Myers-Briggs: Fad or Science?

Friends who know I blog about Myers Briggs types sometimes send me links to people critiquing the MBTI and ask what I think. The arguments in videos like “Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless” and articles such as “Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won’t Die” tend to follow a similar pattern and hit the same points:

  • Kathryn Brigs and Isabel Briggs Myers had no formal training.
  • The test doesn’t allow for complex personalities or that someone can be a little bit of an extrovert and a little bit of an introvert at the same time.
  • Similarly, the judging-perceiving, thinking-feeling, and sensing-intuition “scales” don’t allow for people who use both.
  • About 50% of people who take the test twice within 5 weeks get different results.
  • Test fails to predict success in various jobs and doesn’t provide meaningful data.
  • The test remains popular because it only gives positive results. These results are vague and hard to argue with, much like astrology and pseudoscience.

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Setting aside the first arguments for now, I think these points are a good criticism of some of the free tests going around which make people pick just between the four letter groups. None of this, however, takes into account the science behind Myers-Briggs. In fact, if the critics would bother reading Isabel Myers’ book Gifts Differing,* they would find most of their points have nothing to do with actual Myers-Briggs theory.Myers-Briggs: Fad or Science? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The Truth About Extroverts and Introverts

The video I linked above correctly states that Jung’s theory allowed for people who didn’t fit neatly into a single category. But then they say Kathryn Briggs and Isabel Myers “took Jung’s types but slightly altered the terminology and changed it so every single person was assigned only one possibility or another. You couldn’t be a little bit of an extrovert or a little bit of an introvert.”

In fact, this a complete misrepresentation of Myers-Briggs theory. Isabel Briggs never contradicted Jung’s statement that no one can be 100% introverted or extroverted. She also doesn’t describe Introversion and Extroversion in terms of where people gather their energy (a common misconception).

Another basic difference in people’ use of perception and judgement arises from their relative interest in their outer and inner worlds. … The introvert’s main interests are in the inner world of concepts and ideas, while the extrovert is more involved with the outer world of people and things. …

This is not to say that anyone is limited either to the inner world or the outer. Well-developed introverts can deal ably with the world around them when necessary, but they do their best work inside their heads, in reflection. Similarly well-developed extroverts can deal effectively with ideas, but they do their best work externally, in action. For both kinds, the natural preference remains, like right- or left-handedness. (Myers, Gifts Differing, 7)

You’re an introvert if you lead with introversion — not because you never use extroversion. You’re an extrovert if you prefer the outer world — not because you’ve cut yourself off from your inner world. When used correctly, the MBTI includes balance between the two.

Why Dichotomies Fail

Critics of MBTI apply the same argument they use against introversion-extroversion to the other letter pairings as well. To counteract that false assumption, we’ll have to dive into the more complicated side the MBTI — function stacks.

Thinking and Feeling are both Judging functions. They’re used to make decisions. If your Myers-Brigs type has a “J” in it, then that means you’re using your “T” or “F” preference when interacting with the outer world. In other words, J-types extrovert their decision making side.

Myers-Briggs: Fad or Science? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Sensing and Intuition are both Perceiving functions. They’re used when we’re learning and processing new information. If your Myers-Brigs type has a “P” in it, then that means you’re using your “S” or “N” preference when interacting with the outer world. In other words, P-types extrovert their learning side.

Myers-Briggs: Fad or Science? | marissabaker.wordpress.com

J and P don’t tell you whether you’re a “judger” or a “perceiver” so much as which function you use when interacting with the outer world. For extroverts, this is also their dominant function. An ENTP leads with their perceiving function (in this case Extroverted Intuition). They pair this with secondary Introverted Thinking (the secondary function is opposite on the E/I preference from your dominant function).

For introverts, the J/P preference tells you about their secondary function. Introverts lead with their introverted mental process. So, an ISTJ will lead with Introverted Sensing, but interact with the outer world using their secondary Extroverted Thinking. Thus, even though there’s a “J” in their type, an ISTJ is actually a dominant perceiving type.

