Katherine Briggs and daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, neither of whom had any training in psychology, set out to design their test and worked with the HR manager of a local bank, Edward Hay. They took the basic Jungian distinctions, invented some new, more sellable terminology, played this 4-way splitting game and so was born, not so much a theory, as a business.
Myers-Briggs is a multi-million dollar business, with millions taking the ‘test’ every year. Yet is based on discarded 70 year-old theory, with no evidence that it is of any real practical use. In fact, there is evidence that it is plainly wrong and misleading, with no real predictive value.
Discarded Jungian theory
There is a long discarded theory behind the test, developed in 1940, from the work on psychological types of Carl Jung. The 16 ‘types’ used in the test are largely fictions. Jung’s ‘types’ are primitive, binary distinctions that start with a distinction he stole from Nietzsche – the Apollonian’ and ‘Dionysian’ redefined as ‘rational’ (split into thinking & feeling) and ‘irrational’ (split into sensation & intuition). Below this is a fundamental split into ‘introverts’ and ‘extroverts’. It is a conceptual game that Marxists used in dialectical materialism and amateur HR therapists use when they bandy about mindfulness v mindlessness, wellness v illness, happiness v unhappiness. These binaries don’t exist in psychology, where traits are commonly exhibited along an axis, as contraries (like hot and cold related to temperature), as opposed to contradictories (true and false). This is a fundamental conceptual error, ignoring a gradable spectrum for mutually exclusive opposites. Even Jung thought that these dualistic definitions were wrong but HR likes clear-cut ‘yes and no’ categories. It makes false theories seem much more convincing.
The evidence is in no way ambiguous. There is no serious, peer-reviewed, control-study evidence that supports Myers Briggs. In fact, what evidence there is, shows the theory and test to be wrong. People who take the test repeatedly get different results (up to 50% get different results on second attempt), which destroys its validity. In a clever study by Carskadon & Cook (1982), where people were asked to compare profiles, their preferred profile and the actual MBTI test profile, only half picked the same profile. Its predictive power is also unproven, in fact misleading. Alternative models, such as the OCEAN model (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) have more empirical evidence to support their fit and predictive power but they are owned by no one and haven’t attracted any marketing muscle. It has The Hogan Personality Inventory and DiSC tests that use the Five Factor research.
In Pettinger’s study (1993), the test was put to the test but the lack of validation led them to conclude that, “A review of the available literature suggests that there is insufficient evidence to support the tenets of and claims about the utility of the test.”
On a practical level, Kuipers et al. (2009) explored the relationship between MBTI profiles and team processes in 1,630 people working in 156 teams, and found that MBTI profiles do not predict team development well. In a general review by the National Academy of Sciences (1991), MBTI research was scrutinized and concluded that there is "not sufficient, well-designed research to justify the use of the MBTI in career counseling programs".
Why are these tests so popular?
There is an explanation for the popularity of these tests – flattery. Measured through self-reporting, always a dangerous source of data, it takes advantage of the Forer Effect, where people yearn for answers that seem accurate but are actually vague and general, applying to many people. Astrology, Tarot Card reading, NLP, learning styles and most other fake diagnostic tools use this effect to good effect, but it is a trick, a con. To say it has the same gullible appeal and zero predictive power of Astrology turns out not to be more than an idle quip. Case & Phillison (2004) trace the origins of the test back beyond Jung to Astrology during the Renaissance and earlier.
Another driver in HR, is the fact that HR professionals can make easy money. This is typical of schemes, such as NLP and the many 'learning styles' tests, that rely on selling the product by selling a personal franchise. In the case of Myers Briggs you pay a substantial sum to become a certified tester and then charge yourself out to administer the tests. Like NLP, you’re buying into the brand.
There are dangerous consequences here. First the reputation damage for HR that seems to be forever stuck in a series of time-warp practices; second the wasted time and costs; third, the misleading recommendations, whether for recruitment, job roles, promotion, whatever. To shape people’s lives, with such a blunt instrument is to simply pigeon-hole and stereotype them into false positions or worse prop up the progress of some, arbitrarily at the expense of others. It's part of a wider therapeutic approach to HR that allows amateurs, who give little or no thought to the validity of tools and techniques, to become 'certified' to look into the minds of others and make amateur diagnoses. The mindless behaviour here is in the unthinking process that allows so-called professionals to assume roles they are not qualified to hold. HR should be looking at its own idiosyncratic behaviour before pronouncing shoddy and unprofessional judgments on others.
Case P. & Phillipson G. (2004) Astrology, Alchemy and Retro-Organization Theory: An Astro-Genealogical Critique of the MBTI Organization July 2004 vol. 11 no. 4 473-495
Carskadon, TG & Cook, DD (1982). "Validity of MBTI descriptions as perceived by recipients unfamiliar with type". Research in Psychological Type 5: 89–94.
Jung, C. G. (1923). Psychological types; or, The psychology of individuation. London: Paul, Trench, Trubner.
Kuipers B. S. et al. (2009) The Influence of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Profiles on Team Development Processes. Small Group Research vol. 40 no. 4 436-464
Pittenger DJ (1993) The Utility of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH Winter 1993 vol. 63 no. 4 467-488