Why is it so popular?
Illustration by Getty Images.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert, a feeler or a thinker? For years, the go-to for this kind of introspective info has been gleaned from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a lengthy self-report survey established by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the early-20th century. The mother and daughter duo were not psychologists, but studied the work of psychoanalytical forefather Carl Jung. As such, their MBTI intends to categorize people with questions based on Jung's interpretation of the four core psychological functions—extraversion versus introversion, intuitive versus sensing, feeling versus thinking, and judging versus perceiving. After completion, you're be assigned a four-digit barcode (INFJ, ESTP) with each letter corresponding to what side you fall on each of those aforementioned spectrums, eventually trickling down into 16 distinct personality types.
The MBTI has become a weirdly ubiquitous piece of pop psychology. Businesses have used the Myers-Briggs test to make hiring decisions, there are academic papers published evaluating the correlation between MBTI and employment satisfaction, and there are literally thousands of personality-type clubs on meetup.com, (like "Toronto INFJs,") ostensibly so that a community bound by nothing more than an online quiz can finally find solidarity with one another. (From my anecdotal research, I can also confirm that the diagnoses appear in a good deal of Tinder profiles too.) It's easy to see why. No matter how logical and lucid someone might be, it's always nice to be told you're special by a deterministic authority. And on 16personalities.com, the commercial hub for all things Myers-Briggs, you get just that. "It's so incredible to be finally understood," reads a quote emblazoned on the site's homepage.
That's a perfectly nice sentiment. But before you take the test or assign it any weight...
"The research out there says that [the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator] doesn't predict behavior in a consistent way, and psychometrically, the way it's constructed, is pretty odd," says Ronald Riggio, who earned his PhD in Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, and currently teaches at Claremont McKenna College. "My first encounter with the scale was when a student presented it to me, and since it was so poorly constructed, I thought it was the student's work."
Riggio's contempt for the test is echoed by most voices in the professional psychological community. The personality testing specialist, Robert Hogan, famously called Myers-Briggs "little more than a Chinese fortune cookie" in his book Personality and the Fate of Organizations. Adam Grant, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has said "there's just no evidence behind [the test,]" concluding that it carried no "predictive power" whatsoever. And David J. Pittenger, an assistant professor researching the MBTI at the University of Indiana in the early 90s, stated flatly that "there is no obvious evidence that there are 16 unique categories in which all people can be placed."
The primary complaint about the MBTI has to do with the way the scale measures cognitive instinct. Myers-Briggs works in binaries—you're either judging or perceiving, intuitive or sensing—and one or two questions can be the conclusive factor in tipping your results into either of those directions. That doesn't reflect the complicated reality of human personality, which is by no means black or white. Most people are somewhere in the middle, and that's the foundational thing the MBTI fails to understand.
"[For introversion and extroversion,] you either get an 'I' or an 'E' score. It's a true/false kind of test. It limits the variance of it," says Riggio. "Most other personality tests measure as a continuum. They can say, 'You're a little bit I,' or, 'You're on the borderline,' or, 'You're a little bit E.'"
Riggio also doesn't put much stock into Carl Jung's research, simply because, well, Carl Jung wasn't a researcher. Jung emerged from the Freudian-era of psychology, which was more about lamenting the human condition than, you know, science. "Jung's theories are not considered to be solid," he says. "He wasn't an empiricist. He didn't collect data."
So how to explain the MBTI's popular? It's probably the soft-focus endearing way in which the personality descriptions are written. There isn't a scrap of negativity on 16personalities.com. Everything is composed optimistically—overflowing with subcategories detailing your friendships, romantic relationships, career opportunities, and workplace habits. There's even a for-profit premium profile promising you how to "love everyone of your strengths and how to utilize your weaknesses."
"When you read the basic descriptions, they're all written in a positive way," says Riggio. "[Psychologists] call that the Barnum Effect. The Barnum Effect says that if you write something that's so general [it can apply to anyone]. They all sound right, they're all so positive and kind of generic, people say, 'Oh my God, this is a miracle—it totally applies to me.'"
Basically, they're like horoscopes.
But to be fair, there are some people in the psychology community who don't dismiss Myers-Briggs wholesale, particularly in the case of employers or anyone having to make a decision. John Johnson is a personality psychologist at Pennsylvania State University who says that while the MBTI does fail to fully convey the full complexity of, say, the introversion/extroversion spectrum, that's a problem that befalls plenty of personality evaluations that are far less scrutinized.
"When it comes to making a decision based on personality scores, that decision is almost always binary or categorical," he says. "For example, does a person have a strong enough disposition on personality traits A, B, and C to be hired? You either hire someone or not—there is nothing in between. In all of these cases of making a decision—whether about someone else, or for yourself—you are forced to treat personality spectra as type categories."
Still, Johnson does acknowledge he's an outlier in the psychological community. That's fine—he's fighting for the rights of laymen to enjoy our diagnosis without feeling stupid. "Academic personality psychologists almost universally criticize the MBTI and similar type indicators for not adhering to their professional standards for psychological assessment," he says. "The controversy is more between academic psychologists on the one hand and, on the other hand, practitioners in other fields who use the MBTI for workshops as well as people who take the MBTI and find value in it."
Riggio concedes the point. "If people do some research, I think it's fine for self-exploration," he says. "If it gets people hooked on psychology, that's a positive side effect."
There's no danger in taking your Myers-Briggs temperature, as long as you don't get too invested in the results. Think of it like you would tarot cards, a palm reading, horoscopes, or a BuzzFeed quiz—a bit of serious fun you shouldn't take too seriously.
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