Personalities Stereotyped: The origin of MBTI codswallop

Merve Erme of Oxford University has written a book on the origin of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) tests, astrology for the 20th century.  Most know that it’s pseudo science, but how did it gain such popularity when it lacks credibility and scientific testing? (See also: Dvorak keyboards.)

My first exposure to MBTI was in college as part of a business management course.  But it was not the first time I had seen such limiting tests that claimed to know people’s “true selfes”.  Magazines containing “personality tests” were in the house when I grew up, and even with limited knowledge and education as a pre-teen, it was easy to see these were bunk, that not everyone fits into pigeonholes so easily.

I would rather hear someone talk about their MTBI than their MBTI.

The Bizarre Untold Origin Story of the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator

How a mother-daughter team created the pseudoscientific quiz that conquered the world

If you’ve ever been on a dating app, you know what the Myers-Briggs personality type is—those four letters that are supposed to unlock the secrets of your inner personality and guide you through everything from your career to your interpersonal relationships. There’s (E) and (I) for extraversion or introversion, (N) and (S) for intuition or sensing, (T) and (F) for thinking or feeling, and (J) and (P) for judging or perceiving. This four-letter classification is hard to avoid. Some companies use it as a management tool, individuals use it to judge their Tinder dates, Redditors even obsess over it in subreddits dedicated to each type.

Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford, addresses this tension in her forthcoming book The Personality Brokers, which traces the lives of the two women who created the test—the mother-daughter pair of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. In recounting their lives, she examines how a methodology created from studying their husbands and children blossomed into one of the largest pseudoscientific personality testing models in history.


  1. lpetrich says

    I find it curious that I learned about the MBTI long before I learned about the predominant personality theory in mainstream psychology: the “Big Five” five-factor model. It is like the MBTI, but based on empirical research. Its personality factors are:
    Openness to Experience (Intellect, Eathetic Openness)
    Conscientiousness (Industriousness, Orderliness)
    Extroversion (Enthusiasm, Assertiveness)
    Agreeableness (Compassion, Politeness)
    Neuroticism (Volatility, Withdrawal)
    I must say that I find the Big Five easier to understand than the MBTI. Also, in the psychology literature, these factors are treated as continuous rather than as discrete. Doing so for the MBTI would make it more reasonable, but for whatever reason, it isn’t done.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    A job I held several years ago involved the whole staff taking MB tests.

    Sitting in the back, a co-worker and I spotted each other rolling our eyes, and made a quick deal to fill out each others’ tests.

    I learned more about myself from her impression of me than from my own responses to the questions.

  3. says

    The history of psychological testing is one big litany of pseudo-science. That people still use MBTI and IQ tests is a travesty, except…. Did you know that giving MBTI is a big dollar business? If it quacks like quackery, but it makes a buck, it’s a duck or something like that.

  4. brucegee1962 says

    It seems to me that all of this stuff — including astrology — is understandable more as literature than as science.

    People need to be able to tell stories to themselves about themselves: they need to be able to fill in the blank for a sentence that begins “I am a person who…..”

    These systems that break people up into categories are just a shorthand way of helping us to tell these stories. We don’t have to make up our stories — we can just find our story in a book! So instead of asking whether the classification has any predictive value, perhaps we should look to see whether it has the value of a good story — does it make people feel better about themselves to put themselves into these classifications?

    I note that, in the linked article, the author starts off contemptuous, but becomes less so over the course of the article.

  5. EigenSprocketUK says

    I worked for an organisation which underwent large changes – in effect the entire HR team was replaced. The sudden influx of MBTI and related HR-memes was disconcerting. The onset of my disquiet with these bizarre HR beliefs was exactly coincident with the onset of the organisation’s dissatisfaction with me and mine with them. Curiously enough, several senior managers were recruited and, would you believe it, they all were avid subscribers to the benefits of these curious HR practices. I was sad to leave the organisation, but I was pleased to escape the cult.

  6. jrkrideau says

    Just about every psychologist in the English-speaking world with any knowledge of personality testing knows the MBTI is total crap. Even a report from the US National Research Council back in the 1970’s or 1980’s discussing the MBTI appeared to do nothing but people “remembered and liked it”.

    @ 1 lpetrich
    I find it curious that I learned about the MBTI long before I learned about the predominant personality theory in mainstream psychology:the “Big Five” five-factor model

    Unless you are a psychologist, this is not surprising at all, and depending on your research area in psychology it is quite possible you have heard the name but have no idea about what it is nor do you care. The MBTI is a snake oil being flogged for every penny it can bring in. It is being marketed to the general population and all sorts of suckers and victims are exposed to it.

    The “Big Five” is a serious attempt to clean up the personality theory swamp that allowed Myers and Briggs to publish their travesty. By now, there are probably some grifters out there trying to make money but before, dueling academics fighting it out over the results of a factor analysis or theoretical hairsplitting on the conceptual definition of X does not get a lot of play in the press.

    Unfortunately it is maddeningly difficult to convince the “civilian” users that it is crap. It is like trying to get an historian not to use Freudian Theory in a thesis or a doctor to stop using a procedure that research has shown to be useless, but that the doctor “knows” by personal experience has value or convincing someone that a placebo does not really work even if it gives you a subjective warm and fuzzy feeling. Come to think of it, the MBTI may be the the equivalent of homeopathy and that idiocy has been thriving for over 200 years.

    I had a three-year battle in one corporation to try and get parts of the corporation not to use a “personality/ability/general knowledge/shoe size” test. The senior manager said it reassured him in making some personnel decisions about his managers. Jesus wept.

    In some ways, this thing was even worse than the MBTI though I know that is hard to believe. It was from the USA but being marketed in Canada. The personal information sheet managed to violate the Human Rights Code of the Government of Canada and every province and territory with the possible exception of the Yukon. And that was page one. Things went downhill from there.

    EigenSprocketUK @6’s experience is not at all surprising. Cult is about the only appropriate term. And it is almost impossible to break that belief. See homeopathy above.

    I was listening to a podcast—forget which one– and one of the participants said the US State Department had used it when he was with them. This does not increase my confidence in the US State Dep’t. Of course, the US Gov’t has bought into all kinds of woo so the State Dep’t is just keeping up.

    I think the craze may be dying down a bit but back in the 1990’s apparently there were law firms in the US where ever employee had a coffee mug with their MBTI letters on it. There were MBTI tee-shirts for the general public I think.

    Some idiot firms were making hiring and promotion decisions on the damn thing. Presumably these firms are out of business now.

    @ 4 Marcus Ranum
    Did you know that giving MBTI is a big dollar business?

    Of course it is.. I assume that selling MBTI test materials and training in the MBTI® Certification Program is pretty lucrative too. Going from memory from about 40 years ago, once one had mastered the bizarre concept that the four factors were Jungian (i.e. completely non-standard definitions for familiarly named factors) one could learn tho administer the stupid thing in 5 minutes. I suppose the rest of the certification course is to teach the bafflegab and bullshitting that goes into “interpreting” the test results.

    It is similar to the situation in “alternative” medicine that when a treatment is proprietary and cures everything from hang nails to rectal cancer it is obviously a fraud.

    Unfortunately there are gullible fools out there who will use the MBTI and, similarly, other fools that will buy jade eggs from Gwyneth Paltrow.