures seem to have fewer basic factors of personality, arguably these factors tend to be aggregations of the above.

  8. I volunteered for an organization for about six years. They had an opening in another department which I applied for since I loved the place so much.

    The interviewers never spoke to anyone, but handed out these tests instead. A few weeks later I was told that based on my results, I probably wouldn’t be happy working there, so they decided not to pursue further interviews.

    Never mind that I had been there for six years, happily working for free.

  9. Here is a scientific paper on the issue, I’m pasting in the abstract:

    J Pers. 1998 Apr;66(2):135-49.
    Genetic and environmental influences on the continuous scales of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: an analysis based on twins reared apart.
    Bouchard TJ Jr, Hur YM.

    “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was administered to a sample of 61 monozygotic twins reared apart (MZA), 49 dizygotic twins reared apart (DZA), and 92 spouses, who participated in the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart (MISTRA) from 1979 to 1995. Twins’ scores on the continuous scales were subjected to behavior genetic model-fitting procedures. Extraversion-Introversion and Thinking-Feeling yielded heritabilities of about .60, consisting largely of nonadditive genetic variance. Sensing-Intuition and Judgment-Perception yielded heritabilities of about .40, consisting largely of additive genetic variance. Spouse correlations for three of the four scales were near zero and not statistically significant; one spouse correlation (Sensing-Intuition) was modestly positive and statistically significant.”

  10. I find it interesting that psychology does not use/accept the MBTI. Especially because the MBTI is sort of a modernized version of Jungian typology studied and created by Carl Jung, who is very well known and studied in the field of psychology. I do thing the MBTI is much more “canned” psychology (I use the term loosely) and perhaps that is why it is not taken seriously by the psychological community. People’s personalities are much more complex and individual than a series of questions can really categorize. That being said, I’ve tested as an ENFP several times in the past 16 years, always with the same result. I do agree and identify with a great many of the traits and characteristics associated with those of my “type”, but I also know several other ENFPs and we are all very different people with different interests and goals regardless of similar core personality traits.

    • In reply to #17 by ChasingLows:

      I find it interesting that psychology does not use/accept the MBTI. Especially because the MBTI is sort of a modernized version of Jungian typology studied and created by Carl Jung, who is very well known and studied in the field of psychology. I do thing the MBTI is much more “canned” psychology…

      Jung is very well known in psychology, so is Freud. Ptolemy is very well known if you take a class on the history of Astronomy. But none of them are taken seriously by anyone working in those respective fields that qualifies as a serious scientist.

      Which btw, doesn’t mean Jung and Freud didn’t have insights. Again just as Ptolemey’s work at least got some things right, just mapping out the motion of the planets and stars and realizing that there were different kinds of heavenly bodies that moved in different ways was a start. So in the same way Freud and Jung probably made observations that have merit. I was reading an interesting paper the other day that claimed empirical validation for the concept of repression. But it started out by saying “ok we all know Freudianism is BS but here is why repression may still be something worth talking about..”

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