The Rise Of The Myers-Briggs, Chapter 3: What Is It Good For?
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JOHANNA MAYER: Hey there. This is chapter 3 of our series on "The Rise of the Myers-Briggs." If you haven't heard chapters 1 and 2 yet, I recommend going back and listening to those first. And if you invited some kids to join you or if you are a kid, be warned that this episode includes at least one four letter word that begins with an S. OK, here we go.
A few years ago, Quinisha Jackson-Wright got some bad news. Her company was having a staff retreat, mandatory. She was not looking forward to it.
QUINISHA JACKSON-WRIGHT: Because you have all these group activities, and you have to talk, and you have to like share your feelings.
JOHANNA MAYER: And one of the big activities that this retreat-- the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Everyone had to take the test a while back. And the plan was that, at the retreat, they'd do a big reveal of the results. And Quinisha was pretty sure this wouldn't go well.
QUINISHA JACKSON-WRIGHT: I mean, they do say there's no wrong personality. But I definitely get the vibe that there is a wrong personality. And mine, I believe, is the one that was considered wrong.
JOHANNA MAYER: Quinisha was an introvert at a company that liked extroverts.
QUINISHA JACKSON-WRIGHT: So I was dreading the results. But then, of course, it's going to come out that I'm an introvert.
JOHANNA MAYER: And yeah. Slapping labels on themselves and their coworkers didn't go so great.
QUINISHA JACKSON-WRIGHT: Introverts would have to write down some words that they associate with extroverts and then like vice versa. So the extroverts were saying, oh, we think that introverts are too quiet, and they don't know what they want. And we were like, oh, we think extroverts are-- excuse my language, like, full of shit.
CHRIS EGUSA: When Isabel Briggs Myers set out to make an indicator that would change the world, she probably wasn't imagining this.
JOHANNA MAYER: Producer Chris Egusa.
CHRIS EGUSA: But changed the world, it did. Almost 90% of Fortune 500 companies are Myers-Briggs customers-- General Motors, Procter and Gamble, Marriott International, the list goes on. Government bodies, too-- the EPA, the military, even the CIA. Best Myers-Briggs Type for a spy? ENTJ, apparently.
And then, of course, there are the millions who volunteer to take the test and its various knock-offs every year to get to know themselves, the promise of unlocking their true potential just a questionnaire away. So the influence and the appeal of the Myers-Briggs is undeniable. It's being used right now to make decisions that could very well affect your life. But does it measure anything real? And if it does, what?
JOHANNA MAYER: From Science Friday this is Science Diction. I'm Johanna Mayer.
CHRIS EGUSA: And I'm Chris Egusa. Today, "The Rise of the Myers-Briggs, Chapter 3-- What is it Good For?"
Today, the Myers-Briggs is the most popular personality test in the world. But the story very nearly went the other way. Back in 1968, Isabel Briggs Myers was 70 years old, her mother was dead, and the test was on the verge of extinction. It looked like Isabel would have to spread her gospel of type alone. And then, along came Mary.
MARY MCCAULLEY: My name is Mary McCaulley. And I met Isabel Briggs Myers in 1969. At that time, she was 72 years old.
CHRIS EGUSA: Mary McCaulley became Isabel's friend, mentee, and business partner in the final chapter of Isabel's life. And in this video from the '90s, a decade after Isabel had passed, Mary is still as devoted to her friend as ever. At one point, she walks over to her bookcase to show off some of Isabel's things, which she's arranged carefully on a shelf-- an early manual of the indicator, Isabel's cherished collection of elephant figurines, and a copy of Isabel's mystery novel Murder Yet to Come.
MARY MCCAULLEY: It won a contest and was translated into languages all over the world. This is before her MBTI days, but it is an important part of the heritage. On the--
CHRIS EGUSA: Mary was a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Florida. She first got her hands on a copy of the indicator back in the mid-60s. And when she saw how her patients responded to it, how validating they found it, she became a convert of the highest order. She got in touch with Isabel. And soon, they were working together.
