You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.

The Tyranny of Personality Testing

The inventors of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator saw it as a path to self-discovery—and a tool of workplace management.

“When it comes to accuracy,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant has written, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is better than a horoscope but less reliable than a heart monitor. Fashioned in the first half of the twentieth century by a mother and daughter with no formal training in psychology, the test inventories your predispositions along four different axes—introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving—and sorts you into one of 16 discrete types. This system has no basis in science, critics point out; people’s personalities can’t be reduced to simple binaries, and those who answer the questions more than once often arrive at completely different types each time. Curiously, it remains one of the most popular personality tests in the world today.

Doubleday, 366 pp., $27.95

Taken by over two million people each year, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is used by universities, career coaching centers, federal government offices, several branches of the military, and 88 of the Fortune 100 companies. Even if you’ve never been administered an official version of the test—which the publisher CPP Inc. currently sells for $49.95—chances are you’ve ascertained your type at some point from one of the many MBTI knockoffs that circulate on the internet. You’re likely familiar with the difference between Is (introverts), who focus more on their inner worlds, and Es (extraverts), who focus on the outer world; you may also know that Ts (thinking types) make decisions based on logic and consistency, whereas Fs (feeling types) make decisions based on the people involved and the individual circumstances. Perhaps you’ve even let the Myers-Briggs type listed on someone’s dating profile determine the direction of your swipe.

How did the test establish such wide appeal? The answer, Merve Emre proposes in her new book The Personality Brokers, lies in its early-twentieth-century origins. The women who conceived of the MBTI and fought for its validation in the years during and after World War II were, she writes, “among the first to perceive how hungry the masses were for simple, self-affirming answers to the problem of self-knowledge.” Yet, as she also shows, the MBTI was always intended to be more than just a springboard for therapeutic self-reflection. It is, both by design and in practice, a tool of workplace management. The story of its success tracks the rise of a new type of employee, who, propelled by the gospel of self-knowledge, is expected to mold her character to the perennially shifting demands of the labor market.

If the MBTI attempts to measure personality in the abstract, The Personality Brokers captures the specific, idiosyncratic personalities of the test’s two creators, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. While both women were, on paper, homemakers for the majority of their adult lives, they were also autodidacts, published writers, and zealots of a distinct sort. As affluent, educated women, both mother and daughter were alternately enabled and constrained by their circumstances in the postwar period, a tension that would bend the trajectory of the MBTI introduction into the world.

Katharine, born in 1875, grew up religious and bookish. She enrolled in Michigan Agricultural College at the age of 14 and there met another young prodigy, Lyman Briggs, whom she married after graduation. Their daughter, Isabel, was born in 1897, and Katharine promptly began a series of small experiments designed to mold her child into a genius. Influenced by the popular parenting literature of the time, which sought to apply the principles of scientific management to motherhood, she dubbed the family’s living room the “cosmic laboratory of baby training,” and conscripted Isabel into near-daily behavioral drills. In one such exercise, Katharine would present her toddler daughter with a tempting yet potentially dangerous object, such as an open flame, and snap “No! No!” when Isabel reached for it, a ritual often accompanied by spanks or slaps on the child’s hand. On the occasions when Isabel demonstrated adequate obedience, Katharine regaled her with inventive, winding fables about how the rugs and tables in their household had originated in mythical lands. She documented these practices in a journal, along with notes on her young daughter’s developing personality.

Isabel emerged from these years of her mother’s training sessions “not a genius” (according to Katharine) but nevertheless what today’s upper-middle-class parents would call high-achieving. She spoke full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 she was accepted to Swarthmore College. It was there she met the man who would become her husband, future lawyer Clarence “Chief” Myers. She brought the family preoccupation with personality into this new relationship. “There ought to be some highly intelligent division of labor that can be worked out, so everybody works, but not at the wrong things,” she wrote in her diary during the first year of her marriage to Chief. Isabel was talking about men’s and women’s respective roles in a successful marriage, not about waged work. Yet the longing for a benevolent yet useful form of “people-sorting” would spur the invention of the Myers-Briggs test.

