Myers Briggs 2Every few months, it seems that the people of social media collectively rediscover their love for the Myers-Briggs model of personality types. One day, people are posting about politics and television shows and kittens, and then suddenly the next day, it’s all about why life is hard for INTPs or 18 things you’ll only understand if you’re an ESTJ. (I, for the record, am apparently an INFJ) There’s just something about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that is fun, interesting, and at least seems to be extremely helpful. For all of the critical things that I’m about to say about it, I admittedly still try the quizzes and read the articles and find it all very interesting. I don’t think it’s total nonsense, even if it isn’t quite as informative as many people think. I should also acknowledge that there’s some difference between the quick internet quizzes and the official MBTI personality assessment instrument, which should be administered by a certified professional and will cost some money. However, the internet quizzes use the same personality model with all the same terminology, and they usually work in a similar way, so I think it’s fair to treat the quiz results as a pretty good guess of your official MBTI personality type.

I personally think that one of the biggest reasons for the appeal of the MBTI and other personality categorization models is that human beings have an inherent tendency to categorize people. It’s why we like to talk about astrology signs, Harry Potter houses, and whether we were a jock or a nerd in high school. I suspect it’s also the main reason that so many people are so passionate about their favorite sports team. When you fit into a clearly defined group, it means automatic camaraderie with the other members of the group.

When personality traits are the criteria for inclusion in a certain group, there’s another perceived benefit. If there is a specific number of personality types and you can identify which one describes you, then you can more easily find advice and information that are specifically relevant for you. To see what I mean, just google “advice for ENFP” or any other Myers-Briggs type. The internet search results are seemingly endless, and at least at a glance, it looks like most of those websites and articles and blog posts are legitimately offering practical advice.

MirrorWhoAmIWomanBefore editing this blog post, I had a paragraph here in which I got sarcastic about the concept that “knowing” yourself is the answer to everything. That was an unnecessarily lengthy tangent, but the point remains that the appeal of personality type models is the perceived promise of practical applications. It stands to reason that self-knowledge means recognizing your strengths and weaknesses, learning to make the right decisions for your own life, and improving your ability to communicate with others, especially if you know their personality types as well. Once you know what category you belong in, you can find personalized guidelines for all of these things.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. There aren’t precisely sixteen distinct personality types; there’s an infinite array of personality traits. Every person is a little different, and what’s more, everyone changes. Not only does your personality change as you grow up and age, but also, if you’re like most people, your attitudes and behaviors vary a little bit from day to day. The very definition of “personality” is a psychological and philosophical debate that can’t be answered by a five-minute internet quiz. It can’t even be answered by a longer questionnaire with a registered trademark symbol in its title. Even if we were to oversimplify everything for the sake of argument and assume the continuity of personality, (which is more or less what I’m doing for the rest of this blog post) it’s a very complicated topic. There are entire graduate-level courses on theories of personality. I know this because I’m nerdy enough to actually browse graduate course descriptions just out of curiosity. The fact of the matter is that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is only one of numerous attempts to categorize and describe personality, and its origin is less academic and credible than most of the others.

Briggs and MyersAs a quick Google search can inform you, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was created by a mother/daughter team (Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers) and based largely upon their subjective observations. Upon discovering the works of pioneering psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920s, they essentially blended his theories with their own. The MBTI as we know it today was created in the 1940s and reached the awareness of the general public when Isabel Myers self-published a short book on it in 1962.

For those who aren’t already familiar with it, the MBTI is made up of four dichotomies. A personality type consists of either “extroversion” or “introversion”, either “intuition” or “sensing”, either “thinking” or “feeling”, and either “judging” or “perceiving”. Since there is no “both”, “neither”, or “in the middle”, there are sixteen possible combinations. Some are significantly more common than others, which I find interesting because my personality type is supposedly the most rare. 

Although Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers did a lot of reading on the topic of personality, and both women were quite well-educated by the standards of their time, neither had formal education in psychology, and their theories were not studied and tested very extensively. For those who are interested, the Myers & Briggs Foundation website describes the development and early uses of the MBTI, but I notice that the purpose has always been just to categorize people, not to evaluate the usefulness of the MBTI itself. It doesn’t appear that anyone ever thought to analyze data and see whether Myers-Briggs personality types can predict or correspond to any other data. 

Personality book

I think that this is the book I recall reading as a teenager.

