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What You Don't Know about This Personality Test Can Hurt You

Beware the limitations of this commonly used personality test

Just think how useful it would be to have an instant read on your true personality type. You’d know best how to capitalize on your strengths in every area from relationships to success at work. Just like knowing your height and weight from simple physical measurements, such a test could lead you to gain valuable insights into how to capitalize on your psychological qualities.

One of the most widely-used organizational consulting tools, known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is claimed to provide just such a measurement. If you’ve ever been given a test at work that asks you a series of yes-no questions and provides a 4-letter code back to you (such as ESTJ), chances are you took the MBTI.  People can have one of 16 combinations of types based on their scores on these three dimensions:

Introversion-Extraversion (I-E)

The extent to which you are oriented inward, toward your own thoughts and feelings, or outward, toward others, is represented in the I-E dimension. People often wrongly assume that the I-E distinction indicates whether you’re a shy or gregarious person.  In the MBTI, as in personality psychology in general, the I-E dimension describes a more general set of preferences in how you relate to others.

Sensing-Intuiting (S-N)

This dimension reflects the individual’s approach to perceiving experiences. People who are high on sensing are more likely to examine the specifics of their situations, or use more of a “bottom-up” approach. In contrast, people who are high on the intuiting dimension let their prior notions influence their perceptions in a “top-down” method. The “N” in this dimension is used because the “I” could be ambiguous (looking like a lower case “l” or the number one).  

Thinking-Feeling (T-F)

Judgments about experiences are reflected in the T-F dimension, which indicates the extent to which people use logical analysis (T) or base their decisions on their emotions (F). You can think of this dimension as indicating whether you operate according to your head or your heart in the majority of occasions.

Judging-Perceiving (J-P)

In this dimension, people are differentiated according to how structured (J) or flexible (P) they are in their lifestyles, or orientation to the outer world.  If you are high on J, you prefer that your life follows a certain routine; if high on P, you can adapt to variations in situations without a great deal of difficulty.

The MBTI was based initially on the theory of the famous Swiss psychiatrist and Freud disciple, Carl Gustav Jung.  Among Jung’s many contributions to psychology, including the notion of archetypes, he believed that the two dimensions of S-N and T-F represent the functions of consciousness. The I-E dimension represents an overall attitude type.

Jung believed that individuals had predominant tendencies along these dimensions that defined their personality types.  His original proposal of personality types defined 8 (I-E X S-N and T-F), giving less attention to the J-P dimensions. The MBTI authors (Brigg-Meyers and Briggs, 1985) added the third dimension of J-P which would indicate whether the S-N or T-F dimension was predominant, leading to the present system of 16 types.

After taking the MBTI, the test-takers receive their particular alphabet-soup combination reflecting which type their personalities represent.  Consultants who work with organizations such as schools or businesses then proceed to share results with the employees and/or managers to provide feedback that may be used for counseling purposes. In some cases, the MBTI results may also be used by employers to make hiring decisions. Family and marital counselors, depending on their theoretical orientations, may also use the MBTI to help their clients understand their own unique personalities and those of the people with whom they have close relationships.

Due to copyright restrictions, I can’t reproduce items from the test here. In fact, in order for professionals to become able to administer and interpret the test, they need to complete an intensive training program.  You can find MBTI knock-offs online, but none of these will be the official instrument.  

These are the basics of the MBTI. Its essence is that it gives you a personality type label that, according to most common interpretations as used by practitioners, sticks with you for life.  Jung himself, though developing the idea of personality types, also maintained that over time, people establish a greater balance between the two polarities within their personalities in a process he called individuation.  I imagine that Jung would be turning cartwheels in his grave if he knew how the MBTI is used today.

It was never Jung’s intention to leave behind a legacy in which people’s personalities are reduced to 4 letter codes. Instead, though flawed in many ways, Jung’s theory can be credited with suggesting that forces other than sexuality can be at play in the psyche (the crux of his difference with his mentor, Freud).  Given his preference for broad thematic interpretations of behavior, it’s quite likely he would regard the MBTI as reductionistic, particularly in its applications today.

