Why Are We So Obsessed With the Myers-Briggs?

How personality tests become personal mythology

Sulagna Misra can be found in the small hovel sulagnamisra.com.

I’m the type of person who asked people BuzzFeed questions before BuzzFeed existed. Which Disney princess are you? What’s your favorite animal? Who would play you in a movie? It’s a habit born of social anxiety. I used to try and connect with people by asking intensely personal questions: Do you believe in love at first sight? Are you happy? Are you lonely? But I saw how these questions made people nervous, so I scaled back: What TV shows do you like? What movies? What books? Unfortunately, this wasn’t personal enough: when you begin to parse the nuances behind your mutual love of Liz Lemon, you realize you don’t really have anything in common. So I switched to carefully crafted questions that were just personal enough to start a conversation.

As usual with people who ask such questions, I always have my own answers ready. I think I’m definitely Mulan and I like giraffes and I’m not sure the quirky Indian-American actress who could play me in a movie has been discovered yet. (Sure, there’s Mindy Kaling, but I look nothing like her.) These answers seem small, but they are ways for me to describe myself to others, simple but adorned talismans to pass out to strangers and friends alike. What it comes down to is that I’m basically saying, “Here’s who I am. Who are you?”

I tell you this to explain the kind of mind that would become incredibly obsessed with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a test designed to describe personality in the barest abstract terms. Because I may want to know what Disney princess and animal and actress you are, but I really want to know your Myers-Briggs type. As a result of my intense study of the test, I’ve asked my family, co-workers, friends, and random strangers about their MBTI types. I tend to remember their types better than they do.

Isabel Myers and her mother, Katharine C. Briggs, first published the MBTI in 1962. According to Isabel Myers’ son Peter’s book, Gifts Differing, it was created to give women during World War II direction about the best kind of jobs to take in the man-free workplace, since they would likely have no previous experience to base their choices on. Neither woman was a scientist, but Briggs had read several European psychology texts, which is why they based their test on Carl Jung’s Psychological Types. Jung’s theory focuses on the two standards of personality: functions (emotions, logic, intuition, and sensing), which are tools people use to experience the world; and preferences (introversion vs. extroversion, judging vs. perceiving), which determine the methodology for how you use those functions.

The MBTI’s interpretation of Carl Jung outlines two ways of perceiving — Sensing (S) and Intuition (N) — and two ways of judging — Thinking (T) and Feeling (F). I’ve studied the concepts enough to have easy definitions on hand when I test people. I describe Sensing as a focus on the practical, on what is, and dealing with what’s in front of you. People who score high on Intuition are over-thinkers, obsessed with what could be, sometimes to the point that they forget the reality. Everyone uses thoughts and feelings when it comes to making decisions, but thinkers, I like to explain, can usually explain their reasoning and thought process, while feelers talk about gut feelings or speak about their decisions in a subjective lens.

The other part of the test deals with people’s preferences in how they demonstrate these abilities: Introversion (I) or Extroversion (E), and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). I don’t usually bother explaining I and E because people tend to have already heard of the concepts, thanks to the cultural ripples from books like Quiet by Susan Cain. With the second preference, my description is that J people like to have a plan and need to re-plan when the plan goes wrong, while P people can come up with spontaneous plans on the spot and are flexible to change when they come across other options and opportunities.

These four choices — I or E, N or S, F or T, J or P — mark your “type.” There are sixteen permutations of letters, or sixteen types to be decided in all.

Jan Truter

I first encountered the MBTI in an interviewing class in freshman year of college. It was a simplified version of the test, with only four questions and one-paragraph descriptions. I got INFP, an introverted intuitive feeling perceiver, which was flatteringly described on Wikipedia as “The Healer.” I clicked around a bit, happy to find that one of my heroes, Joan of Arc, was an INFP. Then I forgot about it until my last year of graduate school, when a fellow master’s candidate and good friend mentioned to me that she was taking an MBTI test with the career center.

The MBTI has been a tool for careers for a long time. The Myers & Briggs Foundation — which has a website so staid and humorless I never spent much time on it — states on its list “Type Use for Everyday Life” that the MBTI “can help you with career planning at every stage.” According to an article in the Denver Post, the MBTI has been used in government agencies and educational institutions, but it shines as a corporate tool supposedly designed to help the test-taker identify their strengths and better interact with their colleagues. A private company, CPP, administers and copyrights the use of the test and the myriad guides interpreting the results, and it takes in approximately $20 million a year.

When my friend told me she was taking the test, I got curious and took it again, this time a longer, more complicated version on an online website called Human Metrics. I was surprised to get ENFJ this time, and especially surprised to be considered an extrovert rather than an introvert, but it must be right — the Internet said so.

Around this time, I was also applying for jobs alongside my graduate school friends. I tried to use what I believed to be my newly discovered extroversion by networking as much as possible with all sorts of people. If I felt uncomfortable reaching out to people I didn’t feel close to, I reasoned, it was just that I didn’t yet know how to embrace my true nature as an extrovert. Talking to so many strangers so aggressively was just who I am, I figured, as I reached out to yet another person I felt no personal connection with but who could potentially give me a job at this or that company.

