The current crusade against the Myers-Briggs test and why it may be severely misguided

Only a few years ago I most probably would have been among the people ridiculing the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) myself. My main interest has always been Evolutionary Psychology, and I have always found Personality Psychology somewhat unscientific and not very interesting in finding out what makes us humans such a unique and often odd species. After all, isn’t a psychology that finds universal human traits and that can explain and predict human behaviour much more scientific than personality traits that tell us about some vague tendencies? I have changed my mind and made a U-turn. Knowing about our inherent differences makes predicting human behaviour much more meaningful. To give you an example, INTPs and INTJs are often among the people who struggle finding meaning in life and have a tendency towards nihilism — or surprisingly spiritual for extremely rational types. ESTJs are hard workers who often climb up the corporate ladder and hold leadership positions. Three of my bosses were ESTJs, two ENTJs and one ENFJ- there is definitely a pattern here that traditional psychology finds hard to explain. People with the E,T and J traits find it easier to assume leadership positions within existing organisations. Entrepreneurs are often ESTPs or ENTPs.

Only 30 years ago it was totally legitimate to use MBTI as a research tool. The great biologist (like most visionary scientists an intuitive type) certainly didn’t shy away from conducting research using MBTI as an instrument. This changed in the 90s when the Big 5 (OCEAN/FFM) was considered to be the only scientific personality test as it was based on firm statistical methodology rather than intuition. Stephen J. Gould

When I discovered MBTI for my evolutionary research it turned out to be immensely helpful for my research, and it also turned out to be a barrier for being taken seriously. I wrote my ideas to many scientists, but as soon as they read MBTI my own ideas seemed as pseudoscientific as MBTI. These ideas are quite simple at the core, i.e. that our personalities were shaped by our ancestral modes of subsistence: hunting (NT), gathering (NF), farming (SJ) and pastoralism (SP). For most of my research I had to regard MBTI as an embarrassment. Only through the encouragement of online communities, I have come to fully embrace it and it is mostly people who do believe in MBTI being meaningful who constitute the bulk of my readers.

I have long moved beyond MBTI and I don’t need it to explain my ideas anymore, but as MBTI helped me, I decided to help MBTI and confront the critics. These critics are often my very own scientific heroes, like Steven Pinker.

As much as I love Pinker’s ideas and many of his books, I think he is wrong for once. Even Scott Barry Kaufman, who recently wrote an interesting on the relationship between intuition, intelligence and openness, retweeted the very same post.

One of the current books out there meant to deconstruct MBTI is The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing by literary scholar Emre Merve. As Merve is a great writer, the book is actually quite an enjoyable read about the history of MBTI to which she adds the usual criticism as well as criticizing the commercialisation of MBTI for career counselling. I would agree with her that the commercialisation of many ideas is bad, but MBTI has been used in many American schools for career counselling and I don’t think it did much harm. On the contrary, my experience is that many people do find it hard to choose a traditional career (me and my INFP type included). So, career counselling is definitely one of the most useful sides of MBTI.

From a scientific point of view a test has to fulfil three quality criteria:

  • reliability
  • objectivity
  • validity

When it comes to reliability, there is no doubt that the Big 5 is much more reliable than MBTI tests. A lot of people get varying results. There are a lot of people who typically get a variation on one dimension, the most typical probably being T/F. I am very close between T/F myself and have gotten both results: INFP and INTP. I do identify partially with INTP, but I am quite sure I was born an INFP. People generally do not get opposing results like INTP and ESFJ. Many die-hard MBTI fans would contradict me here, but I do believe in the existence of mixed types.

The mere fact that MBTI is less reliable than Big 5 doesn’t mean that there is no validity and objective truth behind it, like many authors claim. Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die, is the title of one such article from 2013 and such articles have become more frequent in recent years. In fact, this is probably a reaction to the increasing popularity of sites like 16 personalities (which is really a combination of MBTI and Big 5), like a Google Trends search shows

In fact, social media are full of MBTI: dedicated YouTube channels, subreddits, Quora spaces as well as many blogs. On the one side there are the legions of critics and on the other side are the legions of people who found MBTI enormously helpful and who keep scratching their heads and asking themselves: “If MBTI is BS, why do I identify with my result”. Of course, the critics are quick with explanations, like the Barnum Effect. I have no doubts that this effect is real in phenomena like astrology, but I don’t buy it that it is responsible for the high identification rate of people and their MBTI. Of course, MBTI descriptions are often fairly general and abstract, but in my experience, people can’t identify with their results if it’s off only by one letter, let alone two or more. I have tested this with e.g. having an ESFP reading through the profile of an ENFP. Of course, some descriptions may be true for both types (e.g. “the life of the party”), but there are simply too many descriptions that are clearly off. If I read through the profile of an ESTJ there is very little I can identify with:

That would be, say, 2 out of 10. I value honesty (who doesn’t? — one may criticize this as too general a description everyone can identify with) and I do like to listen to people’s problems and help them (I don’t think my advice is always that clear, though, as I tend to see too many sides to a problem).

To conclude, many of the criticisms geared towards the MBTI are really somewhat petty. In particular that Jung’s cognitive functions aren’t scientific because they were based on intuition rather than empirical data. The worst: MBTI can’t be true because it was devised by two laypeople, Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs. If we only counted the knowledge as true that was discovered within the shielded walls of academia, we would be much impoverished when it comes to knowledge. Academia itself has often become a conservative rather progressive place nowadays. A lot of big-picture thinking seems actually to be discouraged whereas finding empirical data no matter how trivial seems to be of utmost importance in many academic institutions.

I have no doubt that Big 5 is more accurate than MBTI, but there are interesting patterns to be discovered in MBTI that often remain hidden in Big 5 data. I have used both systems for my research and found MBTI to be the more useful one, even if it leads to simplifications. It’s exactly these simplifications that allow one to build models. Reality is often too messy to see the underlying principles and in this respect, simplifications can turn out more useful than precise data.

Check out my latest book for more:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08ZJXLX6Y

Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on March 20, 2021.