They were both INFPs and passionate about the work. But Mary had something Isabel didn't-- formal credentials. Together, they promoted Isabel's indicator crisscrossing the country on trains, Isabel on the bottom bunk, Mary on the top. They were both forgetful and made a routine of reminding each other to grab a set of keys when heading out the door. And they had some success providing counseling informed by the theory of type and collecting reams of data.
But the turning point was when Mary learned about a small publishing company in Oakland, California, Consulting Psychologists Press, or CPP, founded by two psychology professors. They'd started the company two decades earlier but hadn't hit it big yet. And when they laid eyes on the indicator, its potential leapt off the page. Isabel had found her publisher.
JOHANNA MAYER: Now, over the years, Isabel had sold her tests to all sorts of clients. But it was always about so much more than money for her. She'd worked hard to get her questions just right, constantly reevaluating and revising. It was her life's work, her mother's life's work.
But her new publisher approached it as a product. And if they were going to sell it, it needed a serious makeover. They told Isabel to trim the question list so people didn't get bored working through them. And they jazzed up the presentation. The new Myers-Briggs booklets came in pretty pastel colors. It made Isabel nervous that they were approaching her indicator like businessmen. But she signed it over to them anyway.
Soon, they were selling it to anyone and everyone who was willing to pay-- counselors, spiritual leaders, high school teachers, executives, astrologers, writers, the list goes on. In four years, CPP's revenue multiplied tenfold. The Myers-Briggs had arrived.
CHRIS EGUSA: The success Isabel saw was only the beginning. She died in 1980. But the personality assessment that carried her name continued on, shepherded by her son, daughter-in-law, and Mary McCaulley. In the next two decades, the Myers-Briggs exploded. And so given everything we've learned so far, the amateur beginnings, and all of the skepticism it's endured, we had to ask, does the Myers-Briggs stand up to science?
Because a lot of people aren't just using this test for amusement like a BuzzFeed quiz or a party game. They're using it to decide who to hire, who to date, and to understand themselves and others. And there's a curious thing about the Myers-Briggs. When you look at all the industries that use the test, there's one that conspicuously stands out for shunning this test-- psychology.
DAN MCADAMS: I almost can't keep myself from screaming when I utter the word Myers-Briggs.
CHRIS EGUSA: This is Dan McAdams, professor of psychology at Northwestern University. We also heard from him in our episode on introverts. When the Myers-Briggs came up, he kind of went off.
DAN MCADAMS: It drives personality psychologists crazy, the scientists among us. It is completely lacking in scientific validity.
CHRIS EGUSA: Dan says he almost got into a fistfight when he trashed the Myers-Briggs to someone's face, and they erupted at him.
DAN MCADAMS: The Myers-Briggs is about as valid a predictor of behavior as the horoscope.
CHRIS EGUSA: Yeah, Dan really doesn't like the Myers-Briggs.
DAN MCADAMS: No validity. No scientific evidence. It's just all marketing. And they have made millions of dollars on that damn thing. OK, I got my rant out of my system.
CHRIS EGUSA: I'll just wait a second to see if he's done. OK. So Dan might be on the extreme end here. But his skepticism of the test is widely shared. The field of academic psychology pretty much rolls its eyes at the Myers-Briggs. Even a one time member of the Myers-Briggs company's board, renowned Stanford psychologist Carl Thoresen, said that he wouldn't use the test because quote, "It would be questioned by my academic colleagues."
JOHANNA MAYER: Back at ETS in the '60s, when Isabel first introduced her indicator, Larry Stricker had his own gripes about the test, that it didn't actually align with Carl Jung's theories that personality isn't split into opposing types. Well, since then, the criticisms have only mounted.
First, to be considered reliable, a test needs to give you consistent results. And on that front, Dan says, the Myers-Briggs leaves something to be desired.
