This piece was originally created for a class in Information Management and has been redeveloped for this blog post.
In the professional world, particularly among management, personality tests have been used widely throughout the modern era. Management uses these inventories to determine career paths, develop teams, and provide insight to personality. I seek to examine in particular the widespread use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. From my research, I have determined that the Myers-Briggs personality inventory is not adequate for business use, but that does not mean it is completely irrelevant or that personality testing should be banned from the workplace.
Personality tests are being used in the business world more and more often. As Paul (2015) describes in her writings, these tests are becoming “increasingly popular as management tools, yet many of them are no better than astrology at describing character or predicting behavior.” One such personality test, and perhaps the most popular and well known, is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. This test and “its spin-offs are among the most popular personality inventories in the world. The MBTI is widely used in organizational workshops to demonstrate how people with similar or different personalities interact with each other. Hundreds of thousands of people have enjoyed discovering their personality type by completing the MBTI and similar inventories on the Web” (Johnson, 2016). In addition to casual use on the Internet, it is estimated that 2.5 million people take the test every year, and 89 of the Fortune 100 companies use it, too (Grant, 2013). Even federal agencies use the MBTI test, including the state department, CIA, and military. Because of all of this use, “the company that produces and markets the test makes around $20 million off it each year” (Stromberg & Caswell, 2014). The personality testing industry as a whole is a “$400 million industry, one that’s expanding annually by nearly ten percent” (Paul, 2015). Clearly, management and casual users alike view the results of the Myers-Briggs and other tests as important enough to invest in.
According to Moffa (2011), “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, exclusively distributed by California-based CPP, Inc, is perhaps the most popular diagnostic self-test offered to identify personality type as an adjunct to counseling, selecting and placing staff, with, in all likelihood, many jobs having been won or lost because of it.” Using an inventory of “93 questions”, it groups people into sixteen types (Stromberg & Caswell, 2014). These types are used to offer insight into personality or to help determine an appropriate career path. After completion, test-takers are shown which of the sixteen personalities they most resemble, “slotted along a range of behavioral binaries” (Baer, 2014). These binaries are:
- Extraverted of Introverted (E or I)
- Sensing or Intuiting (S or N)
- Thinking or Feeling (T or F)
- Judging or Perceiving (J or P)
To further understand the Myers-Briggs test as well as its criticisms, one must first comprehend its background. The developers, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers, were a mother and daughter. The pair studied the works of psychologist Carl Jung, “particularly his book Psychological Types.” The two were not psychologists or social scientists. Rather, “Briggs was a housewife with a deep interest in Jung” and before the two developed the personality tests, “Myers wrote mystery novels” (Baer, 2014). Briggs had a degree in agriculture, while Myers earned hers in political science (Johnson, 2016).
It is also important to understand what methods scientists use to determine whether a personality test, or any test, is effective and useful. When examining a test, scientists determine its worth “by two basic criteria: validity, which indicates that a test measures what it says it measures, and reliability, which indicates that a test delivers consistent results.” As Paul (2015) puts it, “Too often, personality tests fail on both counts.” She describes integrity tests, exams commonly used in the hiring process, as invalid. “According to a review conducted by the federal government’s Office of Technology Assessment, 95.6 percent of people who fail integrity tests are incorrectly classified as dishonest.”
Furthermore, “many publishers of personality tests do not make public crucial information about how their tests were developed or how well they work” (Paul, 2015). This information is considered proprietary, and as Paul quotes from an APA-appointed task force, “almost no evidence at all is available beyond assurances that evidence exists.”
Additionally, it is not impossible, and sometimes easy, to cheat on a personality test. “A recent study found that as many as 88 percept of job applicants actually hired after taking a widely used personality test had intentionally manipulated their answers to make themselves look better” (Paul, 2015). This brings ethics into the conversation, as potential employees must decide whether it is better to lie or to lose a job position to someone else who is willing to do so.
In criticisms of the MBTI test in particular, the most obvious concern is that Briggs and Myers had no “formal training in psychometrics or psychological assessment” (Johnson, 2016). Critics argue that the pair did not “understand Jung at all” (Baer, 2014). Even if Briggs and Myers did intensively understand Carl Jung’s teachings and beliefs, “Jung is disrespected by many academic psychologists, who consider him to be a mystic without any ideas of scientific relevance” (Johnson, 2016). It is clear that many with a formal training not only disrespect the lack of psychological education Briggs and Myers received before developing this test, but even the theories of a professional on which the pair drew.