However, you don’t have to be a dyed-in-the-wool Jungian to regard the MBTI with skepticism. Plenty of contemporary psychologists have taken issue with the MBTI’s reification, Wharton Professor Adam Grant, who has written about this topic for Psychology Today

Two particular journal articles that took the MBTI to task provide fodder for additional criticisms, in which the test’s ability to serve as a measurement tool are examined in depth. Writing back in 1995, Australian psychologist Gregory Boyle began the debate, comparing the MBTI to the academically more widely-accepted personality tool, the NEO-PI-R.  In 2005, University of Tennessee counseling psychologist David Pittenger cautioned his professional colleagues against the MBTI’s use for similar reasons, but with the advantage of 10 more years of data on its limitations.

To summarize, both Boyle and Pittenger believe that the MBTI’s most significant limitation is that it hasn’t received the scientific support required to merit its indiscriminate use. 

They point out that from a theoretical point of view, grouping people into types doesn’t make sense, as I pointed out earlier. However, statistically, by using the poles of the 4 dimensions instead of treating them as continuums, a great deal of information becomes lost.  For the user, this also carries with it the problem that people who are a little more S than N receive an “S” designation, not a more subtle score showing where they really stand on that dimension. Most people don’t fall at the extremes—they fall in the middle.

A second problem relates to that issues of whether people remain the same over time or, as Jung proposed, they change. As it turns out, MBTI types aren’t all that stable, and certainly not stable enough to qualify for their almost branding status when it comes to differentiating among people.  People’s scores can vary significantly within as short a period of time as 4 weeks.  Pittenger pointed out that 35% of people tested twice over a month changed their four-letter score.

Third, the MBTI suffers from the problem affecting all personality tests that ask people to report on their own tendencies—namely, that people lie. They may lie because they know their bosses will see their scores or because it will come up in family counseling. However, they may lie for less cynical reasons as well, in what psychologists call “social desirability.” Most of us want to look good not just to others, but to ourselves.  The way that other tests get around this problem is to include a few items intended to sniff out these tendencies to lie, but the MBTI has no such items.

These problems could technically be overcome with enough statistical controls and tests put into place.  Unfortunately, however, even as late as 2005 there were insufficient studies being conducted to check out whether the MBTI could stand up to technical muster.  A recent search of the literature turned up one factor analysis of an Italian translation which produced not 3, but 5 factors, making the test more similar to the Five Factor Model’s NEO-PI-R structure.

What does all this mean for you? If you’ve taken the MBTI as an employee, student, or counseling client, or just someone interested in psychology, the data suggest that you shouldn’t take the four-letter code you receive as a complete description of who you are.  Any personality test will only spit back results that you tell it. If you’ve received a certain personality descriptor, it only means that you answered questions in a certain way. 

Oddly enough, people are so willing to believe anything about their personalities that they'll fall for even the lamest explanations. In what's called the Barnum Effect, psychologists show that many people will fall  (become "suckers") for generic personality explanations such as horoscopes and magazine self-tests as well as supposedly "scientific" tests administered by an "expert."

A good personality test can take what you’ve said and turn it to a useful analysis that gives you insights you didn’t have before. However, that analysis has to be based on sound statistical methods. The MBTI, at this point in time, is not.

If your MBTI is being used to screen you for a job, identify your organizational strengths and weaknesses, or determine what course of family, marital, or personal counseling might be best for you, please be aware of these limitations. There are many well-trained certified practitioners who swear by the MBTI, but the best of these will help you understand what it can and cannot do. 

Finding out your personal strengths and weaknesses is a process that can take a lifetime, and is most likely not going to be reflected in any one set of numbers from a personality test.  The good news is that if you’re interested in your personality and how it’s developing, you’ll be open to all kinds of feedback about yourself from many sources.  It’s from that feedback that you’ll eventually benefit and find true self-understanding.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014 

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

Briggs-Myers, I., & Briggs, K. C. (1985). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press.

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

Saggino, A., Cooper, C., & Kline, P. (2001). A confirmatory factor analysis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Personality and Individual Differences, 30, 3-9. doi: 10.1016/s0191-8869(00)00004-0

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