Chances are you’ve heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The popular questionnaire, which sorts people into four-letter personality categories such as ESTJ (Extraversion, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) or INFP (Introversion, Intuition, Feeling, Perceiving) is used everywhere from corporate employee training to online dating.
What you likely haven’t heard of, until now, is how this tool was developed and became a phenomenon.
When author Merve Emre started asking questions about the origins of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the history of its creators – a mother-daughter duo, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers – she found her efforts repeatedly stymied. Files disappeared. Her requests for access to archival records were denied.
In her new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Emre delivers what she eventually uncovered – the story of how two women, who despite their lack of any formal training, turned out one of the most popular personality tests in the world.
Emre, an associate professor English at the University of Oxford, spoke with The Globe to give her account.
What prompted you to dig into the history of this personality test?
When I graduated from college, I worked for a management consulting firm, and one of the first things that they had us do was take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. I remember at 22 being incredibly seduced by it. I was never somebody who spent much time thinking about my innate preferences. This was the first time I had really encountered a language for doing so.
Fast forward a little over a half decade, I was looking for a topic for a new book, and I remembered the type indicator and I started doing a little digging into it. I discovered, first, it was invented by two women. I’d always assumed Myers and Briggs were the names of two male scientists. And second, I learned that Isabel Briggs Myers was one of the most popular, bestselling detective novelists of the late 1920s. Once I read her mystery novels, I decided I wanted to learn more about her, and that led me to her archives at the University of Florida.
These archives were controlled by the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, which insisted that I go through this elaborate re-education program to grant me access to them. During the program, they apparently did not like what they learned about my personality, so they told me I could not have access.
So this secretiveness got you even more interested?
Of course! The incredibly glorifying way that the people at the foundation talk about Isabel Briggs Myers was also interesting to me. For them, it seemed like she was a kind of untouchable figure, almost saintly in her mission. They didn’t want anything out there that could defile the image that they had created for her, both in their minds and for the consumer of the type indicator.
And I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I was also motivated by a kind of, if not exactly an anger, then a fire because I had gone through these elaborate negotiations with them, I had invested a lot of time trying to get into these archives, and they had shut me out for no reason they were willing to explain to me, and they also stopped responding to my e-mails.
[In an interview, Betsy Styron, chairperson of the Myers & Briggs Foundation, applauded Emre for a well-written book. So did Kesstan Blandin, director of research for the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, a non-profit that Isabel Briggs helped found. But they dismissed the notion that any information about the indicator or its creators was deliberately kept out of the public eye. Emre was denied access to archived documents because many of the aging papers were delicate, and needed to be sorted and digitized, they said. “It really wasn’t about her being denied, or any secrecy,” Styron said.
Well, why were they so [apparently] secretive?
How it originated, it really was her sitting at her kitchen table, asking her daughter and her daughter’s three best friends questions, and then asking her husband questions about his personality, and asking her son, and going around to her neighbours.
I think the foundation is really interested in, even if they can’t claim she had these credentials as a psychologist, making the work that she did resemble a psychologist’s as much as possible. So making it look like she was conducting these really large-scale studies in medical schools or with students at universities. But that is not at all how the indicator originated.
The other thing is like many, many other tests or instruments designed to measure aptitude or personality at mid-century, there are a whole series of sexist and racist and classist assumptions baked into the indicator. They’ve been largely excised from its current form, but not entirely. There’s a lot in the history of the indicator and how it was designed that shows exactly how limited its imagination is of who gets to be a fully formed human being and who doesn’t.
[Blandin said there has never been any effort to hide the origins of the indicator, nor of its creators' credentials. “It’s always been known that didn’t have PhDs, and they weren’t academics, and even if we wanted to keep that from the public, there’s no keeping it from the public,” she said. She added that generally, the design of self-reported instruments is influenced by the thoughts and biases of the time, and that the Myers Briggs Type Indicator has been continuously revised through the decades.]
How do you think having this history out there would have affected the use or popularity of test?
I don’t want to dismiss this or belittle it, but for many people, the indicator continues to be valuable and continues to speak to them, despite the fact it has no basis in any verifiable theory of human personality and that there’s no evidence for either its validity or its reliability.
How is it useful?
One of the things I saw over and over again when talking to people who had taken it is it really did serve as a liberating force in many people’s lives. I would talk to people in these jobs they really disliked, and they took the indicator and understood through the language of type that their job was not best suited to their preferences. So they found the strength and the rationale then, to leave these jobs that made them unhappy. I talked to people who were in terrible relationships and took the indicator and suddenly had a way to articulate what their irreconcilable differences were and no longer felt bad about leaving their marriage.
The language that it provides them with and the way they are able to articulate or clarify what they want in otherwise messy and inscrutable situations is deeply valuable. Some people seek that sense of clarity in religion, some people seek it in therapy, and other people have found it through the indicator. And I think that’s one of the reasons why some people really cling to it with an incredible strength of belief.
What are the downsides of it?
The questions are kind of unapologetically bourgeois. They make sense to people who have steady jobs, who have the disposable income to go on vacations and can go to parties and things like that. They’re often questions about leadership and teamwork. I don’t think the indicator cares at all, and I don’t think the people selling it, marketing or using it care about the fact that even in its framing, it signals to some people taking it they’re not the kinds of people whose personalities or individuality can be appreciated.
There’s also the concept of type-shaming. So women being criticized or mocked or stereotyped for being “feeling” types. Or introverts being called out for being introverts by their extrovert bosses.
I think it’s really dangerous that the indicator makes people’s psychological livelihood available to people in power at corporations, or schools or any type of institution.
This interview has been condensed and edited.