The world’s most enduring personality test is a meaningless parlor game

Daniel Howden | |

If you work for a large organization you’re probably already aware that yours is one of 16 distinct personality types. You may be less familiar with the reasons why you have been assigned a four-letter string to tell you and your colleagues who you are.

The story goes back to an awkward Christmas dinner in Washington D.C. in 1917, when an overbearing mother could not fathom her soon to be son-in-law. Housewife Katharine Briggs and her only child Isabel enjoyed the most intense of bonds, cemented during the younger woman’s college years by daily letter writing.

When Isabel came home from college with Clarence “Chief” Myers and announced they were to be married, Briggs expected to be able to understand the fastidious trainee lawyer. She was not. Unlike the imaginative and emotional Briggs women, he was detail-oriented, practical and logical.

When the couple returned to college—writes Annie Murphy Paul in her entertaining history ‘The Cult of Personality Testing’—Briggs retired to her study to obsess about the man marrying into her family.

She was in there a while. Six years later she came across the first English translation of Carl Jung’s ‘Psychological Types.’ This was the answer she had been looking for, as she wrote in a letter to the Swiss psychiatrist. His book became her bible. She made a bonfire of her other research materials as a show of faith. He didn’t write back.

Over the course of more intensive mother-daughter correspondence, the pair swapped insights and honed their ideas about thinkers and feelers, introverts and extroverts. Eventually Isabel quit writing mystery novels and devised a paper and pencil test. In honor of it origins, she named it the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator (the order of the first two letters was reversed in 1956). It follows Jung’s assertion that people make sense of the world through psychological frames by setting up four simple oppositions and assigning them with letters:

  • (I)ntroversion/(E)xtroversion
  • i(N)tuition/(S)ensing,
  • (T)hinking/(F)eeling
  • (J)udging/(P)receiving

A series of questions force the person being tested to make choices and these dichotomies are then added up to assign one of the 16 four-letter strings to their personality. If this sounds a lot like a parlor game, that’s because it is.

But it is an inordinately popular one. Nearly three million Americans took the MBTI test last year and 89 of the Fortune 100 companies use some version of it, according to the CPP, a publishing company in Sunnyvale California that began life as Consulting Psychologists Press and has had the distribution rights to MBTI since 1975. The CPP is privately held and therefore not obliged to say how much the Briggs parlor game nets the company but informed estimates suggest around $20 million annually.

Its success is underpinned by something that resembles a pyramid selling scheme. Would-be practitioners of the MBTI, people who aim to administer and score the test are charged $1,600 for a four-day training course. Companies who want to use the MBTI are charged around $30 per person tested. Reasonably enough, the practitioners, having paid their $1,600, are fervent advocates of the benefits of the test.

Its critics, who are legion, make the point that most informed thinking on personality and psychology identifies traits on a continuum: locating where you are on a spectrum between introvert and extrovert. The MBTI treats this as a dichotomy and awards you with one of the four magic letters.

The reduction of personality traits to absolutes throws up the consistency issue. We would have little faith in a medical test that told us one day that our leg was broken and then told us the next that it was not. The popular psychology author, Roman Krznaric, observed that “if you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category.”

Adam Grant, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, compares the MBTI to “a physical exam that ignores your torso and one of your arms.”

The test tells us nothing about your conscientiousness or your emotional stability versus reactivity—whether you stay calm or panic under acute stress. The bestselling author of ‘Give and Take’ argues that even the traits that the test does assess like introversion versus extroversion are based on the hokum idea that both traits determine where your energy comes from. In the Briggs universe an extrovert is solar powered by external interactions, where an introvert is fueled by solitary reflection (one of the MBTI’s enduring bits of false wisdom).

Grant points to considerable research that indicates that introverts are more not less sensitive to external factors, “from coffee to a loud bang to the dull roar of a networking event,” as Susan Cain wrote in her bestseller, ‘Quiet’.

When advocates of the test are confronted with its seemingly obvious, rational shortcomings or the complete absence of peer-reviewed scientific studies in support of its usefulness, their response is often folksy. Stories pour forth about how people found it useful in resolving marital disputes over what time couples leave parties depending on who was an introvert or an extrovert.

Jeffrey Hayes, the chief executive of CPP, was typically folksy when asked by the Financial Times how its main earner has survived the onslaught of scientific skepticism. “The reason it endures is that people find its insights very valuable,” he said. “It helps them lead more productive and fulfilling lives.”

Recently, Annie Murphy Paul, returned to the subject of her 2004 book in a post titled: “I Tried To Kill Personality Tests. I Failed.”

In it she compares personality testing to the industries that have mushroomed around astrology or dream analysis, they are “slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”

Given the weight of dissenting views, she concludes that “the MBTI is a secular religion, and no amount of scientific evidence will dissuade its true believers.”

The genius of the MBTI and the reason it has survived the arrival of science and any number of rivals, is that it is steadfast in only telling us things we want to hear. The portraits that come with each four-letter string echo the signs of the zodiac in their vagueness but dodge even the gentle warnings embedded in astrology.

  • ESFP – The Performer
    People-oriented and fun-loving, they make things more fun for others by their enjoyment. Living for the moment, they love new experiences. They dislike theory and impersonal analysis. Interested in serving others. Likely to be the center of attention in social situations. Well-developed common sense and practical ability.
  • ISTJ – The Duty Fulfiller
    Serious and quiet, interested in security and peaceful living. Extremely thorough, responsible and dependable. Well-developed powers of concentration. Usually interested in supporting and promoting traditions and establishments. Well-organized and hard working, they work steadily towards identified goals. They can usually accomplish any task once they have set their mind to it.

If the MBTI was just a parlor game this would not matter. But it isn’t. In some instances it is used to decide which candidate will get a job or a promotion, or who gets to work on which project. “It gives people an inaccurate understanding of themselves,” Grant told the FT.

This, of course, is something that Jung himself would have warned. The problem is the same as it is with much widely-read business and self-help literature. Its popularity is based on the simplification of complex ideas, a process that is often based on misunderstanding. Neither Katharine nor Isabel understood what Jung was getting at in the first place.

He never meant to propose a system of easily identified personality types or permanent slots into which people could be slotted. “Every individual is an exception to the rule,” he wrote, and to “stick labels on people at first sight” is “nothing but a childish parlor game.”

If only Jung had written back to his biggest fan all those years ago.

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Daniel Howden

Daniel Howden is the former VP of Comms at Workable. He writes about the ideas shaping the world of work. He was formerly with the Economist and Guardian. He tweets @daniel_howden.

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