Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®

An instrument for measuring a person’s preferences, using four basic scales with opposite poles. The four scales are: (1) extraversion/introversion, (2) sensate/intuitive, (3) thinking/feeling, and (4) judging/perceiving. “The various combinations of these preferences result in 16 personality types,” says Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., which owns the rights to the instrument. Types are denoted by four letters to represent one’s tendencies on the four scales. For example, INTJ stands for “Introversion, Intuition with Thinking and Judging.”

According to CPP, the MBTI® is “the most widely used personality inventory in history.” According to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, approximately 2,000,000 people a year take the MBTI. CPP claims that it “helps you improve work and personal relationships, increase productivity, and identify leadership and interpersonal communication preferences for your clients”.

Many schools use the MBTI® in career counseling. A profile for each of the sixteen types has been developed. Each profile consists of a list of “characteristics frequently associated with your type,” according to CPP. The INTJ, for example, is frequently

· insightful, conceptual, and creative

· rational, detached, and objectively critical

· likely to have a clear vision of future possibilities

· apt to enjoy complex challenges

· likely to value knowledge and competence

· apt to apply high standards to themselves and others

· independent, trusting their own judgments and perceptions more than those of others

· seen by others as reserved and hard to know

The people at CPP aren’t too concerned if the list doesn’t seem to match your type. They advise such persons to see the one who administered the test and ask for help in finding a more suitable list by changing a letter or two in your four-letter type. (See the report CPP publishes on its Web site.) Furthermore, no matter what your preferences, your behavior will still sometimes indicate contrasting behavior. Thus, no behavior can ever be used to falsify the type, and any behavior can be used to verify it.

Jung’s Psychological Types

The MBTI is based on Carl Jung's notions of psychological types. The MBTI was first developed by Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1979) and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. Isabel had a bachelor’s degree in political science from Swarthmore College and no academic affiliation. Katharine’s father was on the faculty of Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Her husband was a research physicist and became Director of the Bureau of Standards in Washington. Isabel’s husband, Clarence Myers, was a lawyer. Because Clarence was so different from the rest of the family, Katherine became interested in types. She introduced Isabel to Jung’s book, Psychological Types. Both became avid “type watchers.” Their goal was a noble one: to help people understand themselves and each other so that they might work in vocations that matched their personality types. This would make people happier and make the world a more creative, productive, and peaceful place in which to live.

According to Jung, some of us are extraverts (McGuire and Hull 1997: 213). (The spelling of “extravert” is Jung’s preference. All cites are to McGuire and Hull.) They are “more influenced by their surroundings than by their own intentions” (302). The extravert is the person “who goes by the influence of the external world--say society or sense perceptions (303). Jung also claims that “the world in general, particularly America, is extraverted as hell, the introvert has no place, because he doesn’t know that he beholds the world from within” (303). The introvert “goes by the subjective factor....he bases himself on the world from within...and...is always afraid of the external world....He always has a resentment” (303). Jung knows these things because he is a careful observer of people. He did only one statistical study in his life, and that was in astrology (315). In fact, Jung disdained statistics. “You can prove anything with statistics,” he said (306). He preferred interpreting anecdotes.1

Jung also claimed that “there is no such thing as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum. They are only terms to designate a certain penchant, a certain tendency...the tendency to be more influenced by environmental factors, or more influenced by the subjective factor, that’s all. There are people who are fairly well balanced and are just as much influenced from within as from without, or just as little” (304). Jung’s intuition turns out to be correct here and should be a red flag to those who have created a typology out of his preference categories. A typology should have a bimodal distribution, but the evidence shows that most people fall between the two extremes of introversion and extraversion. Thus, “although one person may score as an E, his or her test results may be very similar to those of another person’s, who scores as an I” (Pittenger 1993).

Jung claimed that thinking/feeling is another dichotomy to be used in psychological typing. “Thinking, roughly speaking, tells you what [something] is. Feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not, to be accepted or rejected” (306). The final dichotomy, according to Jung, is the sensation/intuition dichotomy. “Sensation tells you that there is something....And intuition--now there is a difficulty....There is something funny about intuition” (306). Even so, he defines intuition as “a perception via the unconscious” (307).

