Is ‘Myers-Briggs’ the new horoscope?
ISTJ, ISFP, ENFP, ENTJ… If you’re wondering what those four-letter acronyms in people’s social media profiles are, they’re personality types under the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Developed by the mother-and-daughter team of Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers based on ideas of Carl Jung, it’s actually been around for decades, but has grown in popularity only recently.
The MBTI’s 16 personality types are based on four dichotomies. The first is about “Attitudes” and classifies people under E (Extraversion) or I (Introversion). The second is about “Perceiving Functions”: either S (Sensing) or N (Intuition). The third looks at how people make judgments — either T (Thinking) or F (Feeling). And the fourth is whether one is J (Judging) or P (Perceiving) in the way one relates to the outside world.
According to its proponents, each personality type has distinct characteristics: ENFPs “enjoy new ideas and challenges, value inspiration” and ISFPs “enjoy adventure, skilled at understanding how mechanical things work.”
With that chart as starting point, companies have taken to using the tool in human resource management and team-building activities. And many authors have used it to make various inferences about one’s personal life, from “Here’s the Kind of Relationship Each Myers-Briggs Type Thrives In” to “The Myers-Briggs Types And Whether Or Not They Need A Hug.”
Much has also been written about the MBTI and career choices: A CNBC article claims that ISTJs make good chefs, ISFPs good jewelers, and ENTJs good physicians. Interestingly, though, within the medical profession, some works (and career guidance manuals) suggest that ENTJs make good OB-GYNs, ISFPs good anesthesiologists, and ENTJs themselves good neurologists and cardiologists.
But despite this wealth of literature, the MBTI has been critiqued by psychologists as having little or no scientific basis. Some find the idea that people belong to dichotomies (i.e., introvert vs extrovert) highly problematic (Jung himself said people fall somewhere in between). Others point out that it does not account for cultural differences or other personality traits.
Then there are questions of reliability and utility: A study done by Prof. David Pittenger, for instance, found that 50 percent of people who retook the test after five weeks ended up in a different personality category. Pittenger also found “no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation.”
Meanwhile, defenders say it’s the overuse and misuse of the MBTI that’s problematic, but the test itself, when properly administered and correctly interpreted, is valid and reliable.
Regardless of its scientific basis, what can explain its appeal?
The first is that it contributes to people’s sense of identity. This is particularly important in our “postmodern age,” when many no longer identify with religions, ideologies, or even their line of work. Having a vocabulary by which to articulate one’s personality can contribute to what the sociologist Anthony Giddens calls “identity projects.”
The second is it affirms people—and this is where the similarity with horoscopes lie. As Brian Dunning wrote, the MBTI, like horoscopes, are popular “because they virtually always tell people just what they want to hear, using phrases that most people generally like to believe are true, like ‘You have a lot of unused potential.’” If you read the descriptions of the 16 MBTI types, they’re all positive—and any of them could make you feel better about yourself.
Personally, I find (over)reliance on the MBTI, particularly by employers, disconcerting; Myers herself warned against using it to screen job applicants. But I wouldn’t worry too much about the way people use it in their everyday lives. Just as people gamely participate in Facebook quizzes that “reveal” one’s previous reincarnation—or “Game of Thrones” character—people can look for their horoscopes or personality types without necessarily subscribing to their full implications.
As Arthur C. Clarke could very well have said, “I don’t believe in Myers-Briggs. I’m an ENTJ — and we’re skeptical.”
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