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No, we haven’t been “duped” by the world’s most popular personality assessment

No, we haven’t been “duped” by the world’s most popular personality assessment

By Rich Thompson, PhD, Director of Research, CPP

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument (MBTI®) remains the world’s most popular personality assessment for a reason – people find its insights useful. This is no accident. As Director of Research for CPP, I know firsthand the tremendous effort that goes into ensuring the MBTI’s validity and reliability. Despite the wide body of well-publicized research supporting its efficacy, certain critics continue to take shots at the instrument, which range from the misinformed to the purposely misleading.

The impulse on the part of some to mischaracterize the MBTI assessment was recently exemplified in a contributed article that ran in Fortune.com on May 15 titled “Have we all been duped by the Myers-Briggs test?” by Roman Krznaric. I’d like to take a moment to set the record straight, and respond directly to the criticisms levied by Mr. Krznaric:

According to Krznaric: “Despite its popularity, the personality test has been subject to sustained criticism by professional psychologists for over three decades.” While he’s certainly correct that the MBTI assessment has critics, it is well established that the Myers-Briggs instrument meets all requirements for psychological tests, and CPP freely publishes information substantiating its validity and reliability at www.cpp.com/MBTIvalidity (the Center for Applications of Psychological Type also publishes information on the reliability and validity of the Myers-Briggs at http://www.capt.org/mbti-assessment/reliability-validity.htm).

If it didn’t have a solid research-based foundation, it wouldn’t be used by the world’s top organizations, including the U.S. military and Vancouver Olympic committee, as well as the majority of the Fortune 500. It has withstood more than 50 years of scientific scrutiny, and it has been cited and reviewed thousands of times.

It is true that the Myers-Briggs assessment isn’t popular with clinical psychologists, however, this is primarily due to the fact that it only assesses normal personalities and not pathology – therefore it is of somewhat limited use in clinical settings. It is, however, very popular with workplace and organizational psychologists who use it in more practical areas such as team building and conflict management.

Krznaric’s also claims that “…the MBTI mistakenly assumes that personality falls into mutually exclusive categories. You are either an extrovert or an introvert, but never a mix of the two…” Had the author done even a modest amount of homework, he would have known that this is misrepresentative of both the theory behind the instrument, and the measurement capabilities of the assessment itself.

The Myers-Briggs assessment merely says that we’re pre-disposed to behave in certain ways, not that our behavior is limited to one direction or the other. The theory behind it says that we use both preferences of any dimension, but we’re innately predisposed toward one. It’s just like a right-handed person using their left hand — it might not feel as natural, but they can certainly do it, and can become very good at it with practice. Right-handed people may exhibit varying degrees of skill using their left hand – that doesn’t render their designation as “right-handed” inaccurate or useless. It’s interesting that he falls back on a comparison to height distribution, which is completely inapplicable here, as height is a physical characteristic and not a behavioral preference.

Furthermore, the Myers-Briggs assessment actually does have a means for determining the degree to which a person identifies with a certain preference. It is called the “Preference Clarity Index (PCI),” which measures how clear an individual is about a particular preference — slight, moderate, clear, and very clear.

On a related note, Krznaric also references supposed “…low ‘test-retest reliability…’” In actuality, the test-retest correlations for the most recent version of the Myers-Briggs are in the range of .57 to .81, which is considered quite good for psychometric assessments. It’s worth pointing out that instances where people receive different results typically occur when they have a low PCI along a certain category. For example, if results initially show a slight preference for Extraversion, that individual might at a later time show a very slight preference for Introversion. It is rare for someone with a clear or very clear preference to show conflicting results from a subsequent assessment.

The author goes on to assert that “…there is no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation … nor is there any data to suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types…” He then goes on to state: “…I apparently have the wrong personality type to be a writer… MBTI is not a magic pill that offers a secret path to a dream job.”

This is a little tricky because what he is saying is essentially true – the MBTI instrument does not predict performance or satisfaction within an occupation. However, it is misleading because it gives the impression that the assessment is intended to provide this kind of insight – it is emphatically not designed to predict success or satisfaction. To position this as some sort of shortcoming is as intellectually dishonest as saying that a compass is broken because it doesn’t tell you the temperature.

Some confusion stems from the fact that type influences people’s career choice – so certain types are more prevalent in various careers. While it doesn’t predict performance or satisfaction in a career, knowing your own personality type and the personality type most prevalent in the career you’re thinking of entering can be profoundly beneficial. For example, people find such insight valuable when it comes to communicating, presenting themselves, recognizing where they may encounter difficulties, and in general just getting along with the people they work with.

Finally, Krznaric rests his case on a familiar refrain: “…human personality does not neatly fall into 16 or any other definitive number of categories: we are far more complex creatures than psychometric tests can ever reveal.” First, l must point out that the Myers-Briggs assessment isn’t intended to describe every aspect of personality, and it doesn’t claim that individuals of the same type are alike. It’s really a straw man argument – neither the authors nor its publishers ever claimed that it classifies the entirety of human personality.

But let’s dig a little deeper into the assumptions underpinning this argument. According to this logic, human personality is so infinitely complex that any bit of insight into a person’s preferences for thinking, behaving, communicating, working and learning is useless – it offers no indication as to what makes them tick.

He’s free to believe that. However, countless managers, counselors, psychologists and others find that identifying certain common dimensions of personality is tremendously useful in team-building, conflict management, leadership development and numerous other applications.

Find out more about the research around the MBTI assessment at www.cpp.com/research.

9 Comments

  1. Regarding the comment that comparing one’s MBTI score with the “prevalent personality types” in a chosen career field, it’s not clear how we’d identify those types. These days a “career field” can be extremely broad; a librarian might be an academic specialist with faculty rank, a public library reference resource, a children’s librarian storyteller, or an information specialist.

