We tend to think of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a frivolous internet distraction, akin to the hundreds of BuzzFeed quizzes that help us pass the time and think about ourselves in new (if not especially serious) ways. But in the mid-20th century, businesses used it as a powerful tool in hiring and management, changing the trajectories of many workers’ lives. What most of these businesses’ executives didn’t know was just how arbitrary the “science” behind the indicator was.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was the brainchild of a mother and daughter, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. They had no formal background in psychology or statistics, but they did have a fervent belief that their experiences as mothers and wives had taught them all about the innate, immutable power of personality types. Born in 1875, Katharine Briggs had always been fascinated by the idea of personality. She became a minor celebrity in the 1920s while writing parenting columns about how she educated her daughter, Isabel. When Isabel left for college, Katharine fell into a deep depression. It was then that she discovered the writings of Carl Jung, whom she called her “savior,” her “maker,” the “author of her life.” Over time, Katharine developed a way of categorizing people’s personalities using a variation of Jung’s theory of psychological types: introversion/extraversion, intuition/sensing, feeling/thinking, and to this she added perception/judging.
Her system never really caught on until her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, developed it into a 117-question marketable “indicator” — never a “test,” since there were no right or wrong answers, no good or bad types. Myers sold it to Edward N. Hay, a family friend and one of the first personnel consultants in the United States. With the rise of the labor force during and after World War II, newly established consultancies like Hay’s were warming to the idea of using cheap, standardized tests to fit workers to the jobs that were “right for them,” a match made under the watchful eyes of executives eager to keep both profits and morale high.
Personality tests spoke for more than just an individual person or company; they represented an emergent culture of white-collar work.
From the end of World War II to the beginning of the arms race in the early 1950s, news of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator thundered through Pennsylvania, New York, and Washington, D.C. As men built bomb shelters and children practiced attack drills, Isabel picked up accounts, and these accounts began to double, even triple, in size. She took on large orders from colleges, government bureaus, and pharmaceutical companies; from Swarthmore, her alma mater; from her father’s longtime employer, the National Bureau of Standards; from the First National Bank of Boston, Bell Telephone, and the Roane-Anderson Company — a subcontractor for atomic weapons her father introduced Isabel to through his contacts on the Manhattan Project. She was not shy about asking for help or using her family’s connections.
Never one to miss out on an opportunity for self-promotion, Edward N. Hay wrote to his corporate client list on Isabel’s behalf, taking the credit for the indicator’s success despite his apparent lack of familiarity with its origins or the theory behind it. “The test is based on Jung’s Psychological Type-Mind,” he informed one client. “It was developed by Mrs. Isabel Briggs-Myers out of an experiment she did with me in 1942. I have used it in my consulting work quite a little.”
By the mid-1950s, Isabel’s clients were the largest utilities and insurance companies in the United States. They regularly spent upwards of $50 a year on test booklets and answer sheets. The Home Life Insurance Company of New York purchased it twice—first to determine whether an applicant would make for a successful life insurance salesman, and then to calculate whether a life insurance applicant should pay a larger premium on his insurance. (According to Isabel’s summary of her results, extraverted intuitive types — ENTPs and ENFPs — were more likely to exhibit risk-taking behavior.) General Electric asked Isabel to type their highest-ranking executives to develop a theory about the contributions of a man’s type to his managerial success. “Under all the shifting problems that cross an executive’s desk lie three basic necessities,” Isabel wrote:
- He must decide.
- He must be right.
- He must convince certain key people of his rightness.
Deciding came easiest to the Js, the judging types, but since deciding was just one component of executive success, only 50 percent of the General Electric executives Isabel tested were Js. The others were Ps, the perceptive types, who were better at considering other people’s viewpoints: “more inclined to stop, look, and listen,” Isabel wrote. The introverted thinker (ISTP or INTP) was more likely to “arrive at the profoundest decisions,” while the extraverted feeler (ESFJ or ENFJ) was more likely to convince others that he was right through open and tactful communication. “His proposals thus get a fuller and more favorable hearing than do those of the thinker who sets forth his own views calmly and dispassionately but without reference to the other fellow’s and then is surprised at the opposition he encounters,” Isabel observed.
She decided that there was no such thing as the perfect executive type. “No type is naturally endowed with everything that would be useful for the necessary decision, the necessary analysis, and the necessary communication,” Isabel announced to her client. Instead, the different types of executives had different strengths. Her job now was to help them overcome their weaknesses — what she called their “inferior type functions.”
It seemed only natural that Isabel should expand her business from testing to counseling — after all, what good was the point of knowing one’s type if one did not use this knowledge for any real profit? She prescribed General Electric’s executives personality drills. The feeling types had to do logic exercises, inserting hard facts and dollar figures into their office memoranda. The thinking types had to write out “formulas” for criticism, prefacing their harsh remarks with “little chunks of sympathy or appreciation.” Isabel asked the executives to note the differences between the following (a) and (b) statements:
a. “I think you’re all wrong about Jones — ”
b. “I see why you feel that way, but I think you’re probably wrong about Jones.”
a. “Of course Bates lost the position. He should never have — ”
b. “Tough on Bates to lose the position. He should never have — ”
a. “That coat doesn’t fit across the shoulders.”
b. “That’s a becoming color on you. Too bad it doesn’t fit across the shoulders. Spoils the effect.”
“Nine times out of 10,” Isabel advised the executives, “the thinker… does think it’s tough on Bates to lose the position, even though he brought it entirely on himself. He does think the coat is a becoming color, though he can’t condone the fit. He could just as well mention these mitigating circumstances. But he does not think it worth the trouble.” Yet from the standpoint of good human relations — and overtasked human relations departments — it was worth the trouble. It prevented people from fighting executives on minor and major “points of difference”; it made subordinates feel respected and appreciated even when they were being reprimanded or, in the case of the hypothetical Bates, dismissed from their jobs. And it gave the executive a profound sense of self-satisfaction. “His own too-little-used feeling will be happier too,” Isabel concluded.