Jung claims that it took him a long time to discover that not everybody was a thinking (or intellectual) type like himself. He claims that he discovered there are “four aspects of conscious orientation” (341). He claims he arrived at his typology “through the study of all sorts of human types” (342). These four orientations cover it all, he claims.

I came to the conclusion that there must be as many different ways of viewing the world [as there are psychological types]. The aspect of the world is not one, it is many--at least 16, and you can just as well say 360. You can increase the number of principles, but I found the most simple way is the way I told you, the division by four, the simple and natural division of a circle. I didn’t know the symbolism then of this particular classification. Only when I studied the archetypes did I become aware that this is a very important archetypal pattern that plays an enormous role. (342)

Jung’s evidence, from his clinical observations, is merely anecdotal. He talks about the extravert and the introvert as types. He also talks about the thinking type, the feeling type, the sensation type, and the intuition type. His evidence for his claims is not based on any controlled studies. He said he “probably would have done them” if he had had the means (315). But as it was, he says, “I had to content myself with the observation of facts” (315).

Jung’s typology is more intuition and speculation than science. If it is science, it is bad science because he didn’t do controlled studies and relied too heavily upon his own insights and evaluations of what he observed. His terminology is imprecise and equivocal. Finally, there is no meaningful way to falsify his claims about psychological types. Contrary behaviors can be made to fit any type. Jung believed that an extravert could have an introverted unconscious and that an introverted thinker might compensate by an extraverted feeling, further complicating the typology (311). It would also make it impossible to test his claims about types since any behavior could be shoehorned to fit the theory. A similar ambiguity pervades the astrology that Jung loved.

Jung seems to have realized the limitations of his work and may not have approved of the MBTI had he lived to see it developed in his name. “My scheme of typology,” he noted, “is only a scheme of orientation. There is such a factor as introversion, there is such a factor as extraversion. The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist to explain for instance, the husband to a wife or vice versa” (305).

However, his typology seems to imply that science is just a point of view and that using intuition is just as valid a way of seeing and understanding the world and ourselves as is careful observation under controlled conditions. Never mind that that is the only way to systematically minimize self-deception or prevent identifying causes where there are none.

Isabel Briggs Myers made similar mistakes:

In describing the writing of the Manual, she mentioned that she considered the criticisms a thinker would make, and then directed her own thinking to find an answer. An extravert to whom she was speaking said that if he wanted to know the criticisms of thinkers, he would not look into his own head. He would go find some thinkers, and ask them. Isabel looked startled, and then amused.* 

This anecdote typifies the dangers of self-validation. To think that you can anticipate and characterize criticisms of your views fairly and accurately is arrogant and unintelligent, even if it is typical of your personality type. Others will see things you don’t. It is too easy to create straw men instead of facing up to the strongest challenges that can be made against your position. It is not because of type that one should send out one’s views for critical appraisal by others. It is the only way to be open-minded and complete in one’s thinking. To suggest that only people of a certain type can be open-minded or concerned with completeness is to encourage sloppy and imprecise thinking.

pre-Jungian typologies

Psychological typology did not originate with Jung, of course. Remember the four temperaments? Each of us, at one time, would have been considered to be either melancholic, sanguine, phlegmatic, or choleric. These classifications go back at least as far as the ancient physician Hippocrates in the middle of the fifth century B.C.E. He explained the four temperaments in terms of dominant "humors" in the body. The melancholic is dominated by yellow "bile" in the kidneys; the sanguine by humors in the blood; the phlegmatic by phlegm; and the choleric by the black bile of the liver. Hippocrates was simply adding to the ancient Greek insight that all things reduce to earth, air, water, and fire. Each of the four elements had its dualities: hot/cold and dry/moist. A person's physical, psychological, and moral qualities could be easily understood by his temperament, his dominant 'humors,' the four basic elements, or whether he was hot and wet or cold and dry, etc. This ancient personality type-indicator "worked" for over one thousand years. Of course, cynics might attribute this success to confirmation bias. It also "put a heavy brake on physiological research since there were few phenomena for which the humors could not be made to yield some sort of easy explanation."*

