The Value of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

The Personality Brokers, Merve Emre’s interesting new book, is a kind of feminist treatise focusing on the lives and work of the two amazing women, Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, who developed and promoted the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The MBTI is the best known and most widely used personality “instrument” in the world. I never met the authors, but I knew pretty much everyone responsible for the development of the MBTI in the 1960s—both the critics and the proponents. It might be informative to reflect briefly on the pros and cons of this remarkably successful assessment product. In my view, there are five aspects of the MBTI that are positive and worth remembering.

First, the original goal of the MBTI is both worthy and honorable: It was intended to be used to improve the lives of working people by providing a rational basis for aligning people with jobs. It was designed to be used as a placement tool, a convenient and easy-to-use method for sorting employees in ways that maximized their happiness and the productivity of organizations. Who would not be in favor of maximizing individual happiness and corporate productivity?

Second, the MBTI is rooted in Jungian psychology. Carl Jung was a brilliant and highly eccentric psychiatrist, and a brave early supporter of Freud and psychoanalysis. After the famous 1913 break between Freud and Jung, Freud’s supporters engaged in a long and successful campaign to discredit Jung’s ideas, even though Freud adopted many of them as his own. Freud had a profound and, in many ways, negative impact on personality psychology for over 60 years; his influence began to decline in the 1970s, although for the wrong reasons. Freud argued that everyone is neurotic, that the big problem in life concerns dealing with one’s neurosis, and the goal of assessment is to identify the source of peoples’ neuroses. In contrast, the MBTI is all about people’s strengths; as such, it is deeply anti-Freudian and one of the first contributions to what is known today as “positive psychology.”

Third, a major reason for the MBTI’s popular appeal is that it describes people in terms of types, and I believe this is how we naturally think about other people. Academic psychologists, for reasons that only they understand, are devoted to trait theory. It is not a question of using trait theory to get beyond the conventional wisdom of types (the goal of most academic psychology), it is a question of carving nature at its joints—as recommended by Aristotle. For that reason, the MBTI with its focus on types is still ahead of the game.

Fourth, the MBTI can in fact be used to tailor marketing arguments for specific groups of people. The sort of argument that would appeal to an INTJ (a scientist) is, in principle, quite different from the sort of argument that would appeal to an ESFP (a new-age hipster). It is a relatively easy task to use peoples’ social media data to assign them to an MBTI type and then shape messaging accordingly.

Finally, using MBTI scores to align people with jobs is vastly preferable to using unguided intuition to align people with jobs. Talent management decisions should be based on assessment data not the reasoned judgment of HR professionals, no matter how experienced they are.

I believe that the MBTI also presents four problems that should be considered by potential users. First, the MBTI is often used to make personnel decisions without first gathering validity data to support the decisions. This is, of course, a problem attributable to the users and not the instrument. However, the MBTI’s simplicity and ease of use facilitates these kinds of deplorable abuses.

Second, the news derived from the MBTI is always positive and upbeat. But people can only improve their performance if they know what they are doing wrong.  MBTI results have nothing to say about the dark side, about behavioral tendencies that annoy and alienate other people and destroy the trust and confidence on which relationships depend and which support positive career development. Consequently, the MBTI has limited utility for career coaching purposes.

Third, the MBTI, along with the Five-Factor Model (FFM) that is the universally accepted paradigm for trait psychologists, has nothing to say about the up-down or status dimension in life. Every human group has a status hierarchy, with people at the top, people in the middle, and people at the bottom; in addition, the principal dynamic in every human group is the individual search for power. On issues of ambition and power seeking, the MBTI and the FFM are equally uninformative.

And finally, like most other major commercially available assessments (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the California Psychological Inventory, the Strong Vocational Interest Inventory), there have been no significant updates or changes to the MBTI since its original publication. It is expensive and troublesome to upgrade a major assessment with a large archival base, but imagine how hard it is for BMW to come out with a new product line every three years.Upgrading a psychological assessment is trivial by comparison.