The popularity of the Myers-Briggs test
You may not have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), but chances are you took this personality test in college or at work.
It’s taught by organizations in 115 countries, including 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies, at least according to the Myers-Briggs Company.
Why are big companies so optimistic about this personality test?
Because it helps in team building and training. In addition, employees who understand each other’s temperament better work together better and communicate better.
University career centers use it to give students insight into possible career paths. And sometimes people take it on their own to discover what makes them tick.
Some people even list a Myers-Briggs type on their dating profile, hoping they can make a better love match.
But while it is popular with companies, schools, government agencies and people seeking relationships, many academics find it enjoyable and fun, but not very reliable.
“I don’t think it can even be considered a personality test,” says Robin MacFarlane, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “It can be used as a tool to get people to think about themselves in other ways that they haven’t thought about before: ‘Hey, maybe I’m a little analytical after all!’ The problem arises when people believe the test results provide meaning beyond just food for thought.”
Here’s what you need to know about the MBTI, according to several experts.
The theory behind the Myers-Briggs test
The mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers conceived the MBTI in the 1940s.
They based the test on Carl Jung’s theories about personality types – for example, that people were extroverted or introverted, or more or less analytical – with the aim of making his work more understandable and accessible to people.
Their goal: to classify people according to personality types as a way to explain seemingly random human behavior.
Knowing your type can help you understand yourself and those around you much better. So knowing you’re an extrovert will help you learn and use your strengths — that includes introverts. (If you fall somewhere in between, you can become an ambivert.)
The Myers-Briggs Test
Usually you take the test through an MBTI certified officer, online or in person.
There are free versions of MBTI-like tests, but the real thing will cost you (or your workplace).
You will answer 90 questions covering four main areas:
- Whether you focus inward or outward (introverted vs. extroverted)
- How to pick up information (sensing vs. intuition)
- How you make decisions (thinking vs. feeling)
- How to organize the world around you (judging versus perceiving)
What do the Myers-Briggs letters mean?
Based on your answers, you are assigned a four letter block containing the letters E (extroverted) or I (introverted), N (intuition) or S (senses), F (feeling) or T (thinking), J (judging) or P (perceiving) for a total of 16 different personality types.
For example, an ESFP is an extroverted people person who learns by relying on their five senses; makes values-based, compassionate decisions; and is seen as flexible and open to learning new things.
An INTJ, on the other hand, is an introverted person who recharges best when alone; learns by recognizing patterns and thinking through problems; lists pros and cons when trying to decide things (and relies on Spock-like logic); and organizes their environment by creating to-do lists and checking off items in an orderly, scheduled manner.
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images
MBTI is not based on hard science
Experts are suspicious of the test’s origins. Like Sigmund Freud, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of the pioneers of psychology and personality theories.
“Carl Jung was an influential psychiatrist, but these were not empirical, research-based theories,” said Thomas Plante, PhD, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. And Myers and Briggs weren’t trained in test development either.
“This was before a more empirically-based scientific approach to personality and personality testing was available, so it’s based on a faulty model that has never been sufficiently validated,” he says.
Also, many psychologists avoid sticking to one particular theory of personality when taking tests.
“When I structure something, I look at the domains of emotional, social, and cognitive functioning,” says Carly Claney, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle who has done many personality assessments.
That can be useful for getting a snapshot of how a person is behaving or when making a diagnosis.
It can also provide answers to why you keep repeating behaviors you don’t want to repeat or why you act a certain way with other people.
MBTI is not that reliable
Many psychologists say reliability in testing is key: do you get the same results every time you take it?
“People change. So of course you can do each assessment once, and in a year’s time the yardstick may be different,” Claney says. “But I think with Myers-Briggs, the same person trying to get the same answer may not. That’s how reliability gets shot.”
“If you take the questionnaire today and then complete it in three or four weeks, you can get very different results,” he says, adding that research indicates that this may be true half the time people take the test. “And that is really a matter of reliability.”
Students may be an exception, according to researchers at the University of Oklahoma. After reviewing the evidence, they concluded that the test could provide more reliable results for this particular group.
It is simplistic compared to other tests
Plante likens science-based personality tests to “psychological X-rays.”
The ones used by many psychologists, such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or the 16pf, measure not only personality, but what experts call psychological functioning — whether you’re depressed, anxiety, type A behavior, or low self-esteem.
These tests have over 100 questions in seemingly random order, so you won’t know how your answers fit until you see the results.
(Love personality tests? Here’s what the Enneagram test can tell you.)
Plante is an expert in testing seminary students on behalf of religious organizations such as the Catholic and Episcopal Churches.
“This is not used to determine if someone should not be a cleric, but rather to see if there are certain risk factors that people should be aware of,” he says.
When he uses the 16pf, he is looking for a certain kind of personality profile.
“A good example is whether you’re more deferential to authority or if you tend to be more independent,” he says. “Well, this matters in, say, a Catholic or Episcopal or Orthodox church, because you have a vow of obedience to your local bishop.”
The MBTI probably can’t stand up in court
For about $50, you can take the Myers-Briggs test online (if you’re over 16).
The personality tests that licensed psychologists give you aren’t widely available to the public, says MacFarlane, who was a psychological assessment supervisor at Columbia University’s clinical psychology program.
“Empirically valid personality tests have amassed decades of evidence supporting their reliability and validity through studies published in peer-reviewed journals,” she says.
Tests with research-backed data meet the “Daubert standard,” meaning they can be admitted as evidence in a court of law. The MBTI couldn’t.
The difference between science-backed tests and the MBTI is the “quality of the research, the kind of theory that went into developing those tests, the test construction methods, and the nuance,” Plante says. “That’s one of the reasons I often say that the Myers-Briggs is an over-the-counter drug, while these tests are like a prescription drug.”
Take results with a grain of salt
So are these experts saying you shouldn’t take the MBTI at all?
No, but don’t attach too much importance to the results.
People can “think about it in the context of what they already know about themselves,” MacFarlane says. “But they shouldn’t worry if that result seems negative to them, nor should they ever allow anyone in authority to pass judgment on them based on this test result.”
Where to go to test?
To learn how your personality and temperament affect your life choices, talk to a therapist or counselor.
“Usually they don’t need a personality test, just someone they can discuss things with,” MacFarlane says.
Already in therapy? Then your therapist may be able to do a test or refer you to a licensed and specially trained psychologist who can, Claney says.
“People who specialize in psychological testing are the ones who can do that kind of assessment, who can really tailor it to what the questions are — whether the client’s or the therapist’s — and then produce an interpretation that I hope is real. useful for therapy, either because you clarify the diagnostic picture or because you recommend a certain type of treatment,” she says.
For example, if tests show that you have Borderline Personality Disorder, your therapist may refer you to a DBT program.
The bottom line: Have some fun with your four-block result, but if you want to get serious, hit the pros.