Today, most of us have abandoned Hippocrates' personality scheme because we do not find it to have any meaningful use. However, it must have been useful to have lasted for so long. How is the utility of such conceptual schemes measured? Perhaps by the same criteria we use today. How does the scheme help one understand oneself and others? Knowing these things can help us achieve our main goals in life and assist us in establishing good relationships with others. For example, a typical medieval choleric might see that his temperament suited him for work as a holy inquisitor. He could find the best path in life suited to him as he tried to achieve his main goal in life: the salvation of his eternal soul. Knowing his own temperament could help him plan his life. He might want to choose a cold and wet wife (a phlegmatic) as a counterbalance to his own hot and dry nature. He would know what obstacles he would have to overcome because of his intrinsic disposition, and he would be guided as to what occupation might suit him best. Knowing the four temperaments could help him understand others, even those unfortunate cold and dry melancholics on his rack or in his thumbscrews. In short, he could easily confirm that the theory "works."

The Myers-Briggs Instrument

Isabel Briggs Myers learned test construction by studying the personnel tests of a local bank. She worked up her inventories with the help of family and friends, and she tried her early tests on thousands of schoolchildren in Pennsylvania. Her first longitudinal study was on medical students, who she followed up after 12 years and found that their occupations fit their types. She eventually became convinced that she knew what traits people in the health professions should have (“accurate perception and informed judgment”). She not only thought her tests could help select who would make good nurses and physicians, but “she hoped the use of the MBTI® in training physicians and nurses would lead to programs during medical school for increasing command of perception and judgment for all types, and for helping students choose specialties most suited to their gifts.”

Others eventually helped her modify and develop her test, which was taken over by CPP in 1975. CPP has turned it into the instrument it is today. “I know intuitive types will have to change the MBTI,” she said. “That’s in their nature. But I do hope that before they change it, they will first try to understand what I did. I did have my reasons.”*

As noted above, the Myers-BriggsTM instrument generates sixteen distinct personality profiles based on which side of the four scales one tends toward. Technically, the instrument is not supposed to be used to spew out personality profiles and pigeonhole people, but the temptation to do so seems irresistible. Providing personality tests and profiles has become a kind of entertainment on the Internet. There is also a pernicious side to these profiles: They can be used to justify discriminatory behavior and to give bad advice to those seeking career counseling. For example, employers may base important decisions regarding hiring, firing, and assignment of personnel based on personality type, even though the evidence shows that the MBTI® is unreliable at identifying one’s type. Several studies have shown that when retested, even after intervals as short as five weeks, as many as 50 percent will be classified into a different type. There is scant support for the belief that the MBTI® would justify such job discrimination or would be a reliable aid to someone seeking career guidance (Pittenger 1993).

Here are some excerpts from Myers-BriggsTM profiles. Note how parts of each profile could fit most people.

1. Serious, quiet, earn success by concentration and thoroughness. Practical, orderly, matter-of-fact, logical, realistic and dependable. See to it that everything is well organized. Take responsibility. Make up their own minds as to what should be accomplished and work toward it steadily, regardless of protests or distractions.

2. Usually have original minds and great drive for their own ideas and purposes. In fields that appeal to them, they have a fine power to organize a job and carry it through with or without help. Skeptical, critical, independent, determined, sometimes stubborn. Must learn to yield less important points in order to win the most important.

The first profile is of an ISTJ (introversion, sensation, thinking, judgment), a.k.a. “The Trustee.” The second is of INTJ (introversion, intuition, thinking judgment), a.k.a. “The Scientist.” The profiles read like something from Omar the astrologer and seem to exemplify the Forer effect.