The Five-Factor Model, also known as the Big Five or as the OCEAN model, was developed by using factor analysis on survey data. It dates back to the early 1980s and should be largely attributed to researchers Robert McCrae, Paul Costa, and a little bit later, Lewis Goldberg. However, there were multiple studies conducted by different organizations that produced the same results. Researchers started with a long list of words used to describe personality, surveyed lots of participants on their own personalities, and used statistical calculations to determine which personality traits tend to be lumped together, resulting in five different categories of traits. The end result admittedly looks fairly similar to Myers-Briggs types, except that there are five variables instead of four. However, the simple fact that these five variables were determined by statistical analysis makes it far more science-based than the Myers-Briggs test.

Big Five 1The “Big Five” personality traits are called Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. (When I first read about this, they were ordered differently. I suspect they were rearranged specifically for the sake of the OCEAN acronym.) Each is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy as in the Myers-Briggs model. For example, I’m high on the Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism scales, but in the middle on Openness and very low on Extroversion. I’ve seen multiple internet articles that describe this model completely inaccurately, so I want to stress that there are five factors, not five personality types. The Five-Factor Model doesn’t sort people into just a few categories the way the MBTI does because it acknowledges a middle ground. Depending upon which questionnaire you use, your results for each of the five factors might be numbers on a scale between 1 and 100, or they might be phrased as “very high”, “high”, “average”, “low” or “very low”. Either way, your personality includes a ranking on each of these five factors. This is one of the things I like about the Five-Factor Model. The stark dichotomies of the Myers-Briggs model might be convenient for categorizing people, but they sure don’t accurately portray the nature of personality.

Lexical hypothesisThere’s concern that even the Five-Factor Model is too subjective and unscientific. It’s based on the lexical hypothesis, which is the concept that personality is so central to the human experience that any language will necessarily develop the terminology to accurately describe and define it; therefore, making lists of words is a perfectly reliable and objective starting place for analyzing personality traits. While I personally find that idea fascinating and very plausible, it obviously leaves some room for doubt and criticism. Does language really reflect the nature of humanity so accurately and thoroughly that we can rely on linguistics to discover truths about psychology? Maybe, but it’s not very scientific to assume so.

To get a really clear, specific, and objectively scientific idea of what “personality” is and how it differs from person to person, we’d have to study personality from a neurological perspective. We’d have to consider whether there’s something about a person’s brain structure or neurological processes that make them more likely to behave or think in a certain way. My understanding is that neurological theories of personality are currently in the works, although I’m only finding information about studies that are still based on survey data. Still, it’s plausible that we’re only a few years away from being able to describe personality in terms of brain function. I find that a lot more compelling than a couple of Victorian ladies speculating about why Joe Schmoe acts nothing like Mr. So-and-so.

I’m far from the only one out there to complain about the prevalence of the Myers-Briggs description of personality. Lots of people, many of whom are more educated than I, have pointed out the lack of scientific data backing the Myers-Briggs test. But that raises another question. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has been around for a very long time, and it’s been discussed quite a lot, even in academic contexts. So why hasn’t it been put to the test? Why not do a study in which participants take a questionnaire (or perhaps self-identify their Myers-Briggs type) and then complete certain tasks or engage in certain social activities with one another, while researchers observe? The study would evaluate a few clear, objectively measurable hypothesis based upon things like which personality types will talk more than others, which personality types will perform better on various types of logic puzzles, or which personality types will be the best at remembering details about the room in which they took the personality questionnaire at the beginning of the study. The results of the personality questionnaires, of course, will be confidential until after the observation portion of the experiment. The researchers mustn’t know which subjects belong to which personality types. They will just take note of each individual subject’s actions and interactions, then bring the personality type into the equation later, when it’s too late for observational bias to rear its head. In theory, if the Myers-Briggs personality types are as reliable and clear-cut as people claim, then there would be extremely strong correlations between personality types and the behaviors and cognitive traits measured by this test.

BrainI’ve seen some articles that do claim that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is evidence-based, but so far, I can’t find any actual research cited. I expect that there probably has been some research done at some point, but nothing that shows beyond a doubt that a person’s Myers-Briggs personality type is useful for predicting behavior, analyzing strengths and weaknesses, or making decisions. The skeptics who compare the MBTI to astrology are not entirely wrong. Personally, my expectation is that any kind of objective analysis would indeed validate the idea that there are different personality types, and that a person’s personality type has some correlation to their behaviors or cognitive patterns, but that the correlations won’t be as strong as people would expect, and that the Myers-Briggs would prove to be less precise than other models based on factor analysis. I’m looking forward to the further developments that are sure to come along soon now that we’re seeing such advances in neuroscience.