JOHANNA MAYER: In the late 1950s, a quirky older woman started turning up at the offices of the Educational Testing Service. She looked harmless enough. Glasses. Nylon dresses, comfortable shoes. But the service’s employees did not care for her. [MUSIC] Some of them even started requesting the day off when they knew she’d come around.
See… this woman did odd things. She’d walk the halls late at night, rifle through their papers, leave sticky fingerprints. She was always drinking this homemade energy mix she called “tiger’s milk,” a blend of brewer’s yeast, milk, and hershey bars that she’d smash with her own fists (hence the sticky fingers).
Behind her back, the employees of the Educational Testing Service, or ETS, called her "the little old lady in tennis shoes." Or just..."that horrible woman."
MERVE EMRE: the men at ETS just despised her
Merve Emre is an English professor at the University of Oxford and the author of The Personality Brokers. So. Whereas the men of ETS had graduate degrees, many of them PhDs, this woman didn’t.
MERVE EMRE: They made fun of her behind her back and also to her face about her lack of formal training, about the fact that she wasn't an expert.
ETS is the company that runs the SATs. And in the 50s, they needed this woman, or so the boss said.
Because although they already dominated academic testing, ETS was ready to conquer new territory: personality testing. A good personality test could revolutionize child care, marriage, work… Think about it. What if you could hire not just the person with the best medical knowledge, but the person with the best personality to actually care for the sick? What if couples could figure out if they were compatible before they actually married the wrong person? What if you could raise every kid according to their unique temperament?
And this woman had just the thing to accomplish all of this: a questionnaire. ETS just had to make sure it actually worked.
MERVE EMRE: she would show up to the office and work very, very, very late into the night, work into weekends, not stop to eat, and she worked as hard as she could in order to prove that she was as good as the men who were responsible for verifying her instrument.
That woman… was Isabel Briggs Myers… And her instrument was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
If, by some small chance, you haven’t taken the Myers-Briggs before, it works like this: [MUSIC] You answer dozens of questions — questions like
“When you go somewhere for the day, would you rather:
- Plan on what you will do and when, or
- Just go?
Or questions about which words appeal to you. Like if you had to choose, between “gentle” and “firm”, “scheduled” or “unplanned”
And when you’re finished, you get sorted into one of 16 personality types. Those types are made up of 4 dimensions: Introvert vs. Extrovert, Sensing vs. Intuitive, Thinking vs. Feeling, and Judging vs. Perceiving. Last time I took the test, I was an INFJ—introverted, intuitive, feeling, judging.
CHRIS EGUSA: I just took it, and I got INFP, which apparently means I seem more spontaneous than you and more open to new experiences.
JOHANNA MAYER: Oh hello, reporter Chris Egusa. So I guess you are the fun one, but at least I get my work done before I start playing. Apparently. According to the Myers-Briggs website.
CHRIS EGUSA: Well, it takes all sorts! So Johanna, Myers-Briggs—when you first heard that name, you might have thought they were the two psychologists who designed the test, right?
JOHANNA MAYER: Yes, that is absolutely the assumption that I made.
But actually the Myers and Briggs in question were Isabel and her mother, … and neither had any formal training as psychologists. And that was a sticking point for a lot of the employees at ETS. As they put it, Isabel was simply a very bright lady with a lot of enthusiasm, full of naïve notions.
Which sounds horribly patronizing, but maybe they were right to be skeptical.
JOHANNA MAYER: We got interested in this question a few months ago, when we made an episode about the word “introvert.” In that episode, we got into Carl Jung's theory of personality, and why we seem to so enjoy slotting ourselves and our friends and our partners and everyone we know into these personality buckets.
In researching that, everywhere we looked, we ran into the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator. We talked to a psychologist who just could not believe the hold this has on so many people.
DAN MCADAMS: I almost got into a fist fight with a guy one night when he just insisted that the Myers-Briggs is all truth and goodness
And we talked to people whose lives were changed by the test.
PETER GEYER: that was the first time anybody had ever told me it was good to be me
So over the next three weeks, in a special series, we’re looking into the rise of the Myers-Briggs. Beginning with the strange story of Isabel and her mother, Katharine, two untrained but wildly ambitious outsiders who created the most popular and divisive personality test in the world.
JOHANNA MAYER: From Science Friday, this is Science Diction. I’m Johanna Mayer.
CHRIS EGUSA: And I’m Chris Egusa. Today, we’re talking about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
JOHANNA MAYER: Katharine Cook went to college when she was just 14, graduated first in her class, and married the guy that graduated second, a certain Lyman Briggs. Lyman went on to a PhD program in physics. But this is the late 1800s, and Katharine…was stuck.
MERVE EMRE: There is never any expectation that she will do anything other than be his wife, and become the mother of his children.
Merve Emre again, whose book, The Personality Brokers, is all about the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.
MERVE EMRE: And she has three children, two of whom die in very early infancy. And Isabel was the only one who survives and she has what she describes at that moment as a crisis of faith. And she thinks if I only have this one child, and if my entire life has to be determined by what I do with her as a mother, then I need to do something extraordinary and I need to do something that is helpful to other people.
