Should we still be using the Myers-Briggs personality profiling test?

Personality profiling

If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, you’ll know that at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, an enchanted ‘sorting hat’ is used to decide which house each pupil should be in. If only us muggles had such an easy way of judging personality! But with the absence of a sorting hat in the business world, companies have for years relied on psychometric testing. It’s big business, and in the US alone more than 2,500 personality tests exist on the market.

The Myers-Briggs(MBTI) is the most prevalent personality test used by British and US businesses, popular among most Fortune 100 companies, and has been translated into 24 languages. About 2m people take it annually and the company that produces and markets the test is said to make around $20m a year from it.

The test was developed in the 1940s based on the theories of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. Jung believed there were eight sorts of psychological types, beginning with ‘perceivers’ or ‘judgers’. The former group could be further split into people who prefer ‘sensing’ and others who prefer ‘intuiting’, while the latter could be split into ‘thinkers’ and ‘feelers’. All four types, additionally, could be divided into ‘introverts’ and ‘extroverts’.

Jung’s principles were later adapted into a test by two Americans, a mother and daughter, who had no formal expertise in psychology. They doubled Jung’s number of personality types to 16, and gave titles to each of these types, like the Executive, the Teacher, the Scientist and the Idealist. For many years, this 93-question test has been used during the recruitment process, to assess a person’s aptitude for a job, or potential fit within a company or team.

Having carried out the Myers-Briggs test online, it seems I’m an INFJ, which is an ‘Advocate’, and apparently the most rare of all the personality types, representing just 1% of the population. Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela share my personality type, so it can’t be all bad!

But over the past couple of years particularly, experts have begun to expose the shortcomings of the MBTI. Most recently, an article appearing on Vox.com entitled “Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless”, received 103,000 Facebook shares, and more than 8,000 tweets. Its rationale is based on the following key points:

  • There is little scientific theory behind the MBTI – Jung’s personality types did not come out of controlled experiments or data. These were rough categories, and as Jung wrote: “Every individual is an exception to the rule”.
  • The Myers-Briggs test uses limited binaries – Jung introduced the idea of opposing pairs of character traits and suggested that in each pair we each have a natural preference. But if you ask someone whether they prefer to think or feel, the truth is that they probably like to do a little of both. But the test relies on pigeonholing someone into one category or the other.
  • The test is said to provide inconsistent and inaccurate results – according to research, as many as 50% of people arrive at a different result the second time they take the test, even if this is just five weeks later. The article argues that’s because the traits it aims to measure aren’t the ones that are consistently different among people. Additionally, any personality type an individual is assigned through the MBTI is unequivocally positive. There’s no provision for ‘lazy good-for-nothing’, for example!
  • The Myers-Briggs test is largely discredited by psychologists – CPP, the company that publishes the test, has three leading psychologists on their board, but none of them have used it in their research.

Additionally, some argue it is easy to ‘fiddle’ the results. A Sydney-based executive, speaking to the BBC, admitted to cheating on a test at the start of her career:

“I don’t believe that corporations value diversity and I wanted to be a senior manager,” she said. “I knew they wanted either an ESTJ or an ISTJ and I am an ENTJ so it didn’t take a lot to fiddle with the answers. But I was conscious that I was doing it.”

Perhaps the attraction of the Myers-Briggs test is its simplicity, and its advocacy of self-awareness. Amongst the growing levels of criticism, some say they like it because it’s so easy for people to grasp. But a growing camp of voices are calling for the MBTI to be replaced with something more scientific and up-to-date in its approach.

Do you use the MBTI within your organisation? If so, we’d love to hear your views on its validity and usefulness. And if you haven’t already taken the MBTI test, you can take it here (please note there is a $50 fee) or you could try out one of the free alternatives such as this test provided by Human Metrics. Let us know how you get on!

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  • Ray Bigger

    There are a few points I would make as you have made a couple of factual errors. First the MBTI is not a test it is, as the title suggests, an ‘indicator’. For that reason there is no right or wrong, good or bad, pass or fail. Second it looks primarily at preferences and no one is permanently pigeon holed. During for example a day anyone could move through all 16 of the types the MBTI produces, No one stays permanently in one type. But we all have a preference for doing things and tend to steer ourselves towards that preference by choice. However if everyone in a team has similar preferences they might be missing out on asking important questions and the wrong decision might be made as a result. During the course of using the MBTI there is a self-estimate followed by the results of the online submissions. In the course of my work with the MBTI there is a strong alignment between those two activities. Third the MBTI was never designed for hiring/recruitment as it does not measure skills, competencies, intelligence to mention a few. Participants can review a definition of their type with the other 15 and decide if one of those descriptions is more suited. People are at liberty to disagree with the findings if they choose as no preference is forced upon them. I also use the HBTI which is similar to MBTI but this looks at Thinking Styles. There is always people who do not believe in any evaluation or indicator or test preferring their own judgment. I have been very comfortable working with the outcomes of both the MBTI and HBDI as for a lost of people they make sense. To people who day it is not scientific that’s fine. Then again ‘love’ as far as I know has no scientific basis so does that mean ‘love’ is of the menu. The above notwithstanding a good topic for discussion.

  • Paul Nixon

    I agree with much of what Ray has said. The desire to find a ‘quick fix’ or perhaps an ‘off the shelf’ product that can be instantly implemented means MBTI is often unfairly approached, utilised and assessed. I find it to be a fascinating tool that opens up opportunities for discussion about preferred ways of working. It can be extremely useful in helping people to better understand themselves which in turn can help them to better understand others. However, many seem to focus more upon categorising individuals into winners and losers – dependant upon how closely the ‘candidate’ meets the set criteria. I don’t believe MBTI should be used (or, dare I say, abused) in this way. A screwdriver can be used to hit nails into wood…but that’s not what it’s for.

  • wendymcauliffe

    Thank you Paul and @raybigger:disqus for your comments, and for letting us know how you use the MBTI with success. You both make very valid points, and it’s particularly helpful to understand the context within which you believe the MBTI should be used.

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