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12 June 2012updated 12 Sep 2018 4:42pm

Myers-Briggs: how a sham questionnaire became the world’s most popular personality test

A new book reveals how the private obsessions of a mother and daughter launched a global movement.

By Sophie McBain

The simplest way to tell this story is that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the world’s most popular personality test, is a sham. It was conceived by a mother-and-daughter team, and the indicator reflects the private obsessions and personal observations of two brilliant and eccentric women, rather than any scientifically validated theory. Their assumptions that all humans conform to one of 16 types and that our personality traits are constant and unchanging do not withstand scientific scrutiny. Even so, two million people take the Myers-Briggs test each year, and it has helped spur a $2bn personality-typing industry.

Countless people are convinced that the Myers-Briggs test has given them powerful, sometimes life-changing insights, and has helped them change their job, save their marriage or get a promotion. The simple version of the story isn’t quite right. And luckily, Merve Emre, an Oxford English professor and an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, is a masterful and nuanced storyteller. What’s Your Type is a riveting biography of Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers and their controversial, influential test.

The origins of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator can be traced to a 1926 article by Briggs in the American magazine The New Republic. For Briggs, a fiercely intelligent and religiously devout woman born in the late 19th century, becoming a wife and mother was both a calling and an opportunity for scientific experimentation. Her first research subject was her daughter Isabel, whose development and education she obsessively monitored and logged, and then wrote about for magazines, becoming a self-declared baby-training expert.

When Isabel left home, Briggs fell into a deep depression that only lifted when she discovered the writing of Carl Jung – the beginning of her lifelong intellectual and erotic fixation with the psychologist (she wrote a novella about him and composed devotional songs). Her article, “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box”, was her first attempt to bring Jung to the masses. It encouraged readers to make their own index cards labelled with Jung’s personality types and to shuffle them until they worked out which one they most identified with.

Almost two decades later, Isabel Myers was inspired to create a questionnaire to help people discover their type. The best-selling crime writer shared her mother’s intellect, obsessive personality and quasi-scientific approach to homemaking. She developed her ideas about typing by studying her husband and children and their friends, and created her questionnaire in her spare time while working for Philadelphia’s first personality consultants.

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She sold her first indicator in 1943 to a secret US government programme that was training spies to go to war. It wanted to know how best to mobilise fresh recruits and to predict how potential spies might respond to extreme stress and danger. In the decades that followed, she sold her questionnaires to ever larger and more prestigious institutions, which were attracted by Myers’s completely untested theory that matching people to jobs by personality type creates a happy, productive workforce and ensures that companies get the most out of their human capital.

Myers’s faith in her idiosyncratic research methods and homespun personality theories persisted even when her findings were rejected by scientists and she found herself increasingly isolated. Her husband disapprovingly called her “Mrs Executive”, and when she attended the inaugural national conference on personality testing at Princeton in 1960 other participants referred to her in letters as “the little old lady in tennis shoes” and “that horrible old woman”. It might be ironic that Myers and Briggs should be such complex, unusual characters and social misfits – or perhaps that partly explains their unwavering commitment to the idea of universal types, and the comforting implication that everyone has their own tribe.

What’s Your Type is an impressive work of scholarship, not just a biography of two fascinating women but also a tightly argued and sweeping history of how the conception of personality changed throughout the upheavals of the 20th century. Emre wears her research lightly and knows how to hook her readers. When she started investigating the indicator, she began to “court a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you,” Emre writes in her introduction. She was told that to access Myers’s archived personal papers she would have to complete a $2,000, four-day Myers-Briggs accreditation programme. After she obtained this accreditation, she was told that she was still denied access to the documents because of her performance during the course. If it was already widely known that the indicator is not scientifically valid, what else are they hiding? she asks. The answer to that question is never resolved, though once you reach the end of the book that hardly matters.

Myers died in 1980, just as her indicator began booming commercially, but well before its internet-age incarnation as a must-have tool for building a “personal brand” and the inspiration for a proliferation of cheap rip-offs and BuzzFeed quizzes. Her hollowed-out creation has become “among the silliest, