The Clarity? of Myers-Briggs

To my special reader I must apologise for the length of this blog but the topic demands it. I am also assuming some familiarity with Myers-Briggs.

Several weeks ago I received an email from Arlene Richter, M.Ed. MBTI Certified and Master Practitioner. She accused me acting unethically and publishing incorrect information about the MBTI and particularly about C. G. Jung and psychological type. She recommended that I read “Creating Clarity: Addressing the Misconceptions About the MBTI Assessment.” by Patrick Kerwin. I replied that as a believer in free speech it was fine by me to make the accusations but it would help her case if she provided examples. Nevertheless, as J S Mill himself argued it is important to keep our beliefs alive and honed through honest and vigorous debate with opposing opinions. Consequently, I have read Kerwin’s paper and here are my opinions.

As background Kerwin is another MBTI® Master Practitioner, with over 25 years’ experience using the MBTI assessment with corporate, healthcare, education, and non-profit organizations. He begins his paper by noting that the MBTI is used in 115 countries, is available in 29 languages, has been used by 88 of the Fortune 100 within the past five years, and is taken by millions of people worldwide. As a marketing success story, it is second to none and as someone who has some marketing successes himself, I stand in total awe. However widespread belief is not sufficient proof of scientific validity. As J S Mill again argued “Even in natural philosophy there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one; and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not understand the grounds of our opinion.?”

The paper then moves on to the history of the development of the MBTI. A common argument against the MBTI is that neither founder was a trained psychologist. I agree with Kerwin that is a specious argument. This article The mother-daughter team behind the ‘scientifically unsupported’ Myers-Briggs personality test provides a useful historical background.

The nub of Kerwin’s case is in the next sections of his paper where he distinguishes between trait and type. A common counter-argument to the MBTI (and one that I have used) is that human traits are spread according to the Normal Distribution. In contrast the MBTI uses artificial binaries such as extraversion-introversion. For example I see extraversion as a trait distributed Normally. The middle (+/- 1 Standard Deviation) 68% are Ambiverts while the 16% at either end of the spectrum are introverts or extraverts. When I attended my first MBTI workshop and did the questionnaire I scored as follows:

Extravert (48) Introvert (52%)

Sensing (40%) Intuition (60%)

Thinking (80%) Feeling (20%)

Judging (65%) Perceiving (35%)

In other words I am an INTJ who in general make up just over 2 percent of the population, and female INTJs are even rarer (less than 1 percent of women are INTJ). According to Myers-Briggs INTJs are analytical problem-solvers, eager to improve systems and processes with their innovative ideas. They have a talent for seeing possibilities for improvement, whether at work, at home, or in themselves.

Often intellectual, INTJs enjoy logical reasoning and complex problem-solving. They approach life by analyzing the theory behind what they see, and are typically focused inward, on their own thoughtful study of the world around them. INTJs are drawn to logical systems and are much less comfortable with the unpredictable nature of other people and their emotions. They are typically independent and selective about their relationships, preferring to associate with people who they find intellectually stimulating.

I read the above and developed the warm inner glow of being described as both rare and gifted. However according Kerwin the MBTI does not measure a trait but a personality preference. For example, according to Kerwin and Jung, I am not an introvert in the generally accepted use of the term but I have a preference for using my mind in certain way. The irony of course is that Jung coined the terms in the 1920s but their meaning has changed so much that Extraversion is now a trait in the Big Five.

One is reminded of the famous scene from Alice In the Looking-Glass. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Humpty Dumpy believes that he can exercise total control over language. Unfortunately, as Alice realizes, if he makes words mean anything he wants, then nobody can understand him. People have to agree on shared definitions and meanings for communication to be possible.

To change a definition to supposedly win an argument does not win the argument especially when MBTI practitioners themselves easily revert to the popular definition. Even in my first MBTI workshop the certified trainer said to me when I was arguing yet another point “You are such J!”

It also leads to mistakes. For example several weeks ago I spoke at the Professional Services Marketing Conference. A fellow speaker, Maree Kirkpatrick, gave what I thought was the best presentation. It was lively, enthusiastic, and full of commercially realistic content. During her talk she declared herself to be an Introvert. As I said in my later presentation Maree is no more an introvert than the man in the moon. However, I now realise is what Maree should have said is that when I did the MBTI my revealed personality preference is for introversion.

I have done several other workshops on Myers-Briggs and bounce between ENTJ and INTJ. I thought this was because I was located in the middle of the spectrum e.g. I was an ambivert. According to Kerwin it is because my personality preference was different on the day. My problem is if MBTI practitioners and websites discussed the four binaries as personality preferences, I could accept it, but they do not. They implicitly discuss them as traits and people who attend workshops and do the test implicitly consider them as traits.

I do discuss the Myers-Briggs in two white papers on my website: A Practical Tool to Lift Your Emotional Intelligence: The Humm-Wadsworth model of Temperament and The Collapse of Arthur Andersen: A Failure of Emotional Intelligence? After reading Kerwin’s paper I still believe my criticisms of the Myer-Briggs are still valid:

  • The Myers-Briggs is actually a behavioural model about decision making. How we make decisions is very important and reflective our personality. However, it is not a theory of core emotions and also suffers the difficulty of having to learn 16 different combinations based on 8 factors. The problem is that whatever model we use should have 7 factors as a maximum. This is because 7 items is the limit of our short term memory.
  • Myers-Briggs is lot like astrology. Everybody knows their own star sign but find it tough to identify the star signs of others. Similarly, everyone knows their own Myer-Briggs profile but find it difficult to identify the MBTI of other people. A practical system allows to you to identify the core emotional drives of a person within 60 seconds.
  • The MBTI is an ipsative test depends on honest self-reporting by the person tested. Unlike Normalised personality measures, such as the Big Five or the Personality Assessment Inventory, the MBTI does not use validity scales to assess exaggerated or socially desirable responses. This makes it vulnerable to faked responses. The reliability of the test as being low, with test takers who retake the test often being assigned a different type. About 50% of people tested within nine months remain the same overall type and 36% remain the same after nine months. When people are asked to compare their preferred type to that assigned by the MBTI, only half of people pick the same profile.
  • The MBTI sorts for type; it does not indicate the strength of ability. The questionnaire allows the clarity of a preference to be ascertained (Bill clearly prefers introversion), but not the strength of preference (Jane strongly prefers extraversion) or degree of aptitude (Harry is good at thinking). In this sense, it differs from trait-based tools such as 16PF. Type preferences are polar opposites: a precept of MBTI is that you fundamentally prefer one thing over the other, not a bit of both. I agree that sex follows a bipolar distribution but most biological factors are normally distributed. Most of us are not extroverts or introverts but somewhere in the middle. The same holds for the other three dichotomies.
  • Finally, as Arthur Andersen discovered to its cost, the MBTI does not identify the corporate psychopath.


This article was first published on LinkedIn on 1 September 2019.



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