Hindu Personality Types Travel West

Hindu Influences on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator?

Posted Mar 02, 2009

If you have ever taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a widely-used psychological test, then you may know that it divides people into 16 types based on their personalities.

The 16 types are based on the sorts of mental functions that are key to an individual's personality: whether, for example, a person responds more strongly with feeling or with thinking, or whether a person prefers to get information by sensing through sight, sound, taste, etc., or by using intuition

The Myers-Briggs typology was based, in part, on the psychological writings of the Swiss physician Carl Jung. Jung's theories, in turn, were greatly influenced by Hindu thinking, as well as by yogis who practiced Buddhism and other Eastern schools of thought.  Early in his career, Carl Jung wrote:

In India since ancient times they have the custom that practically everybody of a certain education, at least, has a guru, a spiritual leader who teaches you and you alone what you ought to know. Not everybody needs to know the same thing and this kind of knowledge can never be taught in the same way.

In Hinduism, yogis must recognize and distinguish among four types of students - four personalities. One kind of student does well learning things and can pursue knowledge to connect to divinity by following Jnana yoga, which emphasizes the intellect. A second student prefers working and can pursue divinity through Karma yoga, which emphasizes work. A third type of student is gifted in loving, and seeks the divine through devotion and friendship using Bhakti yoga. Finally, some students are empiricists and hope to test Hindu religious ideas in a series of steps involving meditation and specific mental exercises, using Raja yoga.

"...Carl Jung built his typology on the Indian model", observed the religious scholar Huston Smith, "while modifying it in certain respects...". Jung noted in his 1921 book on personality types:

"I have found from experience that the basic psychological functions...prove to be thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. If one of these functions habitually predominates, a corresponding type results. I therefore distinguish a thinking, a feeling, a sensation, and an intuitive type. Each of these types may moreover be either introverted or extraverted..."

Jung's typology was disseminated in the United States and elsewhere in the West in large part by Katherine Cook Briggs, and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, through their test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Katherine Cook Briggs had read Jung's work on psychological type; it resonated with her and she began work on a test to measure the types. Her daughter, Isabel Myers, learned about test construction and built the Type Indicator itself.

Part of the Hindu philosophical spirit of helping healthy students to develop was reborn in the work of Myers and Briggs. The two women very carefully wrote out the test feedback to reflect the psychological strengths of the test-takers. Myers wanted to discuss high-functioning people; she believed that feedback descriptions ought, "to apply to each type at its best, as exemplified by normal, well-balanced, well-adjusted, happy, and effective people." Although each personality type was different, none was better than another. Despite its modest measurement properties, the test became widely employed. 

Today, the MBTI is widely used in management training, education, and counseling. (See the Myers & Briggs Foundation). 

The detached, non-judgmental quality of MBTI feedback communicates the sense of equality among learning styles. It is deeply embedded in Hindu thought, from which some of the key concepts originated.  The care with which the test's feedback was created may be one of the reasons that the MBTI has become so widely used.

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Notes.

Jung's quote "In India since ancient times..." comes from p. 47 of Coward, H. (1985). Jung and eastern thought. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. "...Carl Jung built his typology on the Indian model..." comes from p. 28 of Smith, H. (1991). The world's religions. San Francisco: Harper Collins. Jung's quote, "I have found from experience..." is from p. 6 of Jung, C. G. (1971). The collected works of C. G. Jung (Volume 6). Read, H., Fordham, M., Adler, G., & McGuire, W. (Eds) & R. F. C. Hull & H. G. Baynes (Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. The quote from Myers, "to apply to each type at its best..." is from p. 112 of Paul, A. M. (2004). The Cult of Personality. New York: Simon & Schuster; that book has further detailed descriptions of the history of the test's development.

Copyright (c) 2009 John D. Mayer