Psychological tests such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® seem to be little more than sophisticated parlor games. They will be validated by their seemingly good fit with the data, in the same way that astrologers and biorhythmists find predictive patterns fitting their readings and charts, i.e., by confirmation bias and the ambiguity of basic terms and the Byzantine complexity that ultimately allows any kind of behavior to fit any personality type. The big difference, of course, is that psychological testing has the backing of a community of university statisticians to reinforce its notions. It is a cottage industry.

uses of the MBTI®

The MBTI® is used in business to decide whom to hire and it is frequently used by managers as some sort of productivity tool. By getting people to "understand" themselves and their co-workers better by knowing their personality types, it is hoped that people will be more productive. As mentioned above, Isabel Myers thought her work could be used to develop medical school programs that would train the appropriate types in the appropriate ways.* This idea, too, has caught on. Some have recommended changes in the "goals, activities, instructional methodologies, and types of instructional programs within technology education" based on the belief that instruction should "fit" the average (in the sense of 'mode', most frequently occurring type) personality type of technology students.* Still others have recommended 16 different types of instruction, one for each of the 16 types, based on the notion that there must be 16 learning styles if there are 16 personality types.* 

Some think there are only nine basic personality types and follow the enneagram. As Jung said, there could be any number of types, even 360, if we wished. Who is right? Maybe they're both wrong. Perhaps we need only think of two types, those from Mars and those from Venus, as John Gray, Ph.D., claims.

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1. For example, to support his notion that "intuitive types very often do not perceive by their eyes or by their ears, they perceive by intuition" (308), Jung tells a story about a patient. She had a nine a.m. appointment and said to Jung: "you must have seen somebody at eight o'clock." She tells him she knows this because "I just had a hunch that there must have been a gentleman with you this morning." She knows it was a gentleman, she says, because "I just had the impression, the atmosphere was just like a gentleman was here." Jung seems uninterested in critically examining her claims. The anecdote seems to support his picture of the intuitive type. He doesn't consider that she may have seen the gentleman leave but failed to mention this to Jung, perhaps to impress him with her power of intuition. Jung notes that the room smelled of tobacco smoke and there was a half-smoked cigar in an ash tray "under her nose." Jung claims she didn't see it. He doesn't even consider that she may have seen it and smelled the stench of the cigar but did not call attention to it.

The reason scientists do controlled studies rather than rely solely on their clinical observations and memories as Jung did is because it is easy to deceive ourselves and fit the data to our hypotheses and theories. Another Jungian anecdote will help exemplify this point. A male "sensation type" and a female "intuitive type" were in a boat on a lake. They were watching birds dive after fish. According to Jung, "they began to bet who would be the first to see the bird [when it emerged from the water]. Now you would think that the one who observes reality very carefully--the sensation type--would of course win out. Not at all. The woman won the bet completely. She was beating him on all points, because by intuition she knew it beforehand" (306-307, emphasis added). One couple, one try. That's it. No more evidence is needed. The truth is that Jung doesn't know any more than I do why the woman was better at the game than the man. Perhaps the man lost on purpose as part of a misguided plan to seduce the woman. Who knows? But Jung is clearly begging the question with this and most of his other "observations of facts," as he calls these stories.

Some of his anecdotes may have been entirely fictional. For example, to support his notions of intuition and synchronicity, he says:

For instance, I speak of a red car and at that moment a red car comes along. I hadn't seen it, it was impossible because it was behind the building until just this moment when the red car appears. Now this seems mere chance. Yet the Rhine experiments [on ESP] proves that these cases are not mere chance. Of course many of these things are occurrences to which we cannot apply such an argument, otherwise we would be superstitious. We can't say, "This car has appeared because some remarks had been made about a red car. It is a miracle that the red car appears." It is not, it is chance, just chance. But these "chances" happen more often than chance allows, and that shows there is something behind it (315, emphasis added).

Again, had Jung an understanding of statistics he would know that what he thinks happens more often than chance allows, in fact happens in accordance with what chance not only allows but also expects.