As tests go, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator would seem to be about as fun as it gets. You answer a bunch of questions about your preferences and it gives you a four-letter combination that’s supposed to be a profile of your personality.
The test, which can cost between $15 and $40, is used by employers and schools, and you can find knockoffs in women’s magazines and online.
One problem, though: Studies have shown it’s fundamentally a bunch of malarkey. But perhaps even more disturbing is that the test, which reportedly generates $20 million in annual sales for its publisher, has a dark past, according to the author of a new book.
It was created in the 1920s by Katherine Myers and her daughter Isabelle Myers-Briggs who believed the test could help weed out the weakest in society, according to Merve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing.
Myers-Briggs stipulated that the test should not be taken by people with IQs of less than 100 because in her view “they were not capable and didn't have strong enough preferences to make it worthwhile,” Emre said.
Her mother, Myers, “was quasi-eugenic,” Emre said. “She believed certain men would not reach a certain state of self-awareness. Others were capable of flourishing as individuals and would make society a better place because of that.”
According to Emre, in developing the test, Myers incorporated elements of the 1914 bestseller The Eugenic Marriage: A Personal Guide to the New Science of Better Living and Better Babies. It was written by William Grant Hague, a eugenicist who believed the mission of eugenics was simply to figure out how to populate the world with “better babies.”
Myers agreed with Hague that children could be molded from infancy to have desired personality traits, “and weeding out weak ones was a crucial reproductive ideology—a way to accelerate natural selection through selective breeding,” Emre writes.
She claimed the personalities of infants could be typed to help with “baby training… to identify ‘slow’ children whose emotional and intellectual development lagged their peers,” Emre writes.
In her own writings about the test, Myers laid out her twisted version of “survival of the fittest”:
Multitudes of people are utterly worthless or worse than worthless, having no just claims whatsoever upon the civilization which they burden with the dead weight of their existence. This is a sound, incontrovertible judgment, which has to be shunned, because our feeling for the ‘underprivileged’ is so strong that such truths can hardly be mentioned. Our feeling revolts against it.
When the test was created in the 1920s, a time of massive social upheaval, there were questions about going to work and taking vacations, all written at a seventh-grade literacy level, even though only the upper classes traveled, had white-collar jobs, or could be counted on to read fluently.
"The language of the MBTI [Myers-Briggs Training Institute] is hopelessly bourgeois," Emre said.
"The history of the test was geared towards naturalizing the power of affluent white men," Emre added.
Like many Americans, Emre first learned about Myers-Briggs Type Indicator when she got into the job market. She was in her second or third week at Bain & Company, the management consulting firm.
"I'd just finished college," she remembered. "It was incredibly elaborate. I remember the corporate trainer debriefing us and saying it was meant to [measure] strengths and weaknesses."
Emre was classified an ENTJ which the test identified as CEO-types: aggressive, goal-oriented, ambitious.
"I remember being seduced by it," Emre said. "Self-knowledge had not been explicit for me. I didn't have the vocabulary to think about who I was and to classify myself. when I encountered it at 22, I was immensely captivated by it."
What Emre seized on was the test’s almost mystical qualities–a kind of Harry Potter-style sorting hat. Elite employers like Bain loved it.
"They would use the types on the team to anticipate different workplace conflicts that might arise," Emre said.
On the surface, it made sense. Those who love being the center of attention or had a natural inclination to lead might work better in certain roles than those whose type suggested a preference for a solitary environment.
But Emre's experience at Bain revealed she was not, as the test had determined, CEO material. Within a year, she'd quit. "I was a terrible consultant," she told The Daily Beast.
The experience, though, made her want to know more about the Myers-Briggs and what made it so alluring, despite its dark undertones.
Emre said one factor is the way people connect over it. "It's most evident how quick people are when they learn their types [to say them]," she said. "It's a way to commune with others from a distance, feel a kind of sociability."
Another is that those four letters allow us to exert control over our life narrative. "People love re-litigating their life stories," Emre said. "When they feel like they can find patterns and certain consistencies and make those stories coherent, it makes you look back at your life experiences and make them amenable to your framework."
Humans love to talk about themselves, and Myers-Briggs provides a way to offer "insight" without having to divulge details or secrets.
But at its core, the Myers-Briggs test is a strong illustration of the psychological fallacy of self-fulfilling prophecy, where a prediction or label comes true due to a subject's inherent belief in it. If a person believes they are introverted, for example, they might not pursue a career that requires them to be a leader, precluding them from being a businessperson, for example. They might justify any failure or setback as a result of their personality.
Another flaw: People want to believe they are an ENTJ or an ISFP or whatever, but the test is only reflective of the way a person thinks about themselves at a moment. There are plenty of studies that show that people can code switch their personalities depending on environment, and that life experience plays a strong role in shaping personality.
Is Myers-Briggs here to stay? Emre thinks so.
“The only way it would go away is if another personality test came around that provided an even more graphable, schematic vision of personality,” she said. Until then, “we will not want to stop thinking of ourselves as types. That temptation will exist forever.”