Personality Puzzler: Is There Any Science Behind Myers-Briggs?

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Author Merve Emre of Oxford University discusses her new book -- The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Training

Meyers Briggs bookThe Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has been widely used by businesses, universities, the military and other organizations for decades to assess personality. But there is very little, if any, science behind it. Merve Emre, associate professor of English at the University of Oxford and fellow at Worcester College, delves into the story behind the test with her new book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Training. Developed by a mother-daughter team with no psychological training, the Myers-Briggs test is supposed to indicate how people perceive and process the world around them. Emre recently joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM to explain why Myers-Briggs continues to captivate our collective imagination as part of the $2 billion personality testing industry.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: I feel like the Myers-Briggs test is something that everyone has taken at some point in their lives — even you. Is that correct?

Merve Emre: My dirty little secret is that before I got a Ph.D. in English literature, I was a management consultant at Bain & Company. That’s where I first encountered it during an off-site training. We were all asked to take the Myers-Briggs, and then an executive talent coach came in to debrief us on our types and what our strengths and weaknesses might be going forward at the company.

Knowledge@Wharton: What drove you to write a book looking at the historical aspect of it?

Emre: When I first started researching it, I hadn’t realized that Myers and Briggs were the names of two women. Like many people, I had assumed that they were two men who had found themselves working together in a clinic or a laboratory, had come up with this questionnaire and had popularized it through their connections in the business world, in the military, in the church, all of the different institutions where Myers-Briggs is really prevalent today.

When I discovered that it was a mother and daughter, the popularity of it acquired this new fascination for me. How did these two women who had no formal training in psychology develop the most popular personality indicator in the world today?

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the answer to that question?

Emre: It was a couple of different things. The motivations were different for mother and for daughter. Katharine Briggs was the mother. She was born in 1875. When she really starts investigating psychological type at the beginning of the 20th century, she’s interested in it as a child-rearing tool. She is interested in how one can type one’s children very early in life and figure out what they should specialize in. She thought that this was really valuable for parents because you wouldn’t push your children to do things that they didn’t innately prefer to do. She viewed it as this tool for early childhood education and specialization.

“It’s in the 1980s that management consultancies … are placing an emphasis on people’s personalities, and they’re talking about marketing yourself in certain kinds of ways. The Type Indicator then explodes as this tool for marketing one’s self.”

Her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, inherits this way of thinking about type from her mother in the 1940s. In the 1940s, she sees the rise of all of these new personality tests that are supposed to match workers to the jobs that are best suited to them. She takes issue with many of these tests because they divide workers into good workers and bad workers, or workers who have a normal personality and workers with an abnormal personality. She thinks, “What if I devised an indicator in which all types were created equal and each type had their place in the world? And this indicator would help sort people into the jobs that were right for them.” That’s why she does it, because she thinks that will really be a way for people to find happiness.

Katharine Briggs reads Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in the 1920s, so the categories are based on it. She reads that in the 1920s and starts writing about type then, but the actual questionnaire isn’t designed until the early 1940s.

Knowledge@Wharton: How quickly was it accepted by businesses and other organizations when it finally came out?

Emre: It’s a bit of a slow burn. In the 1940s, Isabel Briggs Myers is working in Philadelphia with one of the first personnel management consultants in the U.S. [The consultant] starts selling the indicators to his biggest clients, which are GE, Standard Oil, the New York Life Insurance Company. These companies are all using it to have their CEOs assess themselves, to interview job candidates, to figure out whether or not you should charge certain people with certain type profiles higher premiums for their life insurance.

It’s a trickle at the beginning. It’s these individual clients or individual corporations. It’s not until the 1980s when it becomes this immensely popular framework for thinking about personality. It’s in the 1980s that management consultancies, big Wall Street firms are placing an emphasis on people’s personalities, and they’re talking about marketing yourself in certain kinds of ways. The Type Indicator then explodes as this tool for marketing one’s self.

Knowledge@Wharton: It was also used quite a bit by the military, including during World War II, correct?

Emre: The first person to purchase it from the consultant that Isabel Briggs Myers was working for was this guy named Donald MacKinnon, who ran the Office of Strategic Services Station S during World War II. It was a secret operation where they matched spies to the covert missions that they thought were best suited for their personalities. MacKinnon would administer [the Myers-Briggs], along with a number of other psychological tests and role-playing situations and interviews and things like that, to possible operatives whose personalities he was trying to assess. Throughout investigating it, I have found that it’s being used by the Department of Defense, by the CIA, by more contemporary military institutions.

Knowledge@Wharton: You mentioned the growth of this type of testing in the 1980s. But businesses for decades have wanted to know about a job candidate’s personality because they want that person to be a good fit.

Emre: This is why Isabel Briggs Myers found an interested clientele for her product in the 1940s. In the 1950s, William H. Whyte publishes the book The Organization Man, which is thinking precisely about the kind of person you have to be in order to be considered a good fit within a corporate workplace. This conversation about what kind of worker looks like a good fit for a white-collar job has definitely been around for a while. It’s really more that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator pulled ahead as the leading tool around which these conversations were oriented in the 1980s.

Knowledge@Wharton: As the test was distributed, was there criticism because it was a marketing tool rather than an educational one?

Emre: One of the institutions that was interested in being the primary publisher for it in the 1950s and 1960s was Educational Testing Services, ETS. They’re the people who make the SAT. They were interested in finding a test that could do for personality testing with the SAT had done for aptitude testing, which was that every college would use it to help determine their admissions.

