Why Does the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Seem So Eerily Accurate?
People are obsessed with the Myers-Briggs personality test. Our writer investigates what all the type-hype is about and becomes a believer herself. (Illustration: Getty Images)
I’d heard about the Myers-Briggs personality test for years, but I never took it very seriously. I always just figured it was some cutesy test people take for fun, because, in my mind, people never fit into boxes.
My friend Caroline, however, is a believer and basically a verifiable expert on the subject at this point. “It’s helped me resolve conflicts with my boyfriend and my sister,” she tells me for about the 30th time, after months of insisting I should (really, really) get around to taking it. “Or, I take that back,” she says. “Really, it’s helped me prevent conflict from even happening.”
I tell her that I solemnly swear to take the test later that day; she tells me to do it, yes, but she’s pretty sure I’m an INTJ. I have no idea what that means. But since people frequently tell me I’m “hard to read,” I don’t put a whole lot of stock into it.
I confirm via a 12-minute mini test later that night that I am indeed an INTJ. When I read the description of the type, it’s a little chilling how spot-on the information is. Overly analytical? Decisive? A distrust of emotions? LOL, yes.
All this is intriguing, amusing, and, yeah, kind of eerie. But what can I do with it?
Why do people keep talking about the MBTI?
Millions of people have now taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It’s administered roughly a couple of million times each year, in fact, by around 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges, and 100 government agencies. It can be useful when building teams within companies on a larger scale, or within one-on-one relationships on a smaller scale.
But more than that ever, members of the millennial generation seem keen to post their four-letter type on social media profiles or ask prospective dates about their MBTI code as a sort of insta-glimpse into the person’s psyche.
Watch people react to their Myers-Briggs scores. (Video: Buzzfeed)
Caroline says that when she started having issues with her sister, her life coach suggesting digging into her sister’s type, ENTP. The problem was rooted in communication: Caroline’s approach to delivering messages was a bit too “direct” and “frigid” for her ENTP sister.
Why does this seem to work? “The Myers-Briggs is rooted in the work of Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types,” says Hile Rutledge, president of Otto Kroeger Associates, a firm that teaches the types to others. “Type is really determining how your brain is hard-wired.”
Personality typing actually dates back to the Greeks, something David Keirsey points out in his book Please Understand Me, which rapidly propelled the popularity of mother-daughter team Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers’s work. Briggs and Briggs Myers figured out how to order Jung’s original work on types effectively, determining there are 16 personality types based on eight different mental functions, including four perceiving functions and four judging functions.
“It took Isabel Briggs Myers over 30 years to develop the questionnaire,” says therapist and career coach Carol A. Linden, author of The Job Seekers Guide for Extraverts and Introverts. “It is still being studied and improved.”
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At the simplest level, says Linden, each question in Myers Briggs’s “test” — using the term loosely, as there’s certainly no right or wrong answers — requires you to choose between one of two poles, which will ultimately help you determine your preference: Extroversion vs. Introversion, Sensing vs. Intuiting, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving.
“My mother and I are very different — ISTJ versus ENFP. Learning about type and temperaments saved my relationship with my mother. How do you put a price on that?” says Linden, who now teaches the system to clients. “For that reason alone, I’d be willing to use this learning to help people for the rest of my life.”
But on the flip side, many in the psychological establishment feel the test is overhyped and don’t recognize it as scientifically valid. We’ll get into more on that below, but first, back to the believers.
Why does the test seem so … right?
After first taking the questionnaire, I had everyone in my life take it if they hadn’t already. More than one was totally freaked out at its accuracy. (Reactions ranging from maniacal cackling to dropped jaws ensued.)
We live in a world of information, and the more we accumulate, the more we have to process it. All the time. Every day. That’s why the indicator is so spot-on: It explains exactly how you process and interact with the world around you.
There are four dichotomies, and each dichotomy has two faces. It’s pretty simple, explains Rutledge. “All of life starts when you notice something,” he says. “We do this by using the perceiving function. At any given moment, you’re taking in data.”
Rutledge explains that Intuitive (N) types are going beyond the here and now, using symbols and abstraction to gather information. Sensing (S) types are more practical and grounded, observing their surroundings closely.
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Once you have that data, you have to do something with it. “This is how you make decisions,” says Rutledge. “Any decision you make can be made analytically and objectively, versus emotionally and subjectively.” If you’re analytical, you’re a Thinking (T) type; if you’re emotional, you’re a Feeling (F) type.
Onto the next facet of personality, it’s one you’re likely familiar with: Introverted (I) vs. Extroverted (E). “Where is your primary source of energy? The external world or the internal world?” says Rutledge. People who derive energy and satisfaction through thoughts, ideas, and concepts are I; those who thrive on exploring facets of people and objects are E.
The final function is something Rutledge calls “your public face,” or the way you’re wired to behave while processing information and making decisions. “Those who are Judging (J), the functioning and decision-making qualities on display are structured, ordered, planned, and decisive,” he says. “Perceiving (P) types are curious, tentative, adaptive, open, and flowing.”
Now, do some mixing and matching — and voilà. “Each dichotomy has two,” Rutledge says. “Do the math and you’ve got 16 different combinations.”
How can knowing preferences help you?
