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The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing - Merve Emre

This book was a disappointment. I looked forward to it: I went through a phase of interest in the Myers-Briggs as a teenager, and so was eager to learn more about it. Unfortunately, after a fascinating introduction in which the author delves into the almost cult-like atmosphere of Myers-Briggs training (in an attempt to get access to Isabel Myers’s archives, the author was required to pay $2000 for a week of “re-education,” which was pretty much as it sounds), this turns into a dull biography of the test’s creators. Ultimately, I had to turn to the internet to provide basic information about the test left out of the book.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, sorts people into sixteen categories of “personality types” based on their expressed preferences. This “indicator” (its devotees insist that it is not a test because there are no right or wrong answers) was developed by two housewives, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. Though both were college graduates, neither was formally trained in psychology. Briggs, born in the late 19th century, was an amateur psychologist who developed a fascination with Carl Jung and his writings later in life. Myers later picked up where her mother left off, working during the WWII era to develop a test that would assist companies in finding workers who were the best fit for the job based on their personalities.

The book is mostly devoted to describing their lives, which unfortunately are too mundane to warrant this length, and Emre doesn’t quite bring them to life. But she’s far more interested in the lives of Briggs and Myers and than in the test itself. For instance, she writes about efforts to scientifically validate the test, but is entirely concerned with the emotional dimensions of these efforts (how the men doing the studies treated Isabel Myers, and how Myers felt about that) rather than the scientific ones (I finished this book not knowing what “validation” even means in the context of a personality test). And she promises more drama in their lives than is actually there: claiming in the introduction, for instance, that their personality-testing obsession cost both women their marriages when it did no such thing; at worst it sometimes irritated their husbands.


Information about the test itself is dropped haphazardly; she tells us that Jung meant something different from “introversion” and “extraversion” than we do today, but then never returns to that change or discusses the evolution of any of the other categories. She tells us that the creators thought the test was only really useful with more intelligent people and those of higher socioeconomic status (apparently the lowly didn't get personalities), but then follows up with no actual data about the less advantaged. I don't know about you, but I'm more interested in whether, and how, the test is racist or classist, than the obviously outdated views of its creators. But Emre only shares the latter, hinting that there might be classist issues with the test but never telling us what they are.

Likewise, the couple of sections that are more about the test than its creators focus on extraneous information or the author’s thought experiments. For instance, a chapter about a group of researchers who had prominent people spend the weekend together in a house to take a battery of tests focuses on subjects like how Truman Capote charmed the staff, and the career of a female researcher who happened to work there, rather than what was learned from all of this and how it fits into the history of personality testing. And at the end, rather than presenting real data or even real anecdotes about how the MBTI is used in the modern era, the author traces hypothetical women of different generations through their imaginary lives and where they might theoretically have encountered the test.

Emre is clearly not an MBTI devotee herself, but she declines to fully discuss the issues with the test, instead dismissing them as too oft-repeated, as if this made a criticism less worthy of attention rather than more so. In an interview, she stated:

I think even talking about validity and reliability sort of misses that point—because it asks whether these tests are really measuring what they purport to be measuring and whether they show the same thing over time, and those are questions for scientists, or psychologists. As a humanist I want to preempt those questions because even they are premised on assumptions that the systems and language that we use to describe people have some kind of basis in truth. I don’t think they do.

Which, first, what? I suspect most people interested in a book about the MBTI do think those questions are important, and are more interested in the facts than the author’s philosophical maunderings. (Unfortunately, she’s an English professor with a Master’s of Philosophy – not a historian, journalist or scientist.) And second, if the author’s point – as she suggests in the book, and as is even suggested by Katherine Briggs – is that the MBTI is a sort of religion for its devotees, rendering its validity beside the point, then why doesn’t she delve into that, introduce us to some of these people whose lives have been changed by it? Study the community of practitioners and the test’s impact on their lives? But no, we don’t get that either.

For those who are actually interested in the MBTI’s validity, here is a good scientific article about it, and here are several other relevant articles. What I learned that is not in the book:

1) A method for determining the reliability of a personality test is “test-retest reliability,” or whether people taking it more than once get the same result. Up to 50% of MBTI takers get a different result on a second test, even as little as 5 weeks later. (Its devotees insist, however, that type never changes, so these people must be doing it wrong.)

2) But perhaps a bigger problem is that human traits rarely fit into dichotomies, which form the foundation of the MBTI. Most human traits actually fall on a bell curve, with most people in the middle, and increasingly smaller numbers of people the further from the middle you go. The MBTI’s own data reveals a bell curve, or “normal distribution,” for its results too, but then uses a cutoff score to describe the results in terms of two distinct, non-overlapping groups. In reality, people aren’t divided between “introverts” and “extraverts,” any more than we’re divided into the short and the tall; someone who scores barely introverted has far more in common with someone who scores barely extraverted than with an extreme introvert.

3) And then there are the actual traits used, which haven’t been borne out in psychological research to be a useful or relevant way of describing personality (which is why psychologists don’t use the MBTI). Research backs up a different group of five traits, only one of which overlaps: extraversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism (i.e. emotional stability). You see why these are less popular though: few people want to be seen as sloppy, disagreeable, or emotionally unstable. This test would be far less fun.

4) Statistical analysis doesn’t support that the four MBTI factors are independent of one another, and there is no proven correlation between MBTI results and success in particular jobs or relationships. This is unsurprising to me, given what a rough measure it is. Something like “introversion” can come out in a wide variety of ways – I’m quite introverted in my personal life, but probably tilt extraverted at work – so a simple “E” or “I” tells you nothing useful about someone as an employee and can even be actively misleading.

At any rate, you won’t find scientific information in this book, nor learn much about personality testing, or even much about the MBTI itself. Go for it if you want an overlong, dull biography of two housewives who created a test that's never fully discussed, but otherwise, go elsewhere.