In 1923, her mother discovered a schematic for sorting people in a review of Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in The New Republic. Jung’s book laid out the theory that all people could be categorized according to distinct “type pair” binaries: extraverted and introverted, intuitive and sensing, thinking and feeling. The reviewer was critical, arguing that Jung’s methods were unscientific; Jung himself had, in fact, admitted that he based his types only on conjecture. Katharine was nonetheless entranced. She took up the taxonomy with zeal, poring over Psychological Types for the next five years.

For her, the type pairs provided an explanation for a lifetime’s worth of unarticulated desires and frustrations, losses and successes. She suddenly understood why, as an intuitive type, she had felt out of place at Michigan Agricultural College, where sensing types had dominated. Being a thinking type explained why, as a mother, she had gravitated toward strict baby-training rather than sentimental coddling. And, as an introvert given to long bouts of self-reflection, she believed she was, as Emre puts it, “incapable of moving through the world in a conventional manner.” Understanding type, and by extension, understanding oneself, she believed, would help every person find their rightful and harmonious place in society. Type, in other words, could “hasten the evolution of human civilization one personality at a time.”

It was Isabel who would adapt Jung’s type pairs to create the first prototype of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. In the years leading up to and during World War II, personality tests proliferated as a popular tool of workplace management in the United States, promising to help identify which employees were best suited to certain tasks (and which, by contrast, might be disposed to organizing unions). Upon learning of the burgeoning personality-consulting industry, Isabel devised her own questionnaire based on Jung’s types and called it, in tribute to her mother’s influence, the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator. (Later, when the test was commercialized, an adviser suggested swapping the order of the names to avoid the scatological connotations of the abbreviation “BM.”)

The majority of the personality tests that circulated during the postwar period sought to assign value to employees’ predilections, classifying a given worker, for example, as “normal” or “abnormal.” Isabel was interested in a gentler kind of Taylorism, one that made “every worker feel as if he was needed somewhere, doing something, no matter how unglamorous the task.” For Isabel, Emre writes, “the idea was not to accept work as a grim reality—the proverbial grind—but to set up the ideological conditions under which one would bind oneself to it freely and gladly, as a point of pride and a source of self-validation.” This relentless positivity persists today among adherents of Myers-Briggs, who, as Emre notes, insist that the questionnaire not be called a “test,” but rather an “indicator” that contains no wrong answers.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator would establish its foothold in the workplace when Isabel learned that Edward Hay, the father of her son’s classmate and a preeminent personality consultant, was short-staffed. She approached him for an apprenticeship in personality testing, and Hay took her on as a paid employee. Hay’s backing gave the MBTI the push it needed to take flight: At his company, Isabel devised the first commercial version of the type indicator, and over the next decade, sold it to clients ranging from leading insurance and utilities companies to the federal Office of Strategic Services, a precursor to the CIA that used the MBTI to assess the psychological fitness of potential spies.

According to Emre, Isabel took to the role of saleswoman enthusiastically and “was not shy about asking for help or using her family’s connections.” Among the institutions to whom she sold the test in the years after the war were Swarthmore (her alma mater), the National Bureau of Standards (the employer of her father, Lyman Briggs), and the Roane-Anderson Company, a defense contractor and contact of her father’s. Lyman, a board member of George Washington University’s medical school, also eventually encouraged the dean to allow Isabel to administer the test to the school’s med students in her first large-scale study.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the MBTI attracted interest from institutions including the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, and UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research. The latter, buoyed by grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and other prominent writers and artists in an effort to establish a profile of the “creative” type. But these starry encounters were fleeting, and Isabel would see academia’s enthusiasm for the MBTI wane by the end of the ’60s. In 1975, in an effort to resuscitate the MBTI, Isabel sold the rights to Consulting Psychologists Press, a fledgling publishing company founded by two psychologists. The press was, Emre writes, “only too happy to market their wares to anyone who asked, so long as they were able to pay.”

By 1980, the year Isabel died, Consulting Psychologists Press estimated that over one million people had taken the MBTI. The company has since dropped its official name and rebranded simply as “CPP–The Myers-Briggs Company.” By 2012, sales of the MBTI and other forms of personality testing were bringing in about $20 million a year. And although few who take the test have ever heard of Isabel or Katharine, Myers-Briggs is now a household name.