Essentially, the Myers-Briggs test examines how you process and deal with information. In turn, this impacts how you relate to others — whether they’re romantic partners, bosses, colleagues, friends, family, or otherwise.
Based on your personal type preferences, says Linden, you’ll end up developing “blind spots” as to how other people handle and process information. It might not be the same as you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — especially in a corporate setting.
“We all focus on different things and therefore have different blind spots,” she says. “The key is: We all have blind spots. That’s why we need diversity on teams, for instance. We all need someone else standing in our blind spot. ‘Group think’ is a real problem when there’s not enough type diversity on a team.”
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Understand other types, as well as your own, and you can better understand how other ways of viewing the world aren’t totally wrong. For instance, if you’re an Intuitive type and speak in big-picture concepts and abstract terms, a Sensing type may need to break down the details to really understand the key points. Both these types can complement each other in a team, if they’re appreciated and understood by the other party.
“We tend to avoid some of the other preferences and can have a knee-jerk reaction to make someone else ‘wrong’ for seeing things differently,” Linden says. “We have to learn to not give into those knee-jerk reactions; our decisions are stronger and more robust if they benefit from multiple perspectives. Getting the decision made takes longer, but it’s worth it in the long run. We all have blind spots. We all need the benefit of the other perspectives.”
In terms of personal or corporate problem management, knowing type preferences gets to the root of basically every disagreement. “It can be huge for helping deal with conflict, if only because it helps us understand how we misunderstood each other in the first place,” Linden says.
“Here’s a true story,” she says. “The director in a company once called me and asked me to do a workshop for his new department. I said, ‘Sure, I can do that, but tell me: Why do you want this workshop?’ He replied, ‘The minister made my wife and me do the MBTI before we got married. Everything he said we’d fight about is exactly what we fight about, so there must be something to this stuff.’”
What are the drawbacks?
The major issue with the MBTI — which is designed to help explain why we are the way we are, and why we do the things we do — is that people too often use it in a predictive way as opposed to an explanatory way. “The big drawback is people think that type tells all,” Rutledge says. “It really only tells you how you are wired to take in data, not skills and abilities.”
For instance, tons of ISTJs end up in accounting, so it’s tempting to tell ISTJs they will excel in that field — but they may have different interests and skills and may end up hating it.
“If you’re an ENFP? There’s nothing that suggests you might not be good at accounting,” says Rutledge. “If I took your letters and suggested a career path, I would be doing the field a disservice. Sometimes it’s the differences that allow someone to rise to the top.”
The MBTI is also somewhat lacking in the truly constructive criticism that can boost your skills and help resolve interpersonal conflicts, says Ben Dattner, PhD, an organizational psychologist in New York City. “Part of the reason it’s so popular is due to one of its biggest drawbacks,” he explains. “It’s the ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ line of thinking — we all have differences; these are not flaws. It’s nonthreatening.”
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But, of course, sometimes making adjustments in how you deal with others and resolve various forms of conflict really is beneficial. Perhaps if you’re not open-minded to your team’s ideas at work or fail to effectively communicate with your spouse, your methods could actually use some serious tweaking.
If you want a harder-hitting, psychologically sound test, Dattner suggests the Hogan Assessment. “It might tell you that you have the tendency to get angry, if you’re slightly neurotic — it’s definitely more critical,” he says. “But when it comes to relationships and conflict resolution, this constructive criticism is really helpful for getting things done.”
Another drawback of the MBTI is that type and behavior are two different things. This is often why people complain that they take the test, and it issues a different set of letters each time. “Some statistics say there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll get a different type if you take the test again, six months later,” Dattner says.
Again, the Indicator does not tell all. Rutledge says you can think about type this way: “Your type doesn’t change, just like your handedness doesn’t change. “If I’m left-handed, no matter how skilled I become at using my right hand, I still have a preference,” he explains.
Let’s say, perhaps, someone who is Introverted becomes the CEO of a company. They may develop extroverted skills, like relating well to others and public speaking, but they will still likely prefer to relax with a book and work alone whenever possible.
“So, if someone takes the test and says, ‘I took it before, and now the result is different,’ one of the types they got is probably the right one. The other is influenced by their behavior,” says Rutledge. “In the end, only you can determine your type preference.” Ah, control. When you look at it that way, it’s kind of a beautiful thing, right?
So, let’s take stock. At the end of the day, the Indicator is fun, informative and fairly useful. Even Dattner insists there are definite pros. “It’s a nonthreatening way to talk about different personalities,” he says. “It’s a good glimpse, a good way to get to know each other.”
But at the same time, you gotta keep perspective. Nixing a date because they’re an ISTP? Hiring an ENTJ over an ENFP? A really bad idea. “Even Carl Jung himself called personality typing ‘a parlor game,’” Dattner says.
Use it for a glimpse at the psyches of your new friends and co-workers — but maybe most important, look at your own letters to assess your personal tendencies.
It’s not the be all and end all. But it contains solid, tantalizing, maybe even shocking(!) insights into your strengths and weaknesses. I’ll let Rutledge sum it up: “The primary gift and the greatest gift of the Indicator is self-management,” he explains. “You have to have self-management skills. If I am smart and aware, I’m going to put myself in situations where I’m going to succeed.”
Now, go do it.
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