“It was a way of convincing employees that employers are looking out for their best interests, when perhaps they’re not.”

They were trying to validate it, and they couldn’t. Their team of statisticians could not find a way. They just couldn’t find proof for the fact that the questionnaire measured the categories that it claimed to measure, or that it was even reliable. Over 50% of people who took it got a different result when they took it a second time.

It’s really interesting because at that point in the test’s history, the people at ETS start saying things like, “Well, when employers give potential employees personality tests, often the employees feel alienated by them. They feel judged. What if the Myers-Briggs were one that they could give the employee and tell them their results so they didn’t feel so alienated, so they felt like the employer was interested in them finding the job that was best for them, or interested in them self-actualizing more generally?”

When they have to confront the lack of scientific validity and reliability, the indicator takes on this very different kind of function, a softer function. It was a way of convincing employees that employers are looking out for their best interests, when perhaps they’re not.

Knowledge@Wharton: The word “indicator” was an important factor in the test because it didn’t make people feel like they were being judged, correct?

Emre: That’s absolutely right. If you go to a contemporary Myers-Briggs training session, which I had to do in order to write this book, one of the very interesting things they tell you up front is that under no circumstances are you supposed to refer to it as a test. Because a test is something that has right and wrong answers, a test is something that creates hierarchies of its subjects based on how well they have answered the questions. This is going to sound a little bit tautological, but the indicator is simply a tool that indicates something to you based on what you have revealed to it.

Calling it an indicator and describing it as they do is another way of getting around these questions of validity. The way that the people who offer these [Myers-Briggs] courses or training programs define whether the indicator is working or not is if you personally agree with the type that it has revealed to you. If you don’t agree with it, they often say, “Well, maybe you just took it in the wrong mindset. Maybe you answered the questions as your work self or your social self. Maybe you weren’t answering it as the true you,” or what Isabel Briggs Myers called your “shoes off” self.

For the people who sell and market and teach based off of the indicator, the only thing that really matters is whether or not you’re satisfied with the results that you’re given. The larger argument that I make in the book is that, ultimately, I don’t care that much about these debates about validity or reliability. I kind of take for granted that it’s not valid or reliable. As a humanist, what I’m more interested in is … the language of type, these categories of extroversion and introversion, or even introducing yourself by saying things like, “I’m an ENTJ.” Why has that language become so prevalent, and why is it that we find meaning in it, regardless of whether it’s true in a scientific sense or not?

Knowledge@Wharton: Is there more personality testing now than when Myers-Briggs first came out?

“When the Cambridge Analytica news broke last year, what was interesting to me about that case was that the personality test was initially used as a kind of Trojan Horse.”

Emre: There’s definitely more of it. The market has grown. In the 1990s, the number that was being thrown around in articles on it was between $400 million to $500 million as an industry. There’s an internal report from Facebook that came out last year that put the market at around $2 billion, so it has definitely grown in that sense.

What’s interesting is that there are many more tests out there, many more models of analysis than Myers-Briggs. Yet Myers-Briggs is still the one that has the most powerful pull on our imagination. You don’t often see people putting in their online dating profiles, for instance, their Big Five profile, or their Enneagram type. You do see them putting their Myers-Briggs type in there. You see Buzzfeed quizzes and type tables about Myers-Briggs and what your Myers-Briggs type says about which Game of Thrones character you are. This is the product that has continued to have the most endearing and persuasive pull on our imagination of who we are.

When the Cambridge Analytica news broke last year, what was interesting to me about that case was that the personality test was initially used as a kind of Trojan Horse. You took a personality test and clicked the terms of services box that allowed Cambridge Analytica to basically scrape your Facebook profile for data. One of the things that signaled to me is that the personality test has become innocuous enough that you could use it to lure people to give you their data without thinking that there’s anything wrong. It certainly has evolved, and I think we are less suspicious of it than perhaps we once were.

Knowledge@Wharton: When mother and daughter were putting this together, was there a concern that they didn’t have any formal training in psychology?

Emre: I don’t think there was that concern for two reasons. The first was because psychology at that point was a relatively new discipline. It really had not been institutionalized for very long within higher education. So, the distance between what Katharine Briggs was doing in her home or Isabel Briggs Myers was doing in her home and what somebody like Henry Murray was doing at the Harvard Psychology Clinic or Donald MacKinnon was doing at OSS, that distance was much, much, much smaller than it would seem today. That’s one reason why I don’t think it was alarming.

The second reason is, I think many people have wrongly taken my focus on the fact that this was a mother and daughter to mean that it should be dismissed because it was two women who had no formal training. One of the things that I’m especially interested in, both autobiographically and as a mother, is the fact that motherhood can initiate you into a different process of knowing, a different kind of knowledge. I think these women were convinced that the work they were doing as wives and mothers had taught them something, not just about personality, but about how to manage the different kinds of personalities that jostle for your time and attention on any given day. What is that but management work? That is a form of managerial labor, and I think these women understood that intuitively, even if they didn’t quite know how to articulate it.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think that we will continue to see a general desire to give tests like Myers-Briggs and others?

Emre:  I do. I think if it’s not Myers-Briggs then something else will fill its place. I think we are hungry for the kind of self-knowledge that it presents. We are seduced by the fact that it presents that knowledge in a painless and easily digestible way. I think we are also incredibly compelled by the fact that enough people around us know the language of type, so that if I tell you I’m an ENTJ, you know exactly what that means. You might even be able to conjure up some famous people or literary characters or TV stars whose types are also ENTJ. It is a way of making meaning of a world that is messy and complicated.

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