Every Toy in Its Box: The beautiful lie of Myers Briggs and modern personality testing


Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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46 Responses

  1. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Plenty of personality tests are great predictors. Take type a hostility, for example.
    It’s true that personality tests do change over time. Type A people are much, much more likely to increase their type a hostility scores over time.

    Myers Briggs makes the fatal mistake of trying to make all the scales “happy” scales.

    Oh, and if the group hates me, it’s probably my fault.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kimmi says:

      note: type a hostility predicts atherosclerosis.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kimmi says:

      Myers Briggs makes the fatal mistake of trying to make all the scales “happy” scales.

      I get into this with Chris over his support of The Big 5. It’s not that all of the scales are “happy” it’s that none of them are sad. The Big 5 uses virtuous language for two of its five types and that’s two too many, as far as I’m concerned.

      A personality test should never say “good” vs. “bad” as much as “mayo” vs. “mustard”. There’s not a better answer *EXCEPT* for the whole “this answer is more accurate than that answer” thing going on.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Jaybird says:

        *taps foot* So now it’s good if you get atherosclerosis?
        Some people are trying to use these as tools to determine what personality traits cause/exacerbate illness (with an eye towards preventing the illness, natch).
        Others are trying to use this as a “let’s figure out how people are going to act” game. the second, while possible, probably requires a lot more questions than most people are likely to want to take.Report

      • Avatar Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

        Would you be fine with the Big 5 if they changed the labels of those two factors?

        I ask because it is an incredibly useful tool (for research at least, which we’ve established is all I really care about) with pretty damn good validity and reliability for a sweeping personality measure.Report

      • Avatar Lyle in reply to Jaybird says:

        Exactly if you take the course to administer MB you find that the statement is all types are equally good there are no right or wrong answers. People just have different types. It is just like another instrument the Adaptation Innovation survey of Kirten, which relates to how one tackles a problem, either within the bounds of the existing system (adapter) or whatever is needed damn the system.Report

  2. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    M-B isn’t supposed to be predictive, though. I mean, I agree, in practice lots of companies use it because they have some fantasy in their head about how ABQZs are the best programmers evah and BAZQs make great sales people, but that’s because hiring managers are… underskilled.

    The M-B questions that you point to (with the probably-false dichotomies) are formulated that way on purpose, which is why the number of questions you have in the test is important (and those shortened tests are worse than worthless), *and* the letter results aren’t as important as the raw score. If you consistently choose the same extroverted answer between the “false” dichotomy offered in 50 questions, that illustrates something that 1 question doesn’t. You actually *do* lean extrovert.

    What does that mean, from a predictability standpoint? Not much.

    I agree that the only thing an M-B test is really good for is getting people on a team to recognize that other people on the same team have different practical reflections of their underlying personalities. If people already know that, you don’t need a test to point it out. On the other hand, when a bunch of hard-extroverted people in one team run up against a bunch of hard-introverted people in another, having some sort of exercise like this can be helpful to getting the teams not yelling at each other all the time.Report

    • Avatar DensityDuck in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      I think the reason companies use it is so that they have a fall-back when every manager rates every one of their employees “excellent, don’t fire this one or the company will fall apart”. They can say “well, we have lots of RPJDs, we need a better balance of YMPLs” and then pretend like their decision on who to lay off was something better than a coin flip.Report

    • Avatar wardsmith in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      Patrick, this OP underscores why I don’t believe social “science” is a science.

      Humans are far too complex and subjective and piling up nonsense about a large number of them doesn’t make it more objective but the statistics give it that fine patina of respectability.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to wardsmith says:

        Even if you can’t come out and point at the moment in which 5 O’Clock shadow becomes negligence becomes a Goddamn Beard, it doesn’t mean that that there’s no difference between negligence and a Goddamn Beard.