    Within a career field, organizations and informal networks evolve cultures that might differ from the “prevalent personality type.” It seems more helpful for people to explore their own histories of reactions to situations and investigate specific fields as well as specific organizations before deciding how to “present themselves” and create strategies of relating to their coworkers.

    Acceptance of the MBTI by various organizations doesn’t make a case for the MBTI one way or another. Organizations have always jumped on bandwagons that turned out to have dubious validity.

  2. Rich,
    Excellent article! The MBTI® is of course a well-person instrument. But many folks seeing counselors are really having communication difficulties due to Type and Temperament differences. (Or sometimes similarities, not well understood). Rather than welcoming such information, some counselors may be threatened by it, and want to circle the wagons against it. Like many fears, this is probably exaggerated, but my nonetheless be widespread. I’ve often worked with counselors, providing Type workups and analyses, highlighting key issues their clients will need to work on. It lets them get off to a good start, and is a win-win-win situation. We don’t compete with the therapists, but provide a service for them.
    Re: Careers, I once had a woman who was very unhappy in her job, and wanted to change careers. It turned out that her Type was a classic fit for the kind of work she was doing. Digging deeper, she worked in a small firm, all of whose employees were very different from her— and from the usual Types in that business. Rather than change careers, she simply changed jobs, and was quite happy at another firm doing the same kind of work.
    Thanks for the well-done piece, Rich! It’s “normal” for articles like the one you criticized to use spurious logic, inappropriate comparisons, and straw men. Good job in exposing them.

  3. Rich:

    Any thoughts about approaching Forbes with your article? It is a well-written response, but you’re preaching to the choir on the CPP blog.

    Thanks,

    Andrew

  4. Excellent article. The fact that many practitioners in my field along with most professional journals reject or ignore the MBTI continues to frustrate me. (It also frustrates me that many of my peers equate Psychological Type with astrological signs or tarot card readings!) What is the present state of research into the origins of Psychological Type in brain development? It seems to me that discoveries around the biological underpinnings of Type would give it the credibility it desperately needs—although I do agree with the remark that models in psychology are not ‘true’ or ‘false’ so much as they are useful or not useful.

  5. Excellent help for those of us new to the challenges that people might have with the MBTI assessment. I have found the assessments and interprtation of those assessment as a paid certified practitioner to be so fruitful for the clients. This article was helpful Rich, thank you.

    Wally Marshall

  6. Fantastic article and response!

  7. This is brilliant Rich. No journalistic tactics needed to help people see how the MBTI instrument can contribute to people’s well being. I use it as a counsellor and also in my management consulting work. In 2014 I will be using it as a registered psychologist and to help many of my colleagues in this field understand the theory and how it helps establish a very strong client relationship very quickly. I agree with the above comments your article needs to be published. This is why so many people don’t understand the theory or instrument, because we as a group don’t get our message out there.

  8. This is SO much wrong with this article that it and its author lose credibility.

    If you clicked on some of the links in philosopher Krznaric’s article, you will notice that he is using 1993 data on the MBTI to try to substantiate the claim of poor test-retest reliability. Obviously, this reflects the author’s ignorance about later research in the MBTI Manual, Third Edition. Krznaric, as a philosopher, obviously does not understand statistics, nor how to do appropriate research on an article that relies on seriously outdated facts and figures.

    I would also guess that anyone who has taken the MBTI and is dissatisfied with its results has never had it interpreted by a qualified professional.

  9. The article in Fortune Management had me wondering for a while what kind of personality type the author has. Some kind of narcissistic guardian?

    Sorry, that was silly. Almost as silly as the journalist’s claim that “… the MBTI mistakenly assumes that personality falls into mutually exclusive categories”. That’s not the MBTI’s assumption. That’s the journalist’s superficial assumption about what the MBTI does.

    Let me back down a bit. I’ve met a lot of people who think of the MBTI the way the journalist does. I’ve met a lot of people who think of “right” and “wrong” the same way, too. Lawyers and judges tend to stick to that scheme: When they come across something grey, they describe the problem and solution as if the the challenge is to decide whether it’s “actually” black or white. The rest of us tend to be more advanced, at least some of the time, and it’s the same way with the MBTI.

    A metaphor I sometimes use when I want to describe this to someone, is that of right- or left-handedness. Most of us have two hands, but we tend to have a preference for one of them for certain kinds of work. That doesn’t mean we never use the other. The preferences described by the MBTI are much more subtle, and more subject to variation over time (even over very short periods of time), but it doesn’t mean they’re less real when they’re there.

    I’m a great fan of the MBTI as a tool, if you know how to use it … and I was surprised that the retest reliability, as described by the journalist, was as high as 50%. I’ve seen several different versions of the test. Many of the questions in some of them are ambiguous, and the instructions for scoring when you’re in doubt about the answer, vary. Another problem is that once you’ve explained to the subject what the questions are about (the 4 main preferences), you can never get a spontaneous answer again.

    However, the fact that the all the test that are being used for this purpose have limitations, does not mean that the thing they are testing for is illusory, or that it doesn’t matter. My experience is that it’s real, and that the MBTI can be a good tool for understanding the synergies between your strengths and your weaknesses.

    The MBTI has a huge advantage over the often-praised “big 5″. That test measures the same 4 traits plus one (degree of neuroticism), with a higher degree of precision, but it does so with a strong underlying bias that some types are better than others. When it asks about people’s “degree of” extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, there’s a prejudice that those traits are good, and the lack of them less good – as if the ENFJ is the personality type we should all strive towards, and everybody else is somehow defective. The MBTI avoids this mental shortcut, by encouraging the idea that all the preferences are good (for some situations), and that the “perfect” type isn’t any one of them, but one that can work synergistically with the others around it.

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