What Matters Most?

Using your strengths to impact well-being

Myers-Briggs or VIA Survey (Character Strengths)?

Comparing two of the most popular tests in psychology.

Whether you are a practitioner, career counselor, clergyperson, avid reader, or layperson, you probably know your “type” according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). You know whether you prefer to be more introverted or extraverted, thinking or feeling, sensing or intuiting, or judging or perceiving. The MBTI has been one of the most popular tests in pop psychology for decades. People who have taken the test love to guess one another’s type (I’m an ENFP turned ENFJ).

Another test that has emerged as the main research-based test of strengths in the world is the VIA Survey. The VIA measures strengths of character and in a short period of time has had over 2.6 million takers reaching every country. The 24 character strengths measured have been found to be universal across countries, cultures, and beliefs. These include strengths such as fairness, social intelligence, kindness, curiosity, bravery, and humility. Like MBTI fanatics, people particularly love to spot character strengths in others. A few of my highest strengths are hope, curiosity, love, and perspective.

If you are a practitioner, you will encounter clients who have taken these tests or would like to. Understanding some of the similarities, differences, and potential ways to integrate the two tests can be useful to you, both personally and professionally. Let’s take a closer look at each:

Similarities

  • Both address personality traits (although MBTI calls these “types”).
  • Both inform one’s self-knowledge.
  • Both are used widely with “normal” populations, and used extensively by general consumers and professionals
  • Results on either test are not “good or bad” or “right or wrong,” nor do they reveal problems or psychopathologies.
  • Both are translated into over 20 languages.
  • Both reveal results that are immediately understandable and user-friendly.
  • All people have unique preferences (MBTI) or strengths (VIA) which color their perceptions and underlie their values, interests, needs, and motivations.

Differences

  • What is measured:
    • MBTI: measures preferences and how people perceive their world.
    • VIA: measures character strengths, core positive capacities for thinking, feeling, and behaving in ways that benefit others and oneself.
  • What traits are valued?
    • MBTI: your personal type (you receive 4 letters which stand for your traits/preferences).
    • VIA: all 24 character strengths are valued, but the biggest value are your signature strengths – those highest in your profile and most essential to who you are.
  • History:
  • MBTI: decades long tradition
  • VIA: one decade history
Approach:
  • MBTI: categorical approach, like the DSM. Individuals are given a type – a label.
  • VIA: dimensional approach – you have more or less of each character strength.
Scientific support/peer-review:
  • MBTI: minimal scientific support. Rarely mentioned in scholarly journals. When it has been, it has been highly criticized.
    • Comments and critique by Adam Grant, Wharton professor here.
    • Comments and critique by Susan Krauss Whitbourne, UMass professor here.
  • VIA: based in science, significant scientific support; about 200 peer-reviewed papers on the VIA Survey/VIA character strengths since its onset in 2004.
Theory:
  • MBTI: based on a specific theory (Carl Jung’s type theory from a century ago).
  • VIA: explicitly was not created as a taxonomy of strengths (rather, it is a “classification” system) and by definition, is not based in theory.
Big 5:
  • Personality researchers focus extensively on a model of personality called the Big 5 which refers to a handful of general, personality characteristics in people (you can be high or low in extraversion, openness, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism).
  • MBTI: Research has found that the MBTI scales are generally subsumed within the Big 5 traits and therefore do not have much additive value.
  • VIA: New research has found that VIA adds something important (referred to as incremental validity) over and above what the Big 5 predicts about human beings.
Morality and goodness:
  • MBTI: measures traits that are morally neutral (extraversion/introversion; sensing/intuiting).
  • VIA: many strengths have a significant moral component; all are slanted toward being positive (even though all can be overused); the strengths can be used to facilitate goodness.
Cost:
  • MBTI instrument: Fees to use the test. E.g., $120+ to take the test and receive a report/consultation.
  • VIA Survey: Free.
Positive psychology:
  • The flagship conference in the field is the biennial International Positive Psychology Association (IPPA) which focuses on disseminating the latest science and evidenced-based practices in positive psychology. The science shared at this conference can be seen as an indicator of what is most important in the field, current trends, areas with the most substance and interest, etc.
  • MBTI: At the most recent IPPA conference (2013), MBTI was noted in the title of 0 presentations.
  • VIA: At the most recent IPPA conference (2013), VIA character strengths (or specific VIA strengths) were part of approximately 133 presentations.
Deliberate intervention impact:
  • MBTI: there is less purpose/desire for using deliberate interventions to impact one’s type.
  • VIA: there is significant interest across professional disciplines in directing interventions to improve strengths of character. Character strengths can be impacted by deliberate interventions (e.g., boosting the strength of gratitude by counting blessings or writing a gratitude letter).

