Extroverted, feeling, intuitive . . . it sounds like something out of a Match.com ad, so you can see how critics might dismiss the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as gimmicky or unscientific. The latest salvo comes from a new book about the mother-daughter team that invented the now ubiquitous assessment in the middle of the last century. “The Personality Brokers,” by Merve Emre, joins a chorus of carpers who find the test silly, reductive, or a capitalist tool of social control. In a recent New Yorker essay, Louis Menand mocks the assessment by finding similar language in a horoscope. Fair enough. But for an instrument that more than 2 million people use every year, it’s striking how misunderstood the MBTI continues to be.
It’s fitting to use the acronym here, because the Myers-Briggs is best known for the four-letter “types” it slots people into after taking a multiquestion “preference” test. At a dinner party, do you prefer joining in to a table-wide conversation (E, for extrovert), or would you rather speak just to the person sitting next to you (I, for introvert)? Which is more important to you, justice (T for thinking), or mercy (F for feeling)?
Based on Katharine Briggs’s rather obsessive child-rearing philosophy crossed with Jungian psychology, and refined and marketed by her daughter, Isabel Myers, the MBTI has spawned a $2 billion industry of corporate human resource managers and new-agey life coaches. The questions consider how you get your energy, how you process information, whether you tend to be more logical or emotional, and how much structure you want in your world.
Critics, including Emre, complain about the binary nature of the typing, since most people fall somewhere in between the modes of extrovert-introvert or thinking-feeling. But the assessment doesn’t suggest the types are all-or-nothing; in fact, it plots you along an axis or scale precisely to acknowledge that we all have stronger or weaker tendencies. And it doesn’t suggest the types are immutable; one of my favorite MBTI catch phrases says that as you mature in life, you increasingly learn to “access your nonpreferred side.”
It’s easy to see the appeal of the MBTI as well as its limitations. In a turbulent world, we crave ways to organize, classify, and tidy up. But we also chafe at being overanalyzed by every marketing algorithm known to Mark Zuckerberg. Plus, the test’s endless spinoffs can veer into the absurd. I mean, do I really need to know that I have the same MBTI type as Newt Gingrich and Whoopi Goldberg? Or to drink wines matched to my personality by those MIT geniuses forever showing up on my Twitter feed?
My own experience with the MBTI several years back was, in a word, revelatory. Over a three-day immersion, I learned how to communicate better with the introverts on my staff, why I fume when people space out on appointments, and (too late!) why my ex and I always fought over planning a vacation. There were eerie moments when people with the same four-letter type behaved exactly the same way, like twins separated at birth. A facilitator showed a large poster of an orchestra on stage. What is this? he asked. Those who scored high on the “sensory” scale ticked off every detail: “It’s six violins, three clarinets, a red velvet curtain,” etc. Those who scored as “intuitive” made mental leaps, saying things like “It’s an advertisement,” or “It’s heaven.” The lesson? People given the very same information can take away very different meanings.
It’s all in the interpretation. Far from boxing people in to a few limiting types, the Myers-Briggs actually reveals the infinite complexity of human nature. Understanding the abundant subtle variations within ourselves and the people we encounter gives us insight — if we only look — into how to get along. And that’s a lot more helpful than knowing your zodiac sign.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.