        In that vein: while Wilson Bentley showed us that no two snowflakes are alike, it’s certainly possible to create categories.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to wardsmith says:

        Ward, I don’t know of anyone that I’d consider a credible social scientist who would defend M-B as predictive, based upon current data.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to wardsmith says:

        Pupil dilation is a remarkably robust measure of how much you’re thinking, at the moment.
        Yes, humans are subjective, but we do have objective measures of many things.
        Including upset stomachs!Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      Note that there is a second series of MB tests that break down into 20 subelements, but it is not very common except for those who have the training on MB. Of course the tests on the web are basically worth little one needs to full instrument and a trained person to help one interpret the instrument. (I took the training about 12 years ago)Report

  3. Avatar dhex says:

    i’ve always found it quite odd that some of my bro/broettes of the more sam harris / rational + science = hell yeah / stone cold punching people (in their minds) for reading horoscopes and the like are, as with nearly everyone else, are usually nonetheless into meyers-briggs stuff. or at the very least don’t apply the same 64 ounces of virulently scoffed haterade to the situation.Report

  4. Avatar Michelle says:

    While I’d agree with your general thesis that people are far more complex than these kind of tests reveal, I don’t think they’re totally useless (although I’ll admit that I didn’t see a point to the Enneagram). I’ll also stipulate that they’re not great predictors of success. But that’s not really what they were meant to do and using them as qualifications for employment is, to my mind, stupid.

    What MB can tell you, however, is how people have different approaches to situations. The infamous Introvert-Extrovert scale, for instance, tells you where you draw your energy from–yourself or other people. It doesn’t tell you anything about how social you are or how much you enjoy the company of others. I do think these kind of tests can be useful in showing you how you approach problems or deal with other people and, when used in group situations, can drive home the point that everybody does things differently. What works for you may or may not work for someone else.Report

    • Avatar Plinko in reply to Michelle says:

      My employer recently started using a pretty different assessment, one that’s pretty much all about figuring out motivational factors and approaches to problem-solving. So far, it’s mainly been used for helping manager/employee relationship development (at all levels) and has that ‘it takes all kinds’ built into the literature, but it’s really hard not to notice that nearly every high ranking exec gets placed in the same quadrant.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Most ENFPs are skeptical of this sort of thing.Report

  6. Avatar Mike Dwyer says:

    My wife and I compared scores with our familes. Very interesting results: Her mother, father and her brother all scored the same on the Meyers-Briggs as hers. On my side myself, my mother and my siblings all had wildly different scores.

    My said she was proud of that.Report

  7. Avatar James H. says:

    It seems to me the issue is misuse rather than inherent illegitimacy of the MB. The purpose of the assessment seems to be to understand yourself, and your particular cognitive/emotional approaches. And it touches on communication style, so it can be helpful in understanding how you and someone else differ, and enable you to understand each other better, or better communication and collaboration.

    Although it’s merely anecdotal, I’ve known too many people who really recognized themselves in their MB designation, and not much or at all in the other categories, to think it’s pure phrenology type voodoo. Not everyone, but those others have tended to be folks who didn’t strongly fit categories.

    Keep in mind the MB is something that is reasonably subject to replica biliary and validation by other measures. Whether it has been, I don’t know (Chris might have some idea), but it at least can be. My prediction would be that it has a high level of validity, but even a low rate of missing the mark would make it of little value to potentially tens of thousands of people, leading to a lot of skeptics–but their experiences are also anecdotal.

    But using it to plug people into jobs…that’s pretty clearly not what it is valuable for.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly in reply to James H. says:

      “Although it’s merely anecdotal, I’ve known too many people who really recognized themselves in their MB designation, and not much or at all in the other categories, to think it’s pure phrenology type voodoo.”

      This is true – but I would add that I find the same true for astrological write-ups.

      I didn’t put this in the OP, but I used to find the 5-page reports we got on potential hires to read very, very similar to astrology readings: vague, “he likes to work with others, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes like to work alone” stuff that, I was always convinced, people wouldn’t notice so much if they were mixed up accidentally.Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I pretty much agree with this.

        And as a tool for self-analysis, MB seems to me to function much in the way a daily horoscope functions: it helps you consider yourself from a different perspective, thus broadening your potential start points for considering something after. I’d think the effect short lived, mere moments after reading a horoscope; days at best after getting MB results.

        It’s usefulness in hiring? Probably the same thing; a slightly different skew on considering the person; much potential to reaffirm already held impressions, too.

        Fortune telling, be it art or science, has a value — what it helps us see about ourselves. But the same value can be got through other more worthwhile paths; actually attempting things, evaluating your attempts, and working at something long enough to accomplish or even gain mastery being most crucial.Report

      • Avatar James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        but I would add that I find the same true for astrological write-ups.