Everyone has four functions in their type-stack. The tertiary function is opposite the secondary function, and the inferior function is opposite the primary function. So you end up having a form of both Thinking and Feeling and both Intuition and Sensing in every personality type. The higher up on your stack a function is, the better you’re able to use it. Here’s a few examples:

  • INTP: Introverted Thinking, Extroverted Intuition, Introverted Sensing, Extroverted Feeling
  • ISFJ: Introverted Sensing, Extroverted Feeling, Introverted Thinking, Extroverted Intuition
  • ESFP: Extroverted Sensing, Introverted Feeling, Extroverted Thinking, Introverted Intuition
  • ENTJ: Extroverted Thinking, Introverted Intuition, Extroverted Sensing, Introverted Feeling

Results and Usefulness

You’re probably starting to see how people can get inconsistent results when taking MBTI tests. Finding your true Myers-Briggs type isn’t something that happens just from taking a quick online quiz. If you’re a social ISFJ it’s very easy to test as an ESFJ because both types use the same extroverted mental process. If you’re a quiet ENTP you might test as an INTP because you’re using the same introverted mental process. Or if you take the test when you’re stressed-out you can test as a completely opposite type.

In that sense, Myers-Briggs tests do indeed have limited reliability. They’re really just meant as a starting point so you can either work with a counselor who will help you find your type or do your own research on function stacks and learn which type fits you best.

What about the argument that MBTI results are just feel-good drivel? In my opinion, any website that claims to tell you about your Myers-Briggs type and only gives a positive description is unreliable. Good descriptions should present a complete picture of how each type’s mind works at the best of times and at the worst of times.

One of the most popular posts here on this blog is about the INFJ Dark Side. In my e-book, I argue that knowing which areas we tend to struggle with and what pitfalls our types usually fall into is a great starting place for personal growth. Myers-Briggs is about understanding that each person has their own way of looking at the world and making decisions, and that also means each personality has their own strengths and weaknesses to work with.

Click here to check out my e-book, The INFJ Handbook, for more information and insight into the INFJ personality type
Available in the Amazon Kindle Store

Real-World Application

One thing Myers-Briggs isn’t really good for is making major decisions. Here’s where the criticism about using the MBTI for things like career predictions comes into play. When I think of using the test for this it reminds me of something I heard in a Personality Hacker podcast — that we’ll be most fulfilled and happy whenever we can use our dominant function and we feel valued and appreciated. That could happen for each type in a variety of different careers, and I don’t like it when tests results limit their suggestions to just a couple job types.

Similarly, using Mysers-Briggs theories to try and predict who we’ll be most compatible with romantically doesn’t always work. Even people who try to tell you there’s an “ideal” match for each type don’t agree. I’ve seen ENTP, ENFP and ESTP all listed as the “best” type for relationships with an INFJ, then others will counter that we’re better with INTPs or INTJs. Looking for love with the MBTI is unreliable and could keep us from a great relationship. Even Isabel Myers didn’t do this — she wrote it was most important that couples both have the same S/N preference, but she was an INFP happily married to an ISTJ.

The MBTI is a tool, which is sometimes flawed, that can be used for personal growth and understanding how other people think. One of Isabel Myers’ key goals was to give everyone an appreciation for the “differing gifts” each personality types has. Our lives and relationships will improve when we understand how our minds work and when we understand that everyone around us doesn’t think the same. That’s the best real-world application for the MBTI — using it to promote understanding of self and others.

Further reading: Here’s What Your Myers-Briggs Type Can and Can’t Tell You

Closing Thoughts

I said at the beginning of this post that we’d get back to the criticism that Isabel Myers had no formal training. This is, in fact, true. And I think that’s pretty impressive. The woman who invented the most widely used and successful personality test ever was homeschooled by her mother (Kathryn Briggs, who helped develop the test), only went to college for a four-year degree (and not even in psychology), married while in school, then worked as a stay-at-home mom and writer of fiction.

