Is Myers Briggs Bullshit?
You might have come across the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator before. You might have taken the official test, or one inspired by it, and were given a 4-letter ‘personality type’.
But the validity of this personality type indicator is… questionable. Even the Wiki reveals how shaky the foundations are.
However, myself and many others have found our archetypes to be spookily accurate to how we perceive ourselves and the world around us.
In addition, many big businesses use the MBTI (Myers Briggs Type Indicator) as a way to gauge the suitability of new employees.
So let’s have a look at both sides of the argument, is Myers Briggs bullshit?
YES — Limited practical application
The MBTI is not an IQ test, nor will it tell you how successful you will be in life, nor is it even 100% reflective of your personality.
I know there are aspects and facets of my personality that aren’t even addressed in the descriptions of any of the 16 types.
It simply indicates how you best interact with others and how you organise and process the information you get from the outside world.
NO — It boosts confidence
I’m an INTJ — one of the rarest personality types (1–3% of the population) and even more rare amongst the ladies.
But knowing that I was part of this special club, and finding others who shared the same preferences (god bless the internet)… well, it made me feel like I had superpowers — not a defect.
This makes the MBTI a big help for many of us, mentally and emotionally, who struggle with our ‘differences’ and question why we aren’t like the person sat next to us.
It’s reassuring to know we’re not alone — we might just be a rare breed.
YES — Self-reported testing
Part of the problem with the test itself is that we tend to answer how we want to be — as opposed to how we actually think and behave.
For example, one question is ‘Are you often late for appointments?’
We may not notice how often we are late for appointments, and answer ‘No’, even if this isn’t the case.
Or if we’re trying to work on timekeeping, we might report ‘No’.
Another problem is our attempts to categorise others from their behaviours; but in truth we don’t know what is going on in their head, or driving their decisions.
For example, if you met me in a pub, you might not guess I’m an introvert. (An hour later and you spot me looking for the exit, you might be have figured it out…)
NO — It helps us understand others
It used to frustrate me that I was quieter than people around me.
Why I would get exhausted from an evening socialising, even though all my friends were up for more?
Knowing that I was in fact an introvert helped me to understand my energy levels and how I am likely to respond in these social situations. There wasn’t anything wrong with me, it was just my innate preference.
It also helps when understanding people around you — if you can’t see eye-to-eye with someone because they’re sloppy, always late, never finishing anything — then that’s probably because they’re an intuitive not a sensor, or a perceiver not a judger.
YES — Psychology says so
Ok, so MBTI was developed during World War II by two housewives (not psychologists or scientists) who were interested in the works of Carl Jung and developed the test based on Jung’s theories.
Since then, it’s come under a lot of fire from the more — er — science-led psychology community.
My favourite quote is from psychometric specialist Robert Hogan:
Most personality psychologists regard the MBTI as little more than an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie…
Additionally, many report to have taken the test several times, only to find they get different results. This isn’t a good indication of a solid, valid test.
NO — If taken at face-value
It is clear from (1) common sense and (2) scientific testing, that personality traits definitely exist.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that our characteristics are what make us different from other people, and that we can use these to fairly reliably predict the way we’ll behave in a given situation.
If your bullshit detector is based purely on what ‘science’ says, then we can look at the widely accepted ‘Big Five’ model. This has been arrived at through empirical study using several different methods.
To give MBTI a bit more scientific validity, you can see that 4/5 of the Big Five traits are roughly equivalent to the four preferences that MBTI describe.
It’s also worth remembering that the results given by MBTI (if you take an official test) are given in percentages. Basically, we all use ALL the functions; we just vary on the spectrum.
Even though I am an INTJ, all my preferences are quite average on the spectrum (so 60% introvert, 65% intuitive and so on.)
YES — It boxes us in
The resulting ‘personality type’ we’re given (there are 16) can feel like we’re being put in a box. To some, this can feel a bit self-limiting.
There are definitely two schools of thought here, but generally it is thought that our MBTI is something we’re born with; that even if we CAN adopt skills from other types — we’re set for life.
There’s also the question of whether we can sit bang in the middle of two preferences (you might have heard some people classify themselves as ‘ambiverts’ ie. somewhere in between introvert and extrovert.)
James Wedmore compares this to being ambidextrous — so you CAN switch between the two hands, but really — you have one that you prefer to use.
NO — It helps us organise
I could be biased — my personality type naturally likes to label, categorise and organise the world.
But we all do this — we all categorise. It’s how we learn.
For example, when we first see a door handle and find out what it does. Categorising enables us to learn quickly that if we see a bulky object on a door, at approximately hand-height, we can safely assume it will open the door — even if all door handles don’t appear identical.
Humans learn to categorise and approximate, in order to make sense of the world. MBTI is another way to help us do this.
YES — Cultural limitations
Naturally, there are cultural deviations all over the world. Susan Cain points this out in her book ‘Quiet‘, in terms of defining introverts and extroverts in different cultures and societies.
One society might be more conducive to introverts than another, and so on.
Additionally, it doesn’t take into account differences between the sexes, particularly in determining the feeling or thinking preference.
On average, women tend to lean more towards feeling, so we need to have a way to offset the results for those of us who are in fact thinking types, but naturally still use feeling functions more than most men.
Controversial, I know, but I didn’t make the rules!
NO — Evidence of it’s use in Asia
Some googling has brought up reports like “I’ve read an MBTI article in my local MALAYSIAN newspaper years ago and have worked with local companies who had us complete an MBTI test as part of a job requirement.” (Though, that was a Youtube comment…)
Plus, this Chinese site references it so it doesn’t appear to be totally ignored in Asia.
YES — It diminishes certain types
Quite honestly, the introvert ‘movement’ that has kind of grown around Susan Cain’s ‘Quiet‘, and one that I see myself as part of, does have the same danger of going too far in it’s ‘introverts are so great!’ leanings.
This problem isn’t something the original creators or practitioners do, as far as I know, but it is something you see all over the internet.
For example, intuitive types (around 30% of the population) are touted as being the entrepreneurs, the creatives, the inventors — and all those other sexy things.
But where does that leave sensors?
Does that make them only suited to menial tasks and destined to a life of uncreative work?
Hell no! But, if you read too much of the aggrandising around intuitive types, then you may start to believe that.
NO — If you remember: all types are equal
Like, I’m a redhead. It doesn’t make me better or worse (despite what Cartman has to say…)
Or right-handed, left-handed — it’s just a preference.
When you start to uncover this stuff, and keep your views unbiased, you can work a great deal about how you best interact with the world around you.
My final thoughts?
I think it’s safe to say Myers Briggs typing should always be taken with a pinch of salt. The fact is: for many the test produces inconsistent results, and for some, it can be self-limiting.
But, personality is so complex, so multi-faceted, I don’t believe any one test can give us an accurate ‘blueprint’ of what makes us, us.
What I do get, from Myers Briggs and many many other personality tests, is a bit more of an insight about what makes me, me.
It makes me consider my likes and dislikes. It makes me question why I make certain decisions or behave in certain ways. I can use this information to challenge myself or sharpen my skills.
I can also use it to understand others, and be more tolerant of their behaviours.
To me: science-based or not, I think MBTI is a very useful tool to have to make sense of ourselves in this crazy world, and I still encourage everyone I know to go take the test.
Even if it’s just for fun.