In Which I Declare my Love for Personality Tests

Confession: I love Myers-Briggs.

When you read that, you probably thought 1 of 2 things:

1.) Me too! It’s so interesting!

or

2.) Ugh. Why can’t the Internet just get OVER this already.

Or, maybe there’s a third:

3.) What the heck is that?

For any number 3s out there, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a personality test originally developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. It is based on Carl Jung’s typological theory, and if you’re not already familiar with it, you can check it out on lots of websites, including good ol’ Wikipedia or sites that administer the test, such as this one or this one.

While the MBTI is wildly popular and used by individuals curious about personality types as well as major companies trying to increase the efficiency and productivity of their works, it also has a lot of critics. Adam Grant is one of the most outspoken, and he has made some really intriguing points, which you can check out here and here. Another interesting bit of criticism can be found at the Smithsonian. The main complaints levied against are that it relies too much on binaries, that people often get different results when they take the test more than once, that people may be biased to agree with it, and that it leaves many aspects of personality out of its 4-letter types.

Let’s start with the criticism that MBTI relies on binary choices–Extravert or Introvert, iNtuitive or Sensor, etc–while in reality, almost no one is 100% introverted or 100% extrovert. Like most things in life, there are shades of gray. (Probably even more than 50.) However, when critics point out the MBTI’s reliance on binaries, they don’t usually acknowledge the fact that the 16 personality types and 4 dimensions of type represent preferences. So while a person tends to prefer either Thinking or Feeling, for example, he/she uses both Thinking and Feeling at different times in life.

As Rich Thompson, PhD, explains:

[T]he Myers-Briggs assessment actually does have a means for determining the degree to which a person identifies with a certain preference. It is called the “Preference Clarity Index (PCI),” which measures how clear an individual is about a particular preference — slight, moderate, clear, and very clear.”

This makes sense. I, for example, have a clear preference for Introversion, according to several different MBTI tests I have taken. On the other hand, my preference for Thinking is more moderate. Both of these results make sense to me. I need a lot of time to “recharge” my mental batteries after a long day of being around people and I tend to live in my head much of the time. And while I definitely agree that I prefer Thinking to Feeling, in certain circumstances I am more swayed by how my decisions will affect other people than by the cold, hard facts as logic of the situation.

Another issue brought up by critics of MBTI is test-retest correlation. (That is, the chances of getting the same results upon a second taking of the test.) Grant, for example, mentions scoring as both an INTJ and an ESFP. Thompson says that test-retest correlations for MBTI have been found to be between .57 to .81 in various studies and that correlations of that level are considered “quite good for psychometric assessments.” He also expresses concern that some people taking the test use less-than-reputable sites. Of course, Dr. Thompson is writing on a blog on the website of the official MBTI publisher, so that could play a role in his advocacy for taking the test on certain sites rather than others. The Myers and Briggs Foundation reports that “people come out with three to four type preferences the same 75% to 90% of the time.” Once again, this data is coming from a website that is entirely based on the precept that MBTI is accurate, which t is another thing to keep in mind.

Bias is everywhere, gentle reader.

Now, a personal aside with regards to test-retest correlation and the matter of bias. I first took an MBTI test in high school (around age 16, I’d say) and scored as an INTJ. As I started researching my type, I felt UNDERSTOOD in a way I never had before. I took the test again after my freshman year of college (19 years old now) and was once again told that I was an INTJ, and the descriptions of that type still rang true with me. Of course, the Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect) is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions that are supposedly tailored for them specifically–that’s how horoscopes work. And some would say that my identification with the descriptions of INTJs are about as telling as the fact that I’m a Taurus.

Is that true? I don’t feel like it is, but then again, who am I to say that I’m above the Forer Effect? What I do know is that being more aware of the many different dimensions of my personality have helped me with self-care, self-growth, and self-confidence, while also making me conscious of my weaknesses.

This last part makes me skeptical about one bit of MBTI criticism that I read claimed that Myers-Briggs has another trait (in addition to the Forer Effect) in common with horoscopes that tends to bias a person towards it–the tendency to describe each type using only positive words. Maybe it’s just because I am an INTJ, a type with plenty of criticisms that can be thrown its way, but I disagree with this comparison.

First of all, even when I look at my horoscope, as a Taurus, I am always told about how stubborn, lazy, and materialistic I am. Ah, yes–so positive! Second of all, when reading descriptions of INTJs, I often read that I am arrogantjudgmentaloverly analyticalclueless in social situations, and insensitive towards the feelings of others. There are lots of good things in INTJ descriptions too, don’t get me wrong, but I have found that knowing my type has made me more cognizant of my weaknesses, and as a result, I have been able to work on them.

The final piece of MBTI criticism that I want to discuss here is that it leaves out important aspects of personality and is not truly a comprehensive test. I actually agree with that statement, but I don’t think that this inherently lessens the value of MBTI as one of many ways to glean a greater understanding of yourself. It’s a great way to start (or continue) an investigation of yourself, but with so many other resources out there, it should hardly be a stopping point.

Confession #2: I love many personality tests.

Other methods of personality testing and/or typology to consider:

Enneagram

  1. The Enneagram assigns you one of nine different personality types. Personally, I found my results for this one to be as accurate as the MBTI while speaking to a completely different aspect of my personality. The Enneagram definitely does not fall victim to any positivity bias–the descriptions of each type tend to be positive, negative, and neutral in equal amounts. I’ve read that one of the main differences between MBTI and the Enneagram is that the Enneagram allows more for the role of nurture in the development of one’s personality, while MBTI focuses more on nature.
  2. The Big Five / Five Factor Model ranks you on five factors of personality: extraversion, agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and neuroticism. Results are generally give as percentiles–e.g. my score in the 80th percentile of conscientiousness shows that I am more conscientious than 80% of the population. The Big Five is probably the most popular and scientifically-backed method of personality assessment out there. The biggest problem with the Big Five is that the names given to the five factors are not particularly neutral. Who really wants to be labeled as disagreeable or highly neurotic?
  3. The idea of Love Languages initially came from a book written in 1995 by Gary Chapman. This particular typology is much more specific than the others I’ve mentioned here, in that it applies to how you give and want to receive signs of love and affection in a relationship. There are five love “languages”: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch. This test is especially useful and interesting if you and your partner don’t have the same love language, and an understanding of each other’s preferred method(s) for expressing affection can help prevent any misunderstandings or hurt feelings.

A huge part of why I love personality testing is that I am prone to over-analyzing myself–over-analysis being a common problem of INTJs, after all–and personality tests and typologies offer just another way to analyze myself. And to analyze others, either by hearing from them what their type is or by speculating about it myself.

I guess what I would like to say most to both critics and lovers of MBTI is this: use it if it works for you; ignore it if it doesn’t. If, like me, you think that it helps you to be a more productive and happier human being, then embrace it! But, if you think it doesn’t ring true for you or you just find it uninteresting, then carry on! I’m not going to twist your arm and demand that you take the MBTI test. (Only partially because neither you nor your arm is within my reach at the moment.)

Have you taken the MBTI? Know your Enneagram type, your Big Five scores, or your love language? Do you agree or disagree with what they say about you? Comment here or on Twitter @rsuppok.

(And subscribe, if you feel like it. Once again, no arm-twisting shall occur.)

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