So Katharine made a decision: She was gonna professionalize motherhood. She would tackle it with the same ambition that her husband applied in his physics lab—and by god, she was gonna raise the most well-behaved, curious, exceptional child imaginable. All she needed was a laboratory and a test subject.
So Katharine took over a section of her house and established what she called “The Cosmic Laboratory of Baby Training.” a.k.a. The living room. And her test subject, the baby to be trained? Was Isabel.
CHRIS EGUSA: It’s a whimsical name, the Cosmic Laboratory of Baby Training, but it was serious business. Isabel was still just a toddler, but Katharine ran daily obedience drills with her and diligently recorded the results in a research diary. There were “No, no” drills:
MERVE EMRE: where she puts Isabel's hand close to something that she's not supposed to touch, like a- like a candle. And she says, No, no, every time her daughter tries to touch it,
CHRIS EGUSA: And “Just stay” drills:
MERVE EMRE: which is Isabel was supposed to walk, just close enough to something to be able to observe it, but not any closer than that. So when Isabel does well on these drills, she's rewarded with stories.
CHRIS EGUSA: Yea, Isabel had a pretty intense childhood. And whether or not it was her mother’s training ,… Isabel did turn out to be an exceptional child. She was one of those kids who was good at everything—from piano to metal working. She was reading novels at age 5. A neighbor once warned Katherine that Isabel would die of “brain fever” if she didn’t cool it.
Soon, other mothers noticed how well-behaved Isabel was. So Katharine opened up the Cosmic Laboratory of Baby Training to other neighborhood kids… From 8 year old Jane to 6 month old Louis.
And Katharine didn't just train these kids, she studied them. She wanted to know exactly who they were. So each month, Katharine sent parents a questionnaire about their children, their behaviour and their personality. Her goal wasn't to know each child’s soul, like in a modern we're-all beautiful-flowers-with-unique-needs-and-dreams kind of way. Katharine believed that each person had a duty to fulfill, a service to society. Whether it was entertaining people on the stage, building homes, healing the sick, everyone had a role to play. And if we knew what type of person they were, we'd raise them right. Slot them into the right box.
JOHANNA MAYER: Katharine started writing a popular column on parenting, kinda like a precursor to celebrity mommy bloggers. Except her methods wouldn’t go over so well today. She once told another mother that spanking is medicine. And her articles had some very questionable titles. Like she knew a woman whose daughter, Mary, had failed the first grade. And eventually, Mary made it into one of Katharine’s articles titled “Ordinary Theodore and Stupid Mary.”
JOHANNA MAYER: Things were going well for Katharine. She’d professionalized motherhood, cranked out a star child, and dispensed parenting advice to mothers across the nation. And then, Isabel left. Off to college. And Katherine? Bereft. Like her life’s work just up and vanished, which it kind of had. She fell into a deep depression.
CHRIS EGUSA: And then, she had a dream. She told Isabel all about it later. It was about Carl Jung, the Swiss analytical psychologist. He’d recently published what would become one of his most influential books, Psychological Types.
In the dream, Jung showed up at her house, cut out paper dolls with her children, and rode away on a giant horse. It was a weird dream - but Katharine took it as a calling. When she woke up, she took all of her own notes and burned them in the living room. She didn’t need them anymore. From then on, she would turn her full attention to life as Jung’s disciple. She became obsessed with Jung—as in, she wrote not so subtly gay fan fiction inspired by him. She also rewrote the lyrics to the 1925 broadway hit, “Song of the Vagabonds.” Except Katharine’s cover was called “Hail, Dr. Jung!.” I can kiiiind of hear it...
Upward, upward, consciousness will come!
Upward, upward, from primal scum
Is our destination
Hoch, heil, hail to Dr. Jung!
CHRIS EGUSA: Anyway. Katharine was totally taken with Jung’s theory of personality...and his words. “introvert” and “extrovert," which he defined as whether you turned your psychic energy inward or outward? And “sensation" vs. "intuition." When making decisions, do you pay more attention to what’s happening in the physical world around you, or do you trust your gut? and this just clicked for Katherine. [MUSIC] She took Jung’s language, and in 1926, cobbled together a little grid with different possible personality combinations. It was the first real blueprint of what would become the Myers-Briggs.
JOHANNA MAYER: You know how people can get fixated on ONE idea that helps them make sense of a messy world? And it becomes their lens for everything. like, it could be evolution...or dialectical materialism...or the illuminati - varying degrees of validity, of course - but this one idea just explains everything for them. (For me, it's always capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. Why did my sink clog? Capitalism. Why is my cat ignoring me? Capitalism.)
Well, Katharine’s universal theory of everything was that personality came in types. And she used type to explain almost everyone’s behavior.
This urge... to put people into personality boxes isn't unique to Katharine. The Ancient Greeks had a theory with just four boxes - a person could be a phlegmatic, choleric, melancholic or a sanguine type, depending on the balance of fluids in your body. And we've come up with plenty of other personality sorting schemes. Zodiac signs, Harry Potter houses. Sex & the City characters, every single Buzzfeed quiz...
