By Ian Tingen
You may or may not know what “MBTI” stands for, but the chances are that you recognize it. Maybe you even know your type: one of sixteen four-letter configurations that provide a window into your personality. First published in 1962, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator shows up in everything from employment applications to social networking memes to dating websites. You can find any number of MBTI-style tests online with a little Google footwork. They tend to be quick, fun, and focus on four dichotomous scales: are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you sense more or do you follow your intuition? Are you a thinker or a feeler? Are you judgmental or perceptive?
The MBTI is worth talking about because it’s a fascinating artifact of science whose irrelevance is only matched by its’ cultural penetration. Let’s talk about the former issue first.
Psychological science has grown by untold magnitudes in the last hundred years. This is especially true of the period immediately following World War II, which saw a rapid rise in inquiry attempting to quantify and define human nature. Depending on your orientation as a researcher in the 40s to the 60s, you might have looked to any of a number of things to inform your study of people. Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers were taken with the musings of Carl Jung, whose rift with Sigmund Freud is as far as most people’s knowledge of the history of psychology goes. A few decades prior to the 1962 publication of the MBTI, Jung proposed (in a decidedly non-scientific process known as ‘going with your gut’) that there were four key components to a person’s experience of the world: Intuition, Sensation, Thinking, and Feeling. If you’ve taken an MBTI, these very terms may have been used to describe you.
Today, we know a bit more about personality than early 20th century philosophers. Functionally, that’s what the MBTI is: an extension of antiquated Victorian philosophy. Unlike some relics of that era, it hasn’t held up that well. For example, take the first dichotomy in the Myers Briggs typing: Extraversion (sic) / Introversion. These concepts are presented as two anchors on opposite ends of a single spectrum – you’re either an E or an I, according to the MBTI. Modern explanations of personality now treat these two ‘poles’ as independent scales (people can be both extroverts and introverts simultaneously and to varying degrees) – a nuance the MBTI cannot express in it’s approach to typing people. This is a separate issue from the fact that the test-retest validity of the MBTI is rather low: if you take the test multiple times, you’re likely to get a number of different four-letter combinations (aside from expletives). A valid test wouldn’t have this problem.
So why is a test that’s so psychologically incoherent everywhere?
As it turns out, really good marketing. There’s a foundation whose business model is built on selling the MBTI. Surfing around the site, you can see that the MBTI is advertised as having a wide variety of applications, especially as applied to work and working. Surprise, surprise: the Myers-Briggs Foundation isn’t a non-profit, either, offering training (even if you have advanced degrees in psychology!) and a host of other services related to the MBTI. It seems that a little marketing savvy and a lot of ignorance about modern psychological science leads to having a profitable company. Outdated or not, the MBTI is a part of pop psychology – it’s quite visible, culturally.
“So what?”, you might be thinking. “Caveat emptor, and such!”. Well, that’s a good point – people should beware quackery. In an ideal world, people should be educated to call shenaningans on things like the MBTI. We are not in an ideal world. There are more practical and sinister concerns, too – like threats to academic freedom and scientific integrity should someone notice that the emperor has no clothes on.
Imagine this scenario: a university personality researcher, Dr. Nagoshi, decides to do a study exploring the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. She wants to verify that the MBTI is a stable, reliable test. Nagoshi goes through all the proper channels – she secures an okay to do the research from an Instututional Review Board (or IRB: the group usually responsible for making sure research is ethical), she makes sure all of her subjects give fully informed consent, and she aims to publish in a peer-reviewed journal. After doing her research, Nagoshi’s results indicate that the MBTI is found to be lacking: its definitions of personality prove flimsy and unstable. After Nagoshi submits the results for peer review, the Myers-Briggs Foundation gets wind of her research that says their product is faulty. In response, the Foundation decides to sue Dr. Nagoshi and the journal she submitted to, claiming libel. The journal decides to delay the review and publishing of Nagoshi’s article, and Nagoshi has to mount a legal defense against the charges.
Lest you think that this situation befits the wearing of a tinfoil chapeaux, a scenario eerily similar happened when Robert Hare, creator of the PCL-R psychopathy checklist sued researcher Jennifer Skeem to suppress her research which suggested that the PCL-R had a few cracks in it. Hare had made a consultancy business out of his research, apparently he did not like his test profits being threatened by something as insignificant as scientific progress. This story has been well documented elsewhere; the short version is that despite the legal saber rattling Skeem’s article was published, but only after 3 years of the American Psychological Association’s kowtowing to Hare’s legal threats.
I find the existence of the lawsuit singularly terrifying. Science is a charge towards destruction of old ideas, a relentless assault to iterate better explanations for the world and its’ processes. Skeem was doing exactly this. Hare should have been concerned about his profits, but the responsibility to maintain the integrity of his research lies with him. The forward momentum of science is not an issue that needs legal intervention. Just because you’ve built a business based on once-relevant science doesn’t mean that you magically become immune to progress and inquiry. I hope.
Earlier, I mentioned that psychology had grown immensely in the last century. This is true, but it has some unintended side effects: with rapid innovation comes rapid destruction. I hold the hope that people like Bob Hare or groups like the Myers-Briggs Foundation are not charlatans willfully peddling outdated wares – scientific relevance simply fades with time, if the process works. Cultural relevance is a trickier beast, and the process by which culture is refreshed is much more mysterious. As a social scientist, I lament that an instrument as old and outdated as the MBTI can have such cultural staying power. Even so, there’s a silver lining to the situation: it’s clear that easily-digestible psychology can take hold of people’s headspace. We don’t have to let outdated social science hold sway. I know I’m going to do my part.