DAN MCADAMS: Take it on two different occasions. And you might find in October that you're an introvert. And you might find the following June that you're an extrovert. Like, well, how does that happen? Well, if you're kind of in the middle, you can flip one way or the other.
JOHANNA MAYER: Then, there's the issue that some of the dimensions don't even make sense. Thinking and feeling aren't opposing traits. You can be high in thinking and feeling or low in both. And some really important dimensions of personality are just missing. Like, psychologists generally favor a model called the Big Five. Introversion and extroversion are in there, like in the Myers-Briggs.
But the Big Five also includes things the Myers-Briggs does not, like agreeableness, which relates to how empathetic or how self-centered you are, and conscientiousness, how responsible and organized you are. Both things that matter a whole lot if you're hiring someone or marrying them.
CHRIS EGUSA: And finally, there's the problem of evidence. The research tends to be done by people with a vested interest in the Myers-Briggs. At the same time, many psychology researchers won't touch it. So we're not left with a lot of good independent research to guide us. Take this example, Isabel would often cite her own research that married couples tended to match on three of the four dimensions, suggesting that similarity was important. But an independent study found that couples with very different types didn't have any more problems than those with very similar ones.
JOHANNA MAYER: Still, we're not saying the test doesn't reflect anything about who you are. Even Larry Stricker, Isabel's chief critic, agreed that the Myers-Briggs does measure something of value. The extrovert/introvert dimension, in particular, seems to measure something real. And there have been some interesting studies of Myers-Briggs types in career choices. Like INFPs, disproportionately journalists and counselors. ENTJs, more often lawyers and sales reps. Of course, some of that data did come from Mary and Isabel themselves.
And I personally love this study which said that introverted intuitives, like Chris and me, were more easily tricked into misremembering events they witnessed themselves. We're going to need a little more research on that. And it's not surprising that this test would tell us something real about ourselves. I mean, you're asking people a bunch of questions about what they like and how they live their lives. So their answers probably will tell you something about what they like and how they live their lives.
Like say you had a music type indicator that put people on a scale of country to rock and roll. People who answer the questions and say they like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks probably will listen to country music. And people who say that they like The Stones and the Ramones probably will listen to rock and roll.
But if you're going to organize your life around a questionnaire, you've got to ask, is this measuring what's actually important about me? And if I'm a little bit country, can I still marry someone who's a little bit rock and roll? And what about hip hop and ska and jazz?
CHRIS EGUSA: OK, Johanna, no. I think we've taken this example as far as it can go.
JOHANNA MAYER: My point is-- even if the test isn't totally meaningless, it's not the best way to define your very soul or make big decisions.
CHRIS EGUSA: And overall, psychologists' consensus on what the Myers-Briggs is good for? Not much. But of course, that's not the only side to this story. CPP, the company that bought the Myers-Briggs from Isabel, recently rebranded as the Myers-Briggs Company. And naturally, they feel very differently.
JEFFREY HAYES: So I have preferences for ENTP.
CHRIS EGUSA: Jeff Hayes, the company's CEO. Notice how instead of saying I'm an ENTP, he emphasizes "preferences." That's a very conscious thing. Jeff says that thinking about type as an absolute is a mistake. He agrees with the critics. Personality doesn't fit in tidy buckets. It's not one or the other, thinking or feeling, perceiving or judging. We use all eight functions. It's just about preferences.
JEFFREY HAYES: Just like I have a preference for my right hand over my left hand.
RICH THOMPSON: I have preferences for ISTP.
CHRIS EGUSA: Rich Thompson is the Director of Research. And yeah, everyone at the Myers-Briggs Company was really careful to frame it that way. Rich says they've published their own studies that look at reliability, whether people who take the test a second time typically get the same results as before. And they find the test is, in fact, reliable. I mean, not a huge surprise.
But a lot of the studies that challenged reliability were done on older versions of the test. And we did find some newer research that backs Rich up. But Rich's biggest complaint is that people misunderstand the purpose of the test and, therefore, misuse it.