Today, Jung’s teachings are widely disregarded within the psychological community. However, it is important to acknowledge that even Jung stated that his types “were just rough tendencies” from his observations (Stromberg & Caswell, 2014). His theory was largely one in development rather than something to be used and trusted implicitly in every case. Myers and Briggs developed their binaries from these teachings, including Jung’s explanation that “humans roughly fall into two main types: perceivers and judgers.” Jung believed perceivers could be split into those who sensed and those who used intuition, while judgers would be broken off into thinkers and feelers, leading to “a total of four types of people.” Even then, as Stromberg and Caswell share from Jung’s writings, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.” This was during earlier days of psychology, when the study was less empirical, and theories, including Jung’s type theory, were largely based off of personal experiences. This is why modern psychologists, and perhaps even Jung himself, did not fully trust the theories that Myers and Briggs put so much stock in.
To expand on such criticisms, the MBTI sorts people into sixteen types. Today, “most personality psychologists agree that individual differences in personality are better described by continuous traits than discrete type categories.” When viewed on a continuous spectrum, MBTI scores are often distributed in the middle, rather than “piling up at the low and high end, as type theory might predict” (Johnson, 2016). Because of this, the either/or approach of the exam does not make sense. “Thirty years of research show that you can be both a thinker and a feeler; in fact most thoughtful people also spend lots of time feeling emotion” (Baer, 2014). As organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes, “Research shows that people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills are also better at recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions. When I scored as a thinker one time and a feeler one time, it’s because I like both thinking and feeling. I should have separate scores for the two” (Grant, 2013).
Most people fall on different points of a spectrum of traits, and when asked if they are thinkers or feelers, perceivers or judgers, will insist that they are in part both. “Jung himself admitted as much, noting that binaries were useful ways of thinking about people” but that “there is no such thing as a pure extravert or pure introvert.” In fact, Jung believed that any person who was purely one or the other “would be in the lunatic asylum” (Stromberg & Caswell, 2014).
Realistically, all of the traits defined by the MBTI test fall on a bell curve, with most test-takers falling somewhere in the middle. These binaries are points on spectrums, not dichotomies. Critics argue that the spectrums themselves should be interpreted on inter- and intra-personal scales, not just with the candidate versus other test-takers. The individual can also be tested in regards to him or herself “as mood, situation, priorities, and other variables change or reverse themselves” (Moffa, 2011).
To describe this criticism in more detail, Moffa (2011) provides an analogy of police academy applicants grouped on a binary of strong and weak rather than on a spectrum. He explains that this dichotomy would be based on how many push-ups each applicant can complete. “A difference in one push-up would completely change the category an applicant would end up in and the chances of being recruited as a police cadet. Moreover, a tested applicant who completed only one push-up more than the minimum, and who would therefore be classified as ‘strong’, would not be distinguished from another ‘strong’ candidate who completed twice as many push-ups – thereby misrepresenting huge objective differences between them as non-existent and irrelevant … making precise predictions about performance very difficult, if not impossible.”
Moffa goes on to describe “mixed types” among Myers-Briggs test-takers. This test, as opposed to the strong/weak dichotomy, actually is used in workplaces. The introvert/extrovert binary “will not distinguish someone who is a 90%-10% introvert-extravert from someone who is a 55%-45% – professionally and psychologically a potentially huge difference”. The test does not account for these large gaps that may be important in many positions and situations.
Another problem with the results of the Myers-Briggs test is that the answers are supposed to reveal an “inborn, unchanging personality type, but in fact research shows that as many as three-quarters of test takers are assigned a different type when they take the Myers-Briggs again” (Paul, 2015). This can be reflected in my own personal use, as I had previously always scored ENFJ on the test. I received this result for over a decade, when I first learned of the MBTI in high school into my adulthood. More recently, I consistently score the result of ENFP. Paul explains this change when she states, “All personality tests share a common flaw: an inability to account for the power of a situation. Psychologists have known for many years that the situations we find ourselves in exert a very strong influence on the way we behave.”
Next, it is important to acknowledge the widespread use of the MBTI inventory among companies and government agencies. When analyzing the use of the MBTI test in the workplace, “critics claim that there is no research indicating scores on the MBTI predict significant life outcomes such as job performance and satisfaction” (Johnson, 2016). Adam Grant describes in Stromberg and Caswell’s 2014 Vox.com article, “The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage.” From a scientific standpoint, “a test is valid if it predicts outcomes that matters” (Grant, 2013). In the case of the Myers-Briggs test, there is no clear link between outcome and managerial skills or ideal career.
