From corporate offices to Internet dating sites, Americans lean on personality tests to make their toughest decisions. But do the results really mean anything?
(Image credit: Jake Beech)
Have you ever been told that you're an extrovert? An introvert? Those terms come from the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator Test. Psychologists, therapists, personnel directors, guidance counselors, and dating services all use variations of the Myers-Briggs Test.
Big-name companies rely on it, as well. Wachovia Bank, Hewlett-Packard, AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals, and the U.S. Department of Defense all license the personality exam for in-house use. And those quizzes on Facebook—Which type of vampire are you? What color is your personality?—also owe a debt to the legendary exam.
But how exactly did one personality test come to dominate the American cultural landscape? And why do so many psychologists and psychiatrists question the test's validity? Both answers may lie in the fact that Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs weren't trained scientists.
This is Just a Test
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator goes back to a mother-daughter team working together in the first half of the 20th century. Neither one had any formal training in psychology. Katharine Cook Briggs was married to a physicist; her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, had a bachelor's degree in political science from Swarthmore College. But the two became interested in personality theory in 1923, after reading a book by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. In Jung's book, Psychological Types, he categorized personalities based on the way people engage in and understand the world. At the time, it was a novel approach to psychology—one that focused not on treating the mentally ill, but rather on guiding ordinary people along a path of self-discovery.
Using a simplified version of Jung's ideas, Briggs and Myers developed a questionnaire and scoring system. This wasn't the first personality test to categorize people by type; Harvard psychologist William Marston (father of the polygraph test) had developed a similar system in the mid-1920s. But Myers and Briggs' version was more detailed.
More importantly, their timing was perfect. Myers and Briggs introduced their system in 1942, just as women were moving into the workforce and filling the job vacancies created by World War II. Specialists in the emerging field of industrial psychology welcomed the Myers-Briggs Test as a way to help sort through the influx of women and steer them toward the jobs that best suited them. Society was quickly redefining itself, and the Myers-Briggs Test was helping to give it shape.
The standard Myers-Briggs Type Indicator poses 94 questions specifically designed to classify an individual as one of 16 personality types. Each "type" is a combination of four traits that describes how an individual relates to the world. A person can be introverted or extroverted; intuitive or sensing; feeling or thinking; and perceiving or judging. Career counselors typically use these results to guide clients towards jobs that feel like a personality fit and are likely to be satisfying in the long run. For instance, people who are categorized as introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving are often gentle and empathetic. They tend to make insightful writers and therapists. On the other end of the Myers-Briggs spectrum, the extroverted, sensing, thinking, and judging types tend to be responsible and organized managers. They're pegged as effective teachers and judges.
Part of what's made the test so popular with the general public is that it's impossible to fail. While other psychological tests were designed to diagnose mental illness (or at least screen for it), the Myers-Briggs Test assumes that all 16 types represent shades of normal. Everyone who takes the test will classify as one of the types, and all of the types have a place in society.
Of course, this aspect of the test is also one of the reasons why many experts question its usefulness, placing it only a step or two above astrology. They argue that the results aren't falsifiable, meaning that any of the 16 types could fit any person, given the right interpretational spin. As psychologist David J. Pittenger wrote in 1993, "The descriptions of each type are generally flattering and sufficiently vague so that most people will accept the statements as true of themselves."
Another reason why experts question the scientific credibility of Myers-Briggs is that the answers are entirely self-reported. Analysts can spend hours interpreting the results, but in the end, the test depends on whether test-takers can honestly and accurately answer questions about their own behaviors and preferences.
Ultimately, many psychologists feel that the Myers-Briggs Test can reveal how individuals see themselves, but not much more. That information can prove useful if you're a career counselor trying to help someone find the right job. But is it worth the millions of dollars people spend each year to administer the test? It's tough to say. We live in a culture where people seem willing to spend endless amounts of time and money to find themselves, and in that respect, it doesn't look like Myers-Briggs will be disappearing anytime soon.
The article by Avery Hurt is reprinted from the May- June 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine.
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