        I am very much in disagreement. Astrologies are purposely written to be vague and non-exclusive. The average person could grab any astrology write up from anywhere at any time and find something that seems to apply to them. The MB categories, by contrast, are drawn more tightly and meant to be exclusive: You should recognize yourself in this particular description, maybe partly in this description, and not really at all in this other.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP in reply to James H. says:

      Being bipolar occasionally has its advantages. All such Personality Tests are a contradiction in terms: either you’re talking about a person on his own, in which case we can talk about Personality — or we can talk about a Test, in which case we’re talking about accomplishing anything.

      I’ve run teams time out of mind: the most important aspect of building any team is working with the dynamics of internal cohesion. Does someone respond well to authority? That depends entirely on who’s giving the orders. Does a person work well with others? Again, enumerate the Others and I’ll tell you how things go on that front. Is a person introverted or extroverted? Depends on the consequences of exposing one’s self to the Others. What about cultural considerations? Or corporate culture? Nobody can tell at first glance who’s going to fit in and who won’t. What about people who need a challenge or others who respond well to pressure? What about someone who’s got the personality of a garlic fart and hygiene issues to boot, who’s so technically brilliant it’s worth shoving specifications over the transom and keeping them away from the rest of the team and especially away from the client?

      Therein lies the fundamental flaw of Meyers-Briggs or Enneagram or any of these personality tests. Don’t ask anyone to judge his own personality. Ask others and you might get different — and better — answers in terms of meeting objectives and building teams.Report

  8. MB serves the same purpose as most HR tools: shrink the applicant pool to a manageable size.Report

  9. 1) I will start crushing the ice and pull out the good vermouth the second you step through my door, my friend.

    2) The “skeptical vs. sentimental” question is one that jumped out at me when I took the test myself. I am both a tar-hearted cynic much of the time and ridiculously sentimental. Making them an either/or dichotomy is laughable.

    3) It strikes me as the height of lunacy to use any of these tests as the basis for hiring anyone.Report

  10. Avatar Maribou says:

    Great post, Tod. I agree with you, and I think the main reason I enjoy talking about M-B types is that it gets on my nerves less than “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” as a starting point for conversations about communication differences, personal space, etc – not because it’s true, but precisely because it is so cheerful and easy to put on like a cloak.

    (Trufax: Jaybird made me read “Men Are from Mars…” when we were dating. I told him if he ever tried to pull that crap on me in a conversation, I would show him who was from Mars. Then we had a conversation about how he was raised by women from a more conventional household that was pretty interesting, but didn’t make me any more inclined to the theory. So I sent him an article about how John Gray is a fraud with a degree mill degree. Then he threatened to make me read The Rules, and I threatened him with Mary Daly, and we called a truce and went back to talking about Douglas Hofstadter.)

    (PS I showed this comment to Jay and he says “I WAS COMPLETELY KIDDING”. However, since he also cast my horoscope including moon sign, and told me to read awesome books like Sophie’s World, I’m sure you can see why I took him seriously. Ah, to be 21 again.)Report

    • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Maribou says:

      One of the important things in an equitable relationship is knowing when to put the guns away.

      “Peter, you’re mad. Never dare to suggest such a thing. Whatever marriage is, it isn’t that.”

      “Isn’t what, Harriet?”

      “Letting your affection corrupt your judgment. What kind of life could we have if I knew that you had become less than yourself by marrying me?”

      He turned away again, and when he spoke, it was in a queerly shaken tone:

      “My dear girl, most women would consider it a triumph.”

      “I know, I’ve heard them.” Her own scorn lashed herself—the self she had only just seen. “They boast of it—’My husband would do anything for me….’ It’s degrading. No human being ought to have such power over another.”

      “It’s a very real power, Harriet.”

      “Then,” she flung back passionately, “we won’t use it. If we disagree, we’ll fight it out like gentlemen. We won’t stand for matrimonial blackmail.”

      He was silent for a moment, leaning back against the chimney-breast. Then he said, with a lightness that betrayed him:

      “Harriet; you have no sense of dramatic values. Do you mean to say we are to play out our domestic comedy without the great bedroom scene?”

      “Certainly. We’ll have nothing so vulgar.”

      “Well—thank God for that!”

      His strained face broke suddenly into the familiar mischievous smile. But she had been too much frightened to be able to smile back—yet.

      “Bunter isn’t the only person with standards. You must do what you think right. Promise me that. What I think doesn’t matter. I swear it shall never make any difference.”Report