RICH THOMPSON: And so my analogy that I like to use there is, you know, if you're trying to pound a nail with a screwdriver, you really can't complain that the screwdriver is a crappy hammer. You're using the wrong tool.
CHRIS EGUSA: He says the test shouldn't be used for things like selecting applicants to hire or predicting job success.
RICH THOMPSON: One should never take a personality assessment, or anything for that matter, and do one thing and make life-changing decisions.
CHRIS EGUSA: So what should we be using the test for? The official company line is that it's good for things like leadership development and employee training.
RICH THOMPSON: It is really for growing and developing as a person, rather than trying to hire you for the right job.
CHRIS EGUSA: So self discovery. No harm in that, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: But the reality is that people are using the Myers-Briggs in all of these ways. A lot of this work is done by independent consultants. And though they go through a class from the Myers-Briggs Company, there's not much to stop them from using it however they want.
Quinisha from the beginning, the test made her feel like even more of an outsider at her company. She was already the only Black woman in our organization. Now, she was outed as an introvert in a company full of extroverts.
QUINISHA JACKSON-WRIGHT: Again, it kind of made me feel like the odd one out. And it just kind of made me wonder, is that going to work against me? And then shortly after that was when I ended up resigning.
JOHANNA MAYER: She said she's not sure if it was the Myers-Briggs or if the time had just come. Either way, the test was on her mind.
PETER GEYER: I came out INTP. That was the first time anybody had ever told me it was good to be me.
JOHANNA MAYER: Peter Geyer is a Myers-Briggs practitioner in Melbourne. He first took the test 23 years ago.
PETER GEYER: I was 36 by the way. So that's a long time to wait before somebody tells you it's good to be you.
JOHANNA MAYER: Peter's a shy guy. And that's been hard for him.
PETER GEYER: I wasn't very good at things that other people found easy, which is like answering a phone actually.
ELAH FEDER: What happens when the phone rings?
PETER GEYER: A little bit of anxiety actually.
JOHANNA MAYER: That was senior producer Elah Feder talking with Peter. So Peter says he just felt different. And his parents didn't really praise him much. And put all together, he just didn't feel great about himself. And then, in 1998, he was doing a graduate diploma in organization behavior. And one day, this guy came in and got him to take the Myers-Briggs.
PETER GEYER: The feeling in the room was curiosity. And the word pleasure actually has come into mind. But virtually everybody in there seemed to be either pleased or intrigued or something like that with the results.
JOHANNA MAYER: Peter would end up building his career around the Myers-Briggs. He took an accreditation course on it and then taught accreditation courses himself. He even got an INTP license plate at one point. Although, he says that was partly to annoy this other guy who acted like he owned the Myers-Briggs and hated Peter.
CHRIS EGUSA: And so we can't just write the Myers-Briggs off as universally bad. For Quinisha being told she was different, that was a source of stress. Yet another strike against her at work. For Peter and others like him, it's been an undeniably positive influence in their lives. Among all the personality assessments out there, the Myers-Briggs has a particular stickiness to it.
Despite the legions of critics and naysayers, articles, videos, and documentaries, the Myers-Briggs just continues to march on, undaunted, only flourishing more in the face of pushback. One of these critics is science journalist Annie Murphy Paul. In 2005, she wrote a book called The Cult of Personality Testing, a take down of the personality testing industry in general and the Myers-Briggs in particular. She has deep concerns about how these tests are affecting us.
ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: As a society, I think we're missing out on the richness of human nature, the variability of human nature, the situational influences that make us different people at each moment.
CHRIS EGUSA: She laid out a compelling argument, much of which we've presented here. And she expected it to make a dent in the test's popularity. Instead--
ANNIE MURPHY PAUL: After the book came out, mostly the people I heard from were the enthusiasts about the-- were Myers-Briggs fans who wanted to tell me why I was wrong. And they'll say, well, you're so-- you're just so skeptical because you're an INTJ. And it's like there's no escaping the hall of mirrors.
