Does the Myers-Briggs personality assessment really tell you anything?

February 12, 2010

Dear Cecil:

My question is about the Myers-Briggs personality assessment. Is it just an example of modern-day snake oil sold by corporate soothsayers? Or does it really work? Certainly a huge industry has built up around this test. If it needs to be debunked, you're just the guy to do it.

Cecil replies:

I’m of several minds about this one — possibly as many as 16 minds. That's the number of personality types the Myers-Briggs people claim to be able to distinguish based on a 93-question “instrument,” or test, as the simple folk call it. My INTJ (Introversion-iNtuition-Thinking-Judgment) side says the whole thing is rubbish and I ought to jump on it with both feet. My ENFP (Extraversion-iNtuition-Feeling-Perception) self figures what the hell, it’s harmless and, who knows, maybe occasionally useful. I can’t decide, and I sure can’t keep all the four-letter personality-type labels straight. So we’ll let the different aspects of my psyche speak for themselves using the simplified Straight Dope personality code, which employs only two letters, so as not to confuse the OM, or ordinary mope.

First, an overview from the AK (Anal Know-it-all) Cecil: Nothing about the origin of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, inspires much confidence. The test was developed starting in the 1940s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers with the goal of sorting people based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types. The best that can be said about the Swiss psychiatrist’s ideas is that they were ingenious — he made no attempt to validate them via experiment. Briggs and Myers, for their part, had no expertise in psychology other than what they picked up from Jung and consultation with people in the testing business. Nonetheless, the MBTI began attracting professional attention in the 1960s, and Consulting Psychologists Press (now CPP) began publishing it in the 1970s. After that the thing took off.

My DL (Droning Lecturer) side continues: Myers and Briggs claimed their test could categorize people based on four either-or sets of characteristics, or dichotomies: Extraversion-Introversion, Sensing-iNtuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judgment-Perception. The premise of the MBTI is that in each set, you fall into one category or the other. For example, you’re either an extrovert or an introvert. You can’t be a mix of both, and your personality doesn’t change over time.

My CA (Cold-eyed Analyst) self thinks this is a dubious contention. Common sense suggests that a trait like extroversion/introversion is a continuum. We all know people at the extreme ends of the scale, but most of us probably cluster near the middle. What’s more, how outgoing we are depends partly on the situation. Me, I’m a laff riot when I’m with the smart-ass guild, but you won’t get a word out of me in a room full of insurance salesmen. Sure enough, when people take the MBTI multiple times, it’s not uncommon for them to flip-flop from one side of a dichotomy to the other, usually on traits where their initial score pointed only weakly in one or the other direction — in other words, where things could have gone either way.

My inner AD (Amiable Doofus) interjects: so what if MBTI categories aren’t as definitive as the Myers-Briggs people claim? Tendencies toward extroversion rather than introversion, thinking rather than feeling, and so on are real enough traits affecting the way we deal with the world. Sure, maybe the MBTI pigeonholes aren’t all that scientific, but they give us a handy way to talk about important personality differences.

Besides, adds my VR (Voice of Reason) self, MBTI types correspond reasonably well with the basic personality traits identified by more scientific researchers. Collectively known as the five-factor model, these traits conveniently form the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. One study suggests the MBTI Extraversion-Introversion scale matches up statistically with the spectrum of extroversion in the five-factor model, and the Sensing-iNntuition scale does likewise with openness. More modest relationships were found between the Thinking-Feeling scale and agreeableness and between the Judging-Perception scale and conscientiousness.

The CR (Cheerful Realist) in me now begins to understand the marketing brilliance of the MBTI. Two things are at work. First, as the above research suggests, the MBTI evidently tests something, even if it isn’t exactly what the Myers-Briggs people think. Second, the MBTI accentuates the positive. No matter what you score, you’re a winner. A Myers-Briggs knockoff known as the Keirsey Temperament Sorter makes this explicit: an ISFJ is a protector, a ENFP a champion, an ENTP an inventor, and so on.

Does your MBTI type tell your boss what kind of job you’d be best at? I wouldn’t go that far, and any boss who uses it to make such judgments is a fool. On the other hand, does taking the test and discussing the scores make for an entertaining team-building exercise? You bet, and that’s undoubtedly why human-resources types love it. What’s not to like about an assessment that tells you you’re a born healer, mastermind, or field marshal? Conversely, who wants to take a boring five-factors test and be told he’s a disagreeable, neurotic slob?

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References

Capraro, Robert M. and Capraro, Mary Margaret “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator score and reliability across studies: A meta-analytic reliability generalization study” Educational and Psychological Measurement 62.4 (2002): 590-602.

Da Cunha, Alessandra Devito and Greathead, David “Does Personality Matter? An Analysis of Code-Review Ability” Communications of the ACM 50.5 (2007): 109-112.

Hogan, Robert “In Defense of Personality Measurement: New Wine for Old Whiners” Human Performance 18.4 (2005): 331–341.

Kramer, Scott P. “Why is the company asking about my fear of spiders? A new look at evaluating whether an employer-provided personality test constitutes a medical examination under the ADA.” University of Illinois Law Review (2007): 1279-1302.

Menjoge, Sujata S. “Testing the Limits of Anti-discrimination Law: How Employers' Use of Pre-employment Psychological and Personality Tests Can Circumvent Title V11 and the ADA” North Carolina Law Review 82 (2003-2004): 326-365.

Morgeson, Frederick P. et al. “Are we getting fooled again? Coming to terms with limitations in the use of personality tests for personnel selection.” Personnel Psychology 60 (2007): 1029-1049.

Pittenger, David J. “Cautionary Comments Regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 57.3 (2005): 210-221.

Pittenger, David J. “The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator” Review of Educational Research 63.4 (1993): 467-468.

Rothstein, Mitchell G. and Goffin, Richard D. “The use of personality measures in personnel selection: What does current research support?” Human Resource Management Review 16 (2006): 155–180.

Stabile, Susan J. “The Use of Personality Tests as a Hiring Tool: Is the Benefit Worth the Cost?” University of Pennsylvania Journal of Labor and Employment Law 4 (2002): 279-314.

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