But back in the 20s, Katharine had caught onto a few things that made her system especially appealing. First, it was simple enough that anyone could understand it. But the Jungian language gave it a sheen of authority and rigor.
But more than that, Katharine’s types let people feel unique and seen. The Ancient Greeks might tell you you’re an angry choleric or a depressive melancholic. A psychologist might say you’re neurotic or antisocial. But for the most part, Katharine’s system was reassuringly positive. If you’re an extraverted intuitive type? that just means you’re an explorer, an inventor, keen-minded! If you're an introverted feeling type? you might be quiet and reserved, but that’s because you’re not hung up on impressing other people.
Instead of diagnosing them, Katharine’s system seemed to affirm our differences. In Katharine’s world, everyone had a role to play, and her type system was the gateway to discovering it.
CHRIS EGUSA: And as utopian as that sounds, this line of thinking also had a dark side.
MERVE EMRE: When I was reading her parenting advice columns, one thing that struck me was how closely they mirrored some of the language of eugenic thought.
She basically believed that one thing that personality assessment could be used for, was to identify intellectually strong members of society, versus intellectually weaker members of society.
For Katharine, it was all about optimizing society, ushering people into their ideal roles, and thereby advancing society as a whole. She called for the unique treatment of different types of people.
MERVE EMRE: Essentially life plans that would allow the strong to rise to the top. And that would allow the weak either to be sort of brought up to levels of mediocrity or in some cases, simply, culled off. And she’s not specific about what that means, but there certainly is this sense in her writing that if you identify children who are weaker than others, it doesn’t as make that much sense to give resources to them as it does to give resources to stronger members of society.
CHRIS EGUSA: It is worth noting that this was pre-WW2 and eugenic thought was somewhat mainstream at the time. But years later, Isabel would inherit some of these ideas, and some still see echoes of them in the indicator today.
In 1935, Katharine finally closed her Cosmic Laboratory of Baby Training for good. And the next year - at last - she got a chance to meet the man she called her “personal god”, Carl Jung.
She’d actually been writing him letters for years. And sometimes he’d write back. And now, he’d be in the United States for a conference, and agreed to squeeze Katharine in for a meeting.
She dragged Isabel with her to the meeting—maybe out of nerves, maybe to share this monumental moment with her daughter, who was now nearly 40 years old. But Isabel was unimpressed she later claimed she didn’t even listen to the conversation between her mother and Jung. But for Katharine, the day was transformative. (The night before their meeting, she couldn’t sleep and stayed up writing another tune about Jung, this time, a bit more mundane. The song was literally about how he was coming to New York and was going to give a talk.) [END MUSIC]
When the day arrived, it was just a quick appointment in Jung’s hotel room. Katharine told him about how she’d burned her own writing after reading his.
And he was kind to her. Their relationship as occasional penpals had become strained in recent years. He’d been terse with her over what he saw as meddling in other people’s affairs, and once, expressed irritation that she wasn’t using enough postage on her letters, leaving him to pay the difference.
But at this meeting, Jung encouraged her. He told her that it was a mistake to burn her notes, that she “could’ve made a real contribution.”
And then, before they parted, Katharine offered him what she could to support his great work: money. She handed him a check for $25, what would be about $500 today. She said she wished it could be more.
[MUSIC ends/starts/chapter change indicator]
Katharine didn’t know it yet, but she had much more to offer the world than $25.
Next time: Isabel discovers her mother’s gospel of type might just save her marriage. And she decides to turn her mother’s philosophy into a marketable product... She just has to convince a group of skeptical PhDs that it actually works. Including one particularly dogged researcher who notices some issues with her indicator, threatening to undo everything she’d worked for.
MARY MCCAULLEY: She said to me, I felt like he came over the woods, I called for the Marines, and they came over there shooting at me. So she wrote a fairly- she had a file folder that said Stricker damn him.
JOHANNA MAYER: Stricker, damn him.
LARRY STRICKER: Damn him, right. Yeah. That, that's going to be on my tombstone.
JOHANNA MAYER: This episode was produced by me, Johanna Mayer
CHRIS EGUSA: And me, Chris Egusa
ELAH FEDER: And me, Elah Feder.
JOHANNA MAYER: Our music was composed-
DANIEL PETERSCHMIDT: by me, Daniel Peterschmidt
JOHANNA MAYER: -who also mastered this episode. Archival audio was provided courtesy of Peter Geyer. Fact checking by Danya AbdelHameid. When reporting this episode, we relied a lot on Merve Emre’s book, the Personality Brokers. If you want to learn more about the story of Katharine and Isabel, that’s a great place to start. Our Chief Content Officer is Nadja Oertelt, and sometimes Nadja shows us pictures of her cat, Pickles. And look, Pickles is really cute. But the way Nadja talks about her, it’s sometimes a little much.
MERVE EMRE: If I only have this one child, and if my entire life has to be determined by what I do with her as a mother, then I need to do something extraordinary
JOHANNA MAYER: See you next week, with chapter 2!