Though not formally trained in psychology, she devoted half her life to its study and spent a year learning about “test construction, scoring, validation, and statistics” from Edward N. Hay (personnel manager of a large bank in Philadelphia). It took her quite some time to convince anyone she was worth listening to — not just because she was “uneducated,” but also because the academic community wasn’t interested in Jung’s personality theories at the time (Peter Myers’ introduction to the 1995 edition of Gifts Differing). We can thank her for the continuing interest in Jung’s theories of personality and for the MBTI’s persistence as the best known personality test in the world — one that stands up surprisingly well in the face of criticism.

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14 thoughts on “Myers-Briggs: Fad or Science?

  • This is so true! “In fact, if the critics would bother reading Isabel Myers’ book Gifts Differing, they would find most of their points have nothing to do with actual Myers-Briggs theory.” I’ve found myself really frustrated with all the bashing done by people who don’t even take the time to understand what they’re talking about. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  • This is helpful. I have personally found MBTI an interesting and useful way of learning how to interact with the people in my life, and understand where some of the conflict can arise. As for MBTI romance advice, hmm… My INTJ husband and my ISTP self are supposed to be a terrible match. Admittedly when it comes to social events we struggle because we both tend to want to hide in the corner and observe things rather than be sociable, but other than that we get along pretty well!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I always love hearing about two people in a happy relationship that defies MBTI steriotypes. While I have noticed there are trends in which types I’m attracted to, it’s certainly not the most important thing in relationships.

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  • I think part of the reason people sometimes get different results is they are near the middle on some of the letters. In most online tests, people are forced to pick between 2 options and cannot pick both or neither, even if that would fit them better. I have taken Myers Briggs and related tests multiple times, and found that my levels shifted slightly each time. In the book test (David Keirsy), I allowed myself to pick both or neither answer if that fit me better. I am close to or in the middle on multiple letters. Sometimes, people are in between types, in which case X can be used instead of the other 2 letters. For example, I am an INTX, but my S is only a couple of points behind my N. Some parts of INTP fit better. Parts of INTJ fit better. Some of ISTP and ISTJ also fit. However, INTP has more that fits than INTJ or the others. I also have a brother who used to be more shy and tested as a rational, but started improving his people skills and interacting with them more and later became more of an idealist and more extroverted. I think people can also change personality types, especially if they are close in any of their letters and try to develop themselves in specific areas. Still, I think most people usually stay with the same personality type throughout their lives. Also, sometimes, people may be in a particular mood when they take the test one time, and another mood when they take it another time, which may cause their personality to vary a bit, especially if their letters are close. They may need to take the test multiple times and average the results, assuming they did not have a more permanent personality shift. Another helpful thing is when letters are close, to look at all of the personality types that are close, and see which one fits best. I do agree with some of the criticisms in that a lot of the results focus more on the positive than negative sides of the personalities. Most Enneagram personality descriptions emphasize more of the potential pitfalls of the personalities (although that is a different system) and have health levels for each.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mood can definitely have an effect on your results, as can the test you take (I usually test INFJ, but one test gave me ISFP). I don’t like tests that force you to pick an either/or answer between two letters — that’s what I meant when I talked about the dichotomies-based tests. To a certain extent, we all use both intuition and sensing, both feeling and thinking, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  • Ever since I first took the MBTI in college, I have been fascinated by personality theory. I learned so much about myself that I didn’t know before; things I didn’t understand. Now it all makes good sense and my post college MBTI assessments have been consistent in results over the years. I would be curious if anyone has taken the Clifton Strengths Finder assessment? It is the micro to MBTI’s macro view of your personality. My top 5 strengths definitely complement my MBTI type.