Additionally, the Myers-Briggs test fails in its limited descriptors. As Stromberg & Caswell state, “You’ll notice that words like ‘selfish,’ ‘lazy,’ or ‘mean’ don’t appear anywhere. No matter what you’re assigned, you get a flattering description of yourself as a ‘thinker,’ ‘performer,’ or ‘nurturer.’” The results provide a positive description of the test-taker with little to no criticism. If a company uses a personality test to hire employees or create teams within a company, surely negative traits would be important in making decisions, too.
Finally, apart from criticism, the American Psychological Association practically ignores the MBTI. According to Moffa (2011), “Despite deeply rooted grass-roots interest in the MBTI, it seems not to have resonated with the APA … since my search on its site turned up only one article mentioning it – a 2002 study that explicating excluded the MBTI from its research.” In my own research, scholarly articles on the subject were limited and difficult to locate in full text, though criticism from various business and psychology websites is abundant, as well as information from companies that promote the test.
In Paul’s evaluation (2015) of personality tests, including the MBTI, she sums up the general message that all critics seem to reflect on. “Unless these tests can be proven to provide fair and accurate descriptions of personality, without invading privacy, deepening distrust, and issuing false promises, we might as well look to the stars instead.”
In spite of the abundant criticism from the psychological community, the MBTI test still is used widely. Reflecting on the positive, empowering results and the study of astrological signs, one reason the test is so beloved by its believers “is that the flattering, vague descriptions for many of the types have huge amounts of overlap – so many people could fit into several of them. This is called the Forer effect, and is a technique long used by purveyors of astrology, fortune telling, and other sorts of pseudoscience to persuade people they have accurate information about them” (Stromberg & Caswell, 2014). People are drawn to these descriptions, especially when they are complimentary and provide an image of ideal self. “Palm readings and horoscopes can spark insights too. That doesn’t mean we should talk about them in our work teams,” says Grant (2013).
Next, companies, trainers, and coaches have invested in these exams. “Thousands of people have invested time and money in becoming MBTI-certified trainers and coaches” (Grant, 2013). The commitment of time and money is important to people, and they do not want to throw away the beliefs and systems they invested in.
Finally, the MBTI test has been wonderfully marketed. As Cambridge University professor Brian Little says, “You have to have something of merit in order to market well.” Baer (2014) believes that the merits are there. He shares, “Little says that the test gives people the chance to discuss their preferences and personality in the workplace – a conversation that otherwise gets crowded out.” The company that promotes the MBTI test knows how to market it, and people are ready, if not eager, to bring this potentially important conversation into their career.
As implied, simply conversing about personality in the workplace can be helpful, and so there are some benefits to the Myers-Briggs test. Defenders respond to criticism beyond this point, though. In discussing the platforms of Briggs and Myers, Johnson (2016) insists that these women were “highly intelligent, college-educated, observant, thoughtful, and passionate about understanding personality. Research by Ashton and Goldberg (1973) demonstrated that even individuals without formal psychological training can create personality scales that are just as valid as professionally-developed scales. Imagine what two smart, highly-motivated women might accomplish if they put their minds to it.” Because of this, proponents and those who stray from criticizing the test believe that it might very well have the same validity and reliability as other trait tests designed by professionals.
Johnson also describes that though Jung’s theories in their full form are not in favor today, “Jung’s theory of types gave us the concepts of introversion and extraversion, which modern, scientific personality psychologists are perfectly happy to use today.” In fact, respected psychologists like Rae Carlson and Ravenna Helson “have published empirical research based on Jung’s theory of types in the top journal in the field.” So while Jung’s views on alchemy, the collective unconscious, the paranormal, and more were far-fetched, some of his ideas were the groundwork for modern personality psychology. This applies to the MBTI as well.
Johnson goes on to discuss type theory in general as well as other models that have positive connotations in the modern psychological community. For example, he draws on the Five-Factor Model, also known as the Big Five or FFM. This test is widely accepted in the field, and the “tendencies measured by the MBTI are not very different from four of the traits” defined by the FFM. “The MBTI does lack reference to the neuroticism dimension, which critics sometimes cite as a failure of the MBTI to assess ‘bad’ traits.” Neuroticism, also referred to as emotional stability or lack thereof, is one of the traits tested by the FFM. Johnson shares information on research that indicates “that normally unscored items on the MBTI can be scored to yield a measure of neuroticism if one desires.” Johnson believes that since the FFM is used to predict outcomes and that it is close in concept to the MBTI, the MBTI can be used similarly.