The MBTI’s success is (to invoke another popular personality assessment device popular in the postwar period) something of a Rorschach blot: On one hand, you can see its enduring popularity as an inevitable end point of a deeply human urge to find comfort or purpose in a world often marked by injustice, failed relationships, and unsatisfying jobs. At the same time, you can see it as a tool of the managerial class that emerged during the height of Fordist production and mass standardization. With the push for workers to be more specialized in the postwar economy came the need for a group of people who could deduce exactly where to place each employee, how to maximize their productivity, and—perhaps most crucially—how to make them like it.

In the course of writing the book, Emre found herself increasingly and surprisingly sympathetic to the first of these interpretations. As part of her research, she underwent an official Myers-Briggs certification course and encountered more than a few true believers who experienced genuine revelations in their personal lives after learning about the intricacies of type through the course. Understanding type, multiple attendees insisted, had allowed them to completely transform their relationships. One woman, a sensing type (S), found new perspective on why she constantly fought with her mother, an intuitive type (N): “When I ask my mom for a recipe, she says ‘Just a dash of this, just a dash of that.’ But I’m like—Ma, how much is that? Give me a real measurement,” she explained. Other women, judging types (J), now had a language for why they were prone to clash with their perceiving type (P) husbands on family trips. In this setting, the scientific validity of the MBTI (or lack thereof) was completely beside the point. “For many of my fellow trainees, the five days we spent learning the language of type presented a rare opportunity to confront themselves, to speak their truths in a strange but useful tongue,” Emre writes.

But of the two million people who take the MBTI annually, exactly how many are actively seeking self-knowledge? According to one estimate, up to 70 percent of Americans have taken a personality test as part of a job application, which suggests that something more coercive is driving the $500 million personality-testing industry. While CPP officially discourages using Myers-Briggs for hiring or evaluation, the company is also clear that the test is (as its creators always intended) designed for management, touting Hallmark, Southwest Airlines, and Marriott Hotels as happy corporate clients who have used the MBTI to generate harmonious, productive offices simply through increased understanding of type. “The MBTI assessment helps leaders and teams by providing them with communication tools, helping them to recognize and celebrate their differences,” claims a spokesperson for Southwest in a CPP case study. “The teams then use this knowledge to achieve better results.”

Employees aren’t always so thrilled. In a 2012 article for The Conversation, management professor Robert Spillane noted that a survey of 8,000 Australian workers found that about half considered personality tests “personally invasive.” His own research further indicated that over 70 percent of MBA students who had undergone personality testing as part of their management training had done so against their will. Even questions that seem innocuous—such as, “At parties, do you: (a) stay late with increasing energy, or (b) leave early with decreased energy?”—come with a slight edge when it’s an employer who’s asking. Does staying late make you look irresponsible? Or does leaving early suggest a reluctance to put in long hours on the job?

The problem for workers required to undergo personality assessments, in other words, is not strictly that such testing is unscientific, but that it functions as a tool of soft control, by demanding access to workers’ interiority and obscuring the employer’s immense power in hiring and firing decisions with the language of “fit” or “type.” While the MBTI and other personality tests promise to help you find the best work to suit your personality, they also hint that showing that personality in a flattering light—not just during the application process but also in ongoing performance reviews—will be necessary if you want to find and keep a job. Though this pressure to conform is likely not what Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers envisioned for their creation, it’s not a wholly unexpected outcome of their penchant for “people-sorting.”

Recently, I encountered an online application for a white-collar job that instructed, “In 150 characters or fewer, tell us what makes you unique. Try to be creative and say something that will catch our eye!” What the employer was looking for, of course, was a glimpse of an authentic personality—but undoubtedly one that seemed disposed to authentically work hard and cheerfully, authentically melt into the office culture, and authentically get along with the boss. Maybe after all this time, the significant distinction between types isn’t between the Is and the Es, or the Ps and the Js, but between those who engineer our workplaces for productivity and those who must engineer our personalities to fit them.