Knowing how the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)® works helps us to understand how it can be used as a tool for self-awareness - and also its limitations.
What links the DC Superhero Batman; an owl; J.K. Rowling’s Hermione, and an Irish coffee? Well, according to the internet, they all exhibit or reflect the same personality type preferences associated with the classic personality test: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)®
Whatever we might think of personality tests and testing – and, as we’ll see below, they’re not without controversy – their use as part of a wider suite of psychometric testing is remarkably resilient. When we consider how difficult it can be to make sense of ourselves and our colleagues at work, with all our individual personalities, preferences, pet peeves and foibles, we can see why. Any and all data points that might help us to find out more about ourselves and how we might interact with each other must surely be welcome, no matter what the naysayers might say.
This urge to explore, even categorise, people by personality type or trait has a long history. From Hippocrates and Galen through to The Colour Works and Enneagrams, our appetite for a whole range of diagnostics seems destined never to be sated. And when it comes to personality testing, none of us will get very far without encountering MBTI®, the test created by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers back in the 1940s and 1950s. It remains one of the most successful and widely used tests throughout the world.
How does MBTI® work?
MBTI® is an adaptation of the theory of psychological types created by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung. Jung believed that people experience the world using four principal psychological functions – sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking – and that one of these four functions is dominant for a person most of the time.
Enter Myers and Briggs, who developed this thinking into the four paired categories that reflect this Jungian idea of how we make sense of the world and which underpin their MBTI® indicator:
- Favourite world: Extraversion or Introversion
- Information: Sensing or Intuition
- Decisions: Thinking or Feeling
- Structure: Judging or Perceiving
The basis of the indicator is that, for each pair, we select a preference that builds into a summary of our personality type.
At heart, MBTI® is based on the Myers-Briggs idea that, Jung-like, “much seemingly random variation in behaviour is actually quite orderly and consistent, being due to basic differences in the ways individuals prefer to use their perception and judgment”.
A whole range of sophisticated banks of questions have been developed to test our preferences but, in essence, we can start with the basic either/or preferences listed below:
Our own personality types are then expressed as a four-letter code, for example:
Batman, the owl, Hermione and the Irish coffee all show preferences for I, N, T and J, giving a personality type of INTJ.
The 16 personality types
In total there are 16 MBTI® personality types:
None of the preferences are more desirable than another; they are simply identified as a default and a starting point for us to acknowledge and learn more about how we interact with the world and the people around us.
The Myers-Briggs Foundation website gives us a handy shorthand of type characteristics. So, Batman, Hermione and their INTJ compatriots:
Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organise a job and carry it through. Sceptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance – for themselves and others.
With such insightful wisdom on offer, little wonder that we might be more than a bit curious to know how MBTI® might categorise Dave from Accounts or how it might help us to choose the most promising of the latest round of candidates clamouring to join our organisation.
MBTI® and self-awareness: the pros and cons
MBTI’s® advocates are right when they suggest that people with different preferences naturally have different interests and views, behave differently, and are motivated by different things. And it’s also true that an awareness of the differences between types can help us not just to know ourselves, but to understand and value others who might think and act differently.
We need, though, to proceed with caution.
It’s important to remember that MBTI® measures preferences rather than hard-and-fast traits. While most of us will have a set of default preferences, that doesn’t mean that they’re set in stone. We all use all eight styles to a lesser or greater extent depending on context and situation. We need to think of each pair as a continuum that we travel across all the time. For example, just as many of us are right-handed, but still use both hands, and even the most introverted of us can learn or adopt extrovert behaviours when we need or want to.
Even Jung himself stressed, for example, that “there is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum.” Instead, he was pains to make clear that such designations were anything other than “a certain penchant, a certain tendency”. There is no such thing, he claimed, as “a schematic classification”.
Alas, this is a finesse that has often eluded many an MBTI® enthusiast. Once we’re labelled as an INTJ or equivalent, that classification, in the wrong hands, can become a limiter rather than an enabler. Psychologist Brian Little summed this up neatly when he observed that “insight from the Myers-Briggs can start [a] conversation, but unfortunately it often ends the conversation. You’ve got your type stamped on your forehead.”
Questions have also been raised about MBTIs® terminology. Many personality psychologists regard it as being too vague and unspecific, closer to astrology or fortune telling than being properly underpinned by scientific rigour and research. Psychometric specialist Robert Hogan even claims that he and his peers view MBTI® as “little more than an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie”.
There is also some evidence that MBTI® falls short when it comes to scientific standards of reliability and validity. Retest reliability, for example, means that, if the same person takes the same test more than once, they should get more or less the same result. Research has reported that, across a five-week retest period, 50% of the participants received a different classification on one or more of the MBTI® scales. It suggests that the indicator might be measuring preferences in a way that is easily influenced by whether we’re having a good or a bad day or by the situation in which we find ourselves.
This may not be such a big issue if we’re using MBTI® as a jumping-off point for thinking about our preferences and how we interact with, and lead, others who are more or less like us. But it’s quite another thing if we rely on MBTI® data more widely – and especially in isolation – for decisions as fundamental as hiring, promotions or who gets the pick of the tasks on offer.
That’s not to say that personality tests have no role to play in organisations. Like all tools, psychometric tests are only as useful as the people who develop and use them. MBTI® might not cut the mustard for anything more than personal awareness-raising, but other, more scientifically rigorous tests based, for example, on Big Five (OCEAN or CANOE) or Big Six (HEXACO) personality theory can bring much-needed objectivity to decision-making. Used properly, and for the right purpose, tests like the Sova/Future Talent Personality Assessment explore a range of personality traits as a spectrum on a continuum, a far cry from the black-and-white, on-off MBTI® toggling. Unsurprisingly, the results are much more nuanced and reliable.
It’s in many ways laudable that Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs created so long ago – and with such success – a tool that aimed to make the insights of type theory more accessible for individuals and groups. Clearly, thinking about our default preferences and the ways in which we can consciously step outside our comfort zones is not without its benefits. But the world has also moved on since MBTI® first found its feet. We know now that even the most sophisticated, scientifically rigorous tests cannot begin to provide a full theory of our personality. Use them, by all means, as another tool for self-awareness. Just don’t expect them to provide all the answers.
Test your understanding
- Explain the traits that make up the MBTI® personality type INTJ.
- Describe three criticisms of MBTI®.
- Identify the two, more recent, theories of personality that underpin more rigorous and reliable personality testing.