Finally, Johnson insists that the MBTI largely is criticized because of “the way it is normally scored and interpreted. No personality inventory is reliable enough to sort people into sixteen type categories, which is why people can get different type profiles when they take the inventory on multiple occasions.” As other critics have suggested, Johnson believes it “would be more scientifically advisable to score the MBTI scales continuously to show people the degree to which they resemble the types.” He believes that “the MBTI could still be useful in workshops designed to increase self-insight and insight into differences and similarities between people.” Overall, it appears that the MBTI is not the ultimate tool for defining career choices or hiring practices, but it may be helpful in defining general aspects of personality or recognizing differences and similarities between and among teams.
Regardless of criticisms and defenses, companies continue to seek personality tests to coach and examine their employees and potential hires. Likewise, psychologists have used the scientific method to develop better tests. As mentioned above, the Big Five test is largely favored within the psychological community. “Across many of the world’s cultures, five personality traits consistently emerge; extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. The Big Five traits have high reliability and considerable power in predicting job performance and team effectiveness. They even have genetic and biological bases, and researchers in the emerging field of personality neuroscience have even begun mapping the Big Five to relevant brain regions” (Grant, 2013). Furthermore, the Big Five has been used to predict outcomes. Conscientiousness predicts success, and openness predicts creativity (Baer, 2014)
The Big Five, or FFM, is not perfect. Other methods are gaining support, including the HEXACO model of personality that adds another trait: honesty-humility (Grant, 2013). However, Grant (2013), Stromberg and Caswell (2011) all agree that the biggest factor in the way of widespread adoption of FFM use is marketing. Stromberg and Caswell describe the Myers-Briggs test as surrounded by a “marketing machine”. Grant focuses on the negative connotations of the Big Five results. “Most people prefer to be called agreeable than disagreeable – we need to repackage this trait as supportive versus challenging.” While the so-called negative traits offered in the Big Five make more sense from a business and psychological standpoint, they could be reworded in order to gain acceptance on the same scale as Myers-Briggs.
Another alternative to the MBTI, and personality testing in general, is observation. In Baer’s reflection (2014) on Little’s research, he notes, “You get a fuller understanding of people when you see how they orient themselves around personal projects, ranging from landing a promotion, studying for a test, or being an awesome son-in-law.” He describes how people will act outside of their defined type when working on an individual project. “The extrovert acts like an introvert to study for the LSAT; the curmudgeonly manager acts like an angel to impress his wife’s parents.” However, total observation is not always possible in the workplace, and personalities are often different in unique settings. Because of this, tests like the FFM are given favor over situational observations.
In conclusion, the Myers-Briggs test does not lack totally in use. However, its ideal use is more for situational insight and entertainment. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking the test as a fun, interesting activity,” Stromberg and Caswell (2014) share, “like a BuzzFeed quiz.” In fact, I believe I will still rely on the MBTI for this from time to time. It is interesting to me to see that, as I have grown and matured, I have become more extraverted and perceiving, though I know my personality will likely continue to change. I have determined that this is not the best tool to use in the workplace, and perhaps there is no perfect test that is ideal for grouping workers and choosing a career.
(n.d.). Retrieved March 17, 2018, from https://openpsychometrics.org/tests/IPIP-BFFM/
Baer, D. (2014, June 18). Why The Myers-Briggs Personality Test Is Misleading, Inaccurate, And Unscientific. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from http://www.businessinsider.com/myers-briggs-personality-test-is-misleading-2014-6
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Grant, A. (2013, September 18). Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die. Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/give-and-take/201309/goodbye-mbti-the-fad-won-t-die
Johnson, J. A. (2016, March 21). Are Scores on the MBTI Totally Meaningless? Retrieved March 13, 2018, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cui-bono/201603/are-scores-the-mbti-totally-meaningless
Moffa, M. (2011, April 1). A Critique of The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)-Part I: One Expert’s Review. Retrieved March 14, 2018, from https://www.recruiter.com/i/critique-of-the-myers-briggs-type-indicator-critique/
Paul, A. M. (2015, February 13). THE CULT OF PERSONALITY TESTS A FLAWED BUT TRENDY MANAGEMENT TOOL. Boston Globe, p. F12. Retrieved March 14, 2018, from https://search.proquest.com/docview/404940944?accountid=14214
Stromberg, J., & Caswell, E. (2014, July 15). Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless. Retrieved March 15, 2018, from https://www.vox.com/2014/7/15/5881947/myers-briggs-personality-test-meaningless