The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessment is commonly used for career exploration at numerous college counseling offices, and many Psychology and Business departments offer courses using the instrument, too. In spite of – or perhaps because of – its widespread use, there has arisen much debate about its application and value.
Should the MBTI be used in education? As the person primarily in charge of updating the instrument for the publisher for the past decade, I can attest that the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no”. It depends entirely on what you are using it for.
The MBTI assessment is somewhat unconventional both in its origins and its applications, and this can be disconcerting to some researchers and academics. As Murad Ahmed (2016) recently observed, it was “not the invention of white coats in laboratories or tweed jackets at universities.” Nor does it measure things in which research psychologists are typically interested, such as performance potential, pathology, or selection for certain roles. For these reasons, many in established circles of academic psychology do not value its insights.
Yet millions of people and thousands of organizations find it tremendously useful. Who is right? And how do you determine whether the MBTI is an effective tool for your particular setting? In education, there are a few questions to ask.
What Does the MBTI Measure?
The MBTI is designed to measure personality preferences along four dimensions (Kirby and Myers, 1998):
- Where people prefer to focus their attention and get energy (Extraversion or Introversion)
- The way they prefer to take in information (Sensing or Intuition)
- The way they prefer to make decisions (Thinking or Feeling)
- How they orient themselves to the external world (Judging or Perceiving)
Individuals are assigned a four-letter type based on their preferences for each dimension (making a total of 16 possible personality type combinations). There are no right or wrong preferences, and each identifies normal and valuable human behaviors.
What is the MBTI’s Scientific Basis?
Isabel Briggs Myers worked with Educational Testing Service, a major test publisher, in developing the instrument, and twenty years of research preceded its initial 1962 publication. It conforms to all requirements for educational and psychological tests, is continually updated, and over the last 50 years, four technical manuals and/or supplements have been published, offering a wide range of evidence on its reliability and validity.
According to the most recent manual supplement on the MBTI assessment (Schaubhut, Herk & Thompson, 2009), the test and re-test agreement on all four dimensions is nine times higher than chance, and for three of the four dimensions it is about three times higher than chance, meaning that participants are likely to receive the same results on consecutive MBTI administrations.
Does It Measure What It Purports to Measure?
Critics say that the MBTI measures nothing and simply tells you what you want to hear. One good way to determine whether this is a fair assertion is to compare it to the instrument favored by academic psychologists and researchers: the Big Five (Wikipedia). This assessment measures five dimensions which, according to McRae and Costa (1989), represent “a broad domain composing a variety of more discrete traits, or facets:”
- Neuroticism: the predisposition to experience negative effects such as anxiety, anger, and depression, and other cognitive and behavioral manifestations of emotional instability
- Extraversion: sociability, activity, dominance, and the tendency to experience positive emotions
- Openness to Experience: imaginativeness, aesthetic sensitivity, depth of feeling, curiosity, and need for variety
- Agreeableness: sympathy, trust, cooperation, and altruism
- Conscientiousness: organization, persistence, scrupulousness, and need for achievement.
The four dimensions that the MBTI assessment measures have been shown by McRae and Costa to correlate highly with the Big Five measures (Johnson, 2016). So if you think the MBTI tool measures nothing, then the Big Five measures nothing as well. Few researchers, even very vocal MBTI critics, would take this position, and the fact that the assessments correlate so highly means they are measuring somewhat similar constructs.
Limits of the MBTI: Not a Tool for Employment Selection
It would be a mistake to conclude that the MBTI is a good fit for every education or career counseling application. The MBTI was not designed to measure aptitude or predict performance. It does not tell you what you will be good at, or say whether your inclinations are good or bad.
What is the MBTI Good For?
If the MBTI does not predict performance or identify pathologies, what is it supposed to do? It offers insight into dispositions and a framework for understanding how people are inclined to take in information and react to it. For many academics and researchers, this is a wholly unsatisfactory answer because it is describing rather than predicting behavior.
Yet, its value-neutral approach is effective for sparking the kind of open conversations that are required in many academic and career advisory settings. Among other things, this can be highly informative for identifying learning styles or helping students understand how their work style may align with certain careers. It is also valuable in stress management, team building and change management.
Why Is the MBTI Popular with Advisors and Counselors, and the Big 5 with Researchers?
If the Big Five measures similar concepts and is a favorite of researchers, why isn’t it the top pick for career counselors, verses the MBTI? One answer may lie in the lone dimension that the Big Five measures that the MBTI doesn’t measure: neuroticism. No one is going to say: “Hi, I’m Rich, and I scored fairly high on the neuroticism scale.” Another answer may lie in the implication of the Big Five that lower scores on Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Openness, or Agreeableness are somehow bad. Disclosing someone’s level of neuroticism or implying that certain preferences are less desirable may be beneficial in a research or therapeutic context, but won’t spur conversation with other students, colleagues, team members. By contrast, value-neutral MBTI results get people to open up to each other about a universe of differences in how we think and communicate.
While MBTI data can be presented along a continuum, it places individual preferences clearly into one category or the other. Some critics don’t like the categorical nature of MBTI results, but the results presented in categories are clearer to people who aren’t statisticians, and this makes them easier to digest and share.
The MBTI addresses an important question in understanding how we bring out the best in people, which is, “Why do we think and act the way we do?” The MBTI does not provide all the answers, but it has shown to provide a solid starting point that lays a research-based, scientifically validated foundation for discovering how personality preferences influence thought and behavior.
References and Resources:
Ahmed, M. (2016, February 11). Is the Myers-Briggs Up to the Job? Financial Times Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/8790ef0a-d040-11e5-831d-09f7778e7377.html
Kirby, L. K., and Myers, K. D. (1998). Introduction to Type. Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc.
Schaubhut, N. A., Herk, N. A., & Thompson, R. C. (2009). MBTI® FormM Manual Supplement. Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc. Retrieved from https://www.cpp.com/pdfs/MBTI_FormM_Supp.pdf
Big Five personality traits (n.d.). Wikipedia. Retrieved August 22, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits
McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (1989). Reinterpreting the Myers Briggs Type Indicator from the Perspective of the Five-Factor Model of Personality. Journal of Personality, 57(1), 17-40.
Johnson, J. A. (2016, March 21), Are Scores on the MBTI Totally Meaningless? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cui-bono/201603/are-scores-the-mbti-totally-meaningless
CPP Connect (2015, June 15). Why Using the MBTI to Select a Career is Good, but Using It to Select a New Hire Isn’t [Web log comment]. http://www.cppblogcentral.com/cpp-connect/why-using-the-mbti-to-select-a-career-is-good-but-using-it-to-select-a-new-hire-isnt/