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Exposing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (and Ourselves)

Personality BrokersI hate personality testing. And I hate the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Not as much as some other personality systems, to be sure, but enough that the last time my wife brought it up, I regaled everyone within earshot at IKEA about the deeply theoretical flaws in personality systems that rely on binaries—even the complex four part binaries of the MBTI. So when I flipped through the first few pages of Merve Emre’s Personality Brokers—a “strange history” of the MBTI—I thought I had hit the jackpot: a reputable history of the MBTI’s origins written by the professed skeptic. In her opening passage, Emre even went so far as to characterize the study as an investigation, the kind that produces “a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.” The following lines hinted at an exposé of the dangerous cult of personality (double entendre intended) surrounding Isabel Myers and her test. Hooked, I settled in with every expectation of gleefully hate learning about the history of the test in every revealing and embarrassing detail.

What Emre actually delivers is something more measured and less titillating, facts which I can forgive in part because I am embarrassed by the maniacal joy with which I approached the book and in part because the sincerity of her approach humanizes the history of the MBTI without dulling any of the relevant criticisms.

Personality Brokers is not so much a history of the test as it is a double biography of its two founders, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, and there is clear effort to rehabilitate these women without conceding meaningful ground to the product of their labors. Emre makes clear that, even as a skeptic, she cannot escape frustration with the fact that one of the key criticisms leveled against the MBTI is that people then and now scoff at the lay origins of what is ostensibly a Jungian psychological tool. Disbelief that the originators were women is a recurring theme in Emre’s narrative, and, while time has muted or masked those objections, the idea that untrained hobbyists would perfect the science of personality continues to be an easy ad hominem to challenge the validity of the test.

In contrast, Emre depicts the women as tireless and rigorous autodidacts, whose work made every effort to conform to both the prevailing theories of psychology and the dominant modes of testing and verification. These were not bored housewives with nothing better to do than devise addictive personality tests—notwithstanding the remarkable fact that the first iteration of the MBTI was basically a Cosmo quiz, appearing in 1926 in the New Republic as “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box.” They were college-educated, careful students of Jung, who tried to apply sophisticated and cutting edge psychological theories to the problems in their immediate orbit. Sometimes these were stereotypical problems of marital bliss and effective childrearing; sometimes they were the loftier goals about predicting and preventing postpartum depression and selecting effective spies that couldn’t be cracked by the Soviets.

These were incredible women doing incredible work in an age when this was particularly difficult for women to accomplish. Yet Emre rightly diagnoses their push for broad applicability, the mass value of the MBTI, as the key to its failure as a scientific instrument. The more the women needed Jung’s theories to apply to everyday life, the more they had to be abstracted from anything with verifiable clinical value. All the old objections remain and find occasional reiteration in Emre’s narrative: people’s type shows high variability (from test to test in as short a span as a week), the test has biases along gender, racial, and economic lines, the self-reported nature puts results at a remove from reality, and the vagueness of the type categories creates a broad enough umbrella to find assent regardless of what kind of person you actually are. (This, it turns out, was done purposefully to increase marketability once the test let Myers’ hands.) More than all of this, however, Emre cites the need for the test to work—for everybody and in every situation—as the original sin of the MBTI.

For all this, Emre concludes that the MBTI’s greatest failing is also its core strength. The ability of the test to quantify an individual, to put them into a marketable category of type, allows for a ease of self-discovery that has a way of removing the shame from who we are. If you can’t get along with your spouse, perhaps you are contrasting types. If you fight often with your parents, it may be a clash of types. If your child is struggling in school, perhaps the teacher just doesn’t understand how a child of your type learns. By teaching us who we are, the MBTI also tells us why our lives are unfolding the way they do. It can be liberating to understand oneself, especially if that understanding comes dressed up in the trappings of psychological jargon and authority.

This new-ageyness of the MBTI had never been part of my criticism of the test—which had always been more purely theoretical (perhaps reflecting my type…)—and I am indebted to Emre for introducing me to this line of critique. In the end, the act of self-classification and the classification of others is about the absolution of responsibility. Cloaking a problem in type excuses the student from learning, the couple from trying, the child from submitting to its parents. Advocates of the MBTI would argue that the indicator tells you how to navigate those problems rather than how to avoid them, but even anecdotal experience with personality typing (of any system) shows that its explanatory power is dismissive

Katherine Briggs used it this way against her son-in-law; Isabel Myers used it the same way; and sitting around the dinner table with my in-laws the great tradition continues. “You do that because you’re…” or “You say that because you’re…” Left brained. Type A. INTP. Emre sums it up best when she points out the vast gulf that exists between the old MBTI slogan “You’re not one in 16. You’re one in a million” and the actual use of the test in hiring and firing, college admissions, career planning, relationship counseling, and social media. The moment you consent to—even invite—categorization, you cease to be an individual and become a type.

That’s the whole point, the usefulness of the MBTI and other personality type systems after all. With that loss of individuality comes a necessary loss of culpability for the way that your life unfolds. You become the Marxian individual, making your own history but not within parameters of your own choosing. Within the limits of your innate type, you cannot be held responsible for your action. A slightly less renowned philosopher put the same sentiment this way: “Oh there ain’t no other way. Baby I was born this way.” What Gaga, Marx, and Myers-Briggs all seem to have in common is the idea that the surrender of the self to the destiny of birth is somehow liberating. That’s not a liberation that I want any part in.

On the whole, I recommend Personality Brokers enthusiastically. It is a thought-provoking and accessible bit of biography of the unwitting crafters of one the great cultural phenomena of our times. Though far from a quick read, Emre writes in an engaging style mixing insight and measured criticism with humanity and candid self-reflection. Though most consumer reviews have been superficially parsed into negative “true believers” and positive critics, Emre’s text is evenhanded enough to have something to offer everyone. Like the MBTI training group that provides the substance of her conclusion, Emre provides space for advocates to ask questions and seek answers without necessarily abandoning the self-actualization that MBTI offers, for better or worse.

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