The mother-daughter team behind the ‘scientifically unsupported’ Myers-Briggs personality test – RN
The Myers-Briggs test was developed by mother-daughter team Isabelle Myers and Katharine Briggs. (Courtesy of the Myers and Briggs Foundation)
It’s a test used widely around the world by large corporations, universities, churches and even the US military, but it has very little science behind it.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) sorts people into one of 16 categories, offering to find different personality types their perfectly aligned job.
According to the MBTI, a person’s personality can be categorised by their preferences within four dichotomies: extroversion or introversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving.
But author and Oxford University associate professor Merve Emre, who has researched the history of Myers-Briggs, says it’s hardly an evidence-based approach.
“I’m deeply sceptical, but I should say that my scepticism is shared by many other people,” she says.
Dr Emre says most studies of the MBTI show it to be invalid — “it does not measure what it says it’s measuring” — and unreliable.
“A very large percentage of people who take the test more than once get different results when they take it,” she says.
Nonetheless, many continue to put their faith in the MBTI — and Dr Emre is intrigued about why that is.
A mother-daughter creation
The MBTI is the creation of mother-daughter team Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.
Katharine, born in Michigan in 1875, was a child prodigy who attended college at the age of 14.
Her father was a distinguished zoology professor and promoter of Darwin, and her mother was “an extraordinarily devout woman,” Dr Emre says.
She says that dichotomy shaped Katharine, who “felt very torn between her father’s scientific understanding of the species and her mother’s commitment to saving people’s souls”.
After she had Isabel, Katharine found herself intellectually frustrated by domestic life.
She became preoccupied with personality typing politicians, such as Franklin Roosevelt, based on what she’d read about them.
Then, in the 1920s, she became “absolutely spiritually obsessed” with Carl Jung’s book Psychological Types.
“She starts to write to Jung to ask him to clarify what he means in different sections of the book,” Dr Emre says.
“Eventually she [began] to type everyone around her using Jung’s categories of introversion and extroversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling.”
Based on Jung’s categories, Katharine started creating a typological system — a precursor to the Myers-Briggs system we know today.
A ‘compelling way to convince people to do work for you’
After World War Two, a labour force boom in the US created a ripe environment for systems that could organise workers.
Different personality tests, designed to help employers find the best possible employees, began to emerge.
Isabel, says Dr Emre, was “extraordinarily savvy”, and quickly sprang into action.
She and Katharine, now in her 70s, designed their own type indicator.
The MBTI was born.
Unlike other tests available at the time, the MBTI wasn’t about being right or wrong for a job.
Rather, explains Dr Emre, the MBTI told people “that they weren’t right for a particular type of job — that something else might fit them better”.
Isabel considered this a far more “compelling and persuasive way to convince people to do work for you”, Dr Emre says.
“Because they believe they are made to do the work that you are asking them to do — so they will bind themselves to it freely and gladly.”
Revered despite ‘conceptual and empirical failings’
Katharine and Isabel soon found their first client: the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA.
The OSS purchased the type indicator to test what kind of covert operative mission might be best suited to new recruits’ personalities.
Since then, the MBTI has become ubiquitous in the corporate world — despite its lack of scientific foundations.
“The consulting field where [the MBTI] thrives does not have a strong scientific base or ethos, and is unconcerned by the conceptual and empirical failings of the test,” says Nicholas Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.
“Whereas, psychology researchers in personality measurement — who do know and care about the science — deprecate it.”
Professor Haslam says the success of the indicator can in part be attributed to how well its publishers have promoted it, and to its long history of use, which “gives it a sort of solidity in the eyes of people who use it”.
He also argues the indicator is still widely used because “laypeople find its output very intuitive and accessible, in part because of its simplifying, but scientifically unsupported, idea of types”.
Dr Emre has authored a book on the MBTI, The Personality Brokers, and says she’s received daily emails from people professing that the test “helped save their lives”.
“It helped them separate from an unfaithful partner. It helped them reconcile with one. It helped them reconnect with their estranged parents. It helped them walk away from dead end jobs,” she says.
“So to me what’s much more interesting than those questions of validity or reliability, is the question of belief.”