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The Persistent Appeal of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test

The Myers-Briggs (MBTI) is one of the most recognized personality tests. When I first took the test about a year ago and was assigned INTJ or the “Architect”, a type deemed “one of the rarest” and “most capable,” it felt utterly validating. My bluntness was the “knack for seeing through phoniness and hypocrisy” and my low desire to foster friendships was simply a search for an “intellectual match.” MBTI’s popularity spans numerous books, podcasts, and websites, and is often marketed as a viable tool for career exploration and team development. But a closer look at the research is warranted.

MBTI advocates claim that by dividing people into categories, the test can help eliminate conflict, improve communication and teamwork, emphasis strengths, and encourage self-reflection. Derek Chapman, associate professor at the University of Calgary whose work includes research in industrial-organizational psychology, agrees that personality tests in employment and hiring can be useful, as they can help capture a person’s “typical” ability. But he cautions that a single personality test will not be useful across all contexts.

someone right handed writing something down on a piece of paper

It is worth noting that even those who use the test are often aware of its limitations. Shawn Bakker has written about the use of psychometric tests in the workplace and explains that the MBTI was never designed to evaluate job candidates and should not be used to do so. This information, he says, has been clearly and consistently put out by the publisher of the MBTI and distributors around the world: “Uses of the MBTI in hiring are misplaced and not all that frequent, but when we are made aware of it happening in specific situations, we reach out to those using the tool in error. The MBTI was designed to help people learn about their preferences, not their skills.”

Bakker says that the MBTI strikes a good balance between being comprehensive while remaining fairly easy to use, which may account for its popularity. But Chapman warns that the MBTI was designed by people who were not trained in psychometrics and its user-friendly nature results in its use by many who are not properly informed.

Chapman explains that we seem to be drawn to the test for two main reasons: 1) it uses Barnum-effect statements, which sound as if they are tailored to a specific person but are instead quite general, and 2) MBTI uses universally positive statements and people tend to relate strongly to positive information about themselves, even if the information is unverifiable or blatantly untrue.

a web of people

Another problem lies in the assumption that the MBTI, a test based in Western theories of personality, can apply to people worldwide. Overconfident use of the MBTI can result in stories like the one told by Quinisha Jackson-Wright for The New York Times, where her experience with the test exposed that MBTI screening was more about cultural fit than job qualifications. Further, Chapman and others explain that the test has low test-retest reliability, meaning results are unstable and likely to change for an individual who takes the test again. To check this myself, I took the MBTI again months after my initial results: I scored as INTP, changed from my prior type as INTJ.

Still, the test has its appeal. Despite the research and consensus from the critics, there is something very compelling about it. In my case, both my scores gave me reason to compare myself favourably to someone like Elon Musk, whose personality as per the MBTI sparked a Reddit debate over whether he is an INTP or INTJ. In the footsteps of Elon Musk?  Not too shabby.

– Jenna Zorik, Contributing Writer

Image Credits:
Feature:  Tumisu
at Pixabay, Creative Commons
First: GDJ
at Pixabay, Creative Commons
Second: Unseen Studio 
at Unsplash, Creative Commons