CHRIS EGUSA: Critics point to the money behind it, a for-profit company with considerable marketing power. More reputable models like the Big Five are open source, so there's no money to be made. But Merve Emre, who we heard from in episodes one and two, says that's not the whole story.
MERVE EMRE: I think one of the fascinating things for me has been that despite much evidence disputing the validity and the reliability of the indicator, people continue to cling to it. And they cling to it with a kind of ardor that you often see reserved for matters of very, very deep faith. And to me, that can only be explained by language.
JOHANNA MAYER: Personally, I am skeptical of the Myers-Briggs. But at the same time, I completely get it. There is just a part of my brain that pings to life when I take the test or read the description of my type. There's just something about the language that feels really good to use-- introverted, extroverted, intuitive, sensing, thinking, feeling, judging, perceiving. It's simple, accessible, and it strikes just the right balance between affirming us in our differences while making the messy world of human interaction comprehensible.
CHRIS EGUSA: In 1980, Isabel was dying of cancer. Two weeks before she died, her longtime collaborator Mary McCaulley came to visit her.
MARY MCCAULLEY: She still was not in pain. But she was getting frail. But she was still alert. And we sat, and we talked about-- we needed to have a manual. The '62 manual was out of date.
CHRIS EGUSA: The 1962 manual for the indicator, still on Isabel's mind.
MARY MCCAULLEY: And we talked about how it would be designed and what it would be like. And she would sort of nod off a little bit, and then she'd come back. But then, on the day she died, she corrected somebody who had quoted something wrong from Shakespeare. So she was alert till the day she died. But when she died, she knew her work would go on.
CHRIS EGUSA: She had no idea how right she was. Their indicator would land not just in the offices of corporations but on Reddit forums, in endless memes, in everyday conversations, the ultimate populist personality tool.
JOHANNA MAYER: For their entire careers, Katharine and Isabel were dismissed as amateurs, two homemakers fiddling away at work that should be left to men with fancy PhDs. Even modern critiques tend to be smug and patronizing about their status as amateurs. But Merve Emre points out that the word amateur comes from the Latin verb "amare," to love.
And one thing is for sure, Isabel and Katharine loved their theory of type. They believed in it. They gave everything they had to it. And when you love something like that, there's little room for doubt, only the belief that what you're doing will change the world for better or for worse.
This episode of Science Diction was produced by me, Johanna Mayer, INFJ.
CHRIS EGUSA: And Chris Egusa, INFP.
ELAH FEDER: And Elah Feder, INFP.
JOHANNA MAYER: Our music was composed by--
DANIEL PETERSCHMIDT: Me, Daniel Peterschmidt, INFJ.
JOHANNA MAYER: And they also mastered this episode. We had fact checking help from--
SONA AVAKIAN: Sona Avakian, INFP.
JOHANNA MAYER: And Peter Geyer provided archival audio. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer. And she explains that she's an ENTJ at work, an ENFP in the streets, but then sometimes, depending on her mood, she could swing an ENFJ. She's not defined by four letters. She has at least six. Anyway, one of her proudest work achievements this year has been creating an official Science Friday style guide.
MARY MCCAULLEY: It won a contest and was translated into languages all over the world.
JOHANNA MAYER: See you soon. Science Diction is supported by Audible. With an Audible membership, you can choose from thousands of titles to listen to offline, anytime, anywhere. The Audible app is free and can be installed on all smartphones and tablets. You can listen across devices without losing your spot. The new Plus Catalog makes Audible membership so much more valuable and gives all members a chance to listen to and discover new favorites and new formats, like the exclusive "Words Plus Music Series" or a podcast that you've never considered before. Visit Audible.com/Diction or text "Diction" to 500-500. That's Audible.com/Diction or text "Diction" to 500-500.