None of the people I reached out to in this affected manner gave me a job interview. Whether this is a mark of my lack of extroversion or of my terrible networking skills, I’m not sure. Instead, I got my first job from a good friend from undergrad. In our multiple Skype sessions (she was in New York and I was in Los Angeles), I actually sent her the test. She got the same result as me.

Getting the same MBTI type can be a bonding experience — if the test shows your true self, it must also identify your kindred spirits. I once tested a visiting cousin’s type over drinks and dinner at a restaurant, and it turned out one of the girls at the next table was the same type. Five minutes ago they’d been strangers — now the girl and my cousin began to commiserate on how they were often told they seemed cold and rational by others, despite the fact that these very qualities aided them in their work. But was this a mark of the ENTJ — or the result of sexism faced by two very smart women embroiled in male-dominated fields such as finance and programming? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’ve read so many websites on the MBTI, none of which have any real scientific basis for their claims. There are dozens upon dozens of websites, but you can’t go wrong with Personality Page or 16 Personalities. The former is a terrible 1990s site with blurry pictures and serif font with excellent, extensive essays that go into the meaning of each of the functions, the way the type manifests in relationships, and ways to improve oneself. The latter has a strengths and weaknesses page and pictures of fictional characters and famous leaders or actresses with this type. They are delicious to read, particularly when you’re applying for jobs or feeling crappy about yourself.

There’s a critique that the MBTI is always positive — there’s no type called JERK — which is part of its marketing. There’s a name for this in psychology: the Forer effect. As Maria Konnikova explained in her article on BuzzFeed quizzes in the New Yorker, the Forer effect holds that if you present the right sort of feedback — vague, double-sided, mostly favorable, ultimately reassuring — people will believe it without question. Like reading a positive horoscope or enjoying a fortunate tarot reading, the happier the assessment, the more likely we are to believe it. For several of my friends and millennials in general, whose careers and lives in this economy are in flux, any positivity is beloved. Psychics and the horoscope industry tend to be recession-proof because they provide a sense of optimism, even when it seems there is no reason for it. That’s why I trawl through these websites in the first place. And while studies show depressed people have a more realistic idea of their lives, optimistic people — however delusional they are — are happier people.

Konnikova admits cherry-picking her results when she takes the “What Game of Thrones character are you?” BuzzFeed quiz. After careful changes to her answers, she gets her desired result: Tyrion Lannister. I did something similar after my failed flirtation with extroversion; I simply decided I was an introvert, if only to assuage my worries about what a bad extrovert I was. We could say these machinations render our results “incorrect.” But Konnikova and I both choose what appeals most to us, the descriptions that we cherish and give out like talismans on Facebook. My favorite part of my INFJ profile is that “The INFJ is usually right, and usually knows it.” I won’t pretend I didn’t preen.

But we don’t turn to the MBTI just to be flattered. We want it to be a decoder ring for our personalities, a simple and ostensibly objective shortcut to the messy work of self-understanding. Unlike the myriad BuzzFeed quizzes, the Myers-Briggs doesn’t just tell you what you’re thinking — it tells you how you think. It’s easier and more authoritative to say, “I am an INFJ” — or, if you take enough BuzzFeed quizzes, “I am a wolf” or “I am Mulan” or “I am Tilda Swinton.” (I am Tilda Swinton, by the way, according to CelebrityTypes.com, which hypothesizes the MBTI results of world leaders, movie stars, scientists, philosophers, and diplomats. I’d be fine with her playing me in a movie, if it came right down to it. She might not have my eyebrows or skin-tone — and who knows when an actress might crop up that does — but perhaps she’d get my nuances right, if she’s also an INFJ.)

What do all these — Mulan and Tilda Swinton and a wolf — culminate into? If they were just a bunch of BuzzFeed quizzes, I’d probably forget them a second after hitting “post.” But since these all fall under the umbrella of INFJ, it’s a personal mythmaking exercise, similar to the narrative therapy exercise but using stories beyond just my own. Of course, I get to pick and choose all the parts that appeal to me. (I’m certainly not including purported INFJ Hitler in my personal myth.) It’s like collecting BuzzFeed quiz results in earnest, with the added benefit of an overall theme. With my Myers-Briggs type, I get to be the clumsy, clever Chinese warrior, the otherworldly actress that people come to watch sleep in a museum, and an animal known for the fear it can inspire on camping trips around North America and Eurasia.

Personal myths can be powerful, and can be a means to go beyond ourselves and our circumstances. My friends and I have discussed how we focused on our Myers-Briggs results while searching for signs for our future, alongside other mechanisms such as Tarot cards and palm readings. One friend spoke about peacocks appearing in one form or another in her life, over and over again, like a romantic motif in a novel. I knew what she meant; I’d seen a little boy carrying a toy giraffe earlier, my favorite animal (even though a giraffe would probably be an ISFJ). While I knew it meant nothing in the grand scheme of things, seeing it felt like a sign in an overarching narrative, signaling a changing tide in my life. Similarly, the Myers-Briggs gives us connections to stories beyond our own experience. It becomes a signal of hope and encouragement for not only who we are, but who we wish and hope to become.

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