Interaction/Integration

There is currently no precise approach for integrating the MBTI and VIA nor is there consensus on who would benefit most from such an approach. Studies and discussions are needed. Here are some starting points:

  • As I said in an earlier post that compared the VIA Survey and StrengthsFinder: It’s very difficult to conceive of a scenario where using the VIA Survey to assess, explore, and intervene around strengths would not be useful. In addition, in some situations, there is benefit to adding StrengthsFinder, MBTI, or another test to complement the VIA Survey. Whichever test one adds will probably be based on one’s training, interest areas, and needs/goals of the client.
  • The MBTI sixteen “types” can each have different character strength profiles, distinct from one another and within one another. For example, not only can an INFP have a different character strengths profile from an INTJ, but all INFPs can have entirely different character strength profiles from one another.
  • Jung believed that all preferences could be modified by working on their shadows (with the exception of the Extroversion/Introversion which he noted is fundamental to a person's personality). Perhaps a person’s signature strengths can be used to work with one’s shadow? Does a person’s shadow reflect the overuse and underuse of character strengths?
  • Certain types or dimensions of MBTI might be expressed through character strengths. For example, a person high on Feeling or on Thinking can look at the emotional or cognitive expression of any of the 24 strengths. What does my signature strength of creativity feel like? What are the thoughts associated with my gratitude or bravery strengths? Those who are high on Feeling or on Thinking will be well-equipped to take this approach with their strengths.
  • It can be interesting for any person to reflect on how their character strengths map out onto their MBTI type. E.g., how is my signature strength of curiosity expressed in my type?
  • Research findings using MBTI and the VIA Survey:
  • From Choong & Britton (2007):
  • We found significant covariations between 10 character strengths with single type dimensions namely, creativity (intuition), open-mindedness (thinking), love of learning (introversion), integrity (sensing and thinking), persistence (judging), vitality (extraversion), love (extraversion and feeling), fairness (sensing), and gratitude (extraversion). Love, integrity, and gratitude also covaried with multiple paired type combinations while curiosity covaried only with one paired type combination (introverted intuition). (p. 9)
From Munro, Chilimanzi, & O’Neill (2012):
  • Significant differences were found between five of the 24 VIA-IS character strengths and three of the four bipolar categories of MBTI type. In particular, when compared with introverts, extraverts reported significantly stronger scores for the character strengths of curiosity and humour, while the character strength of appreciation of beauty and excellence was significantly higher in the MBTI preference of intuition (when compared with sensing). Finally, the character strengths of capacity to love and be loved and gratitude were stronger for those with the MBTI category of feeling (when compared with those in the category thinking). (p. 15)

Take Action

  • Learn more about character strengths here or about the MBTI here.

References:

Boyle, G. J. (1995). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Some psychometric limitations. Australian Psychologist, 30, 71-74. doi: 10.1111/j.1742-9544.1995.tb01750.x

Choong, S., & Britton, K. (2007). Character strengths and type: Exploration of covariation. International Coaching Psychology Review, 2(1), 9-23.

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.

Munro, N., Chilimanzi, & O’Neill (2012). Character strengths and psychological type in university peer educators. South African Journal of Psychology, 42(1), 15-24.

Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York: Springer.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Pittenger, D. J. (2005). Cautionary comments regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 57, 210-221. doi: 10.1037/1065-9293.57.3.210

VIA Institute (2014). Overview of research on character strengths. http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Research/Research-Findings-on-Character-Strengths

 

Ryan M. Niemiec, Psy.D., is the education director at the VIA Institute on Character.

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