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    • I took an unofficial online version. It’s interesting to compare it with MBTI. There was a blog post a while back where an INFJ I follow shared her results and several other INFJs commented (https://reflectionsofaninfj.wordpress.com/2015/08/23/my-results-on-the-strengths-finder-2-0). We had similarities in our results, but also differences. It’s interesting how people who share an MBTI type can have so much in common and be such unique individuals at the same time

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      • I know what you mean about commonalities vs. differences. At a previous job, a young woman and I shared the same type (ENFJ) and also 3 out of 5 top strengths. Like you mentioned, those strengths could be different.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hey, great article! Yes, a lot of critics don’t really understand that the mbti is based on Carl jung’s Theory of function stacks (which are quite fascinating as you explained, but that’s a discussion for another day).
        And I feel many of these self proclaimed “critics” might not even understand Carl Jung’s function stack theory because it is a bit complicated (and I’m not even talking about the realm of shadow functions here) to understand in one go, even for personality typology enthusiasts like me!
        And as you rightly pointed out, the mbti test is not perfect, but at least Briggs made an attempt to help people without any formal training. That is quite remarkable!

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  • See, my criticism comes from the ways many of these functions are explained. Say the decision-making. What about flipping a coin? Neither logical or ‘feeling’-based. Or maybe because I have made the decision to flip a coin (so I will then have a better handle on what it is I really prefer? Or remain unsure of preferring?). Or what if when I am writing something and am torn between two possible words and just hit the corresponding key to the respective letters that begin each word, and whichever is first is the word (that will, say, begin a new sentence). Seems to me the introverted thinker would expend more thought into the more logically beneficial preference. And for the introverted feeler the results of a coin toss might in equal measures coincide with personal values or whatever is meant by ‘feeling’.
    Of course the criticism must be most directed towards myself. After nearly twenty years of off and on grappling with this stuff I still have little idea which I most identify with. Y’know, still trying to determine what any given source means by ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ worlds. Are words themselves natives of the outer? Is the screen on which words will be written… is that part of the outer world? But then after the words are written… well I guess if I post them on a blog I have ‘extroverted’ them. So am I extroverting right now? Apparently so. I know I am low on the Te. Also this can hardly be considered as Se. So I guess if I am extroverting with words in the form of exploratory questions…? Thinking aloud? Sort of? Is writing sort of like thinking aloud? Except this thinking isn’t the same as what the cognitive functions mean by thinking?
    So I guess my ongoing quandary comes down to what various sources mean when using terminology. I guess I don’t much relate to much of the assumptive perspectives that my research meanderings tend to encounter. On the plus side, it does keep it an interesting mental addiction. It also inspires me throw my hands up in frustrated resignation that maybe it was designed to be one of those rabbit holes, though rabbit holes are child’s play by comparison.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If this is something you want to keep researching, you might like the way Lenore Thomson explains functions in her book “Personality Type: An Owner’s Manual.” That book really helped me see how the different functions work together and overlap, as well as what makes them different.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ah, your timing is… funny? I was just reading/contemplating a reply on another blog where I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a few days tossing out a few questions that have bugged me for years but couldn’t find someone to talk about this like on a one-to-one level. For the sake of practicing better abbreviation in comment boxes, she helped me finally come to at least 99.7% settlement on INTP. Not because it fits particularly perfectly with what a lot of descriptions out there seem to want us to assume would be true for all Ti-Ne types, but because it’s the one that fits best. In fact, someday when the mood is good, I want to address some of this in a blog. Something like: some INTPs may be on the atypical side of what it is to be INTP. In fact, maybe so many atypical INTPs that maybe someday we will be lucky enough to witness the rise of better descriptions directed towards the odd INTP who doesn’t relate to much of what he/she has encountered across many a search and over suddenly several upon several years.

        IOW: thank you so very much for replying to my comment, but as of just a day or so ago, I think the matter has at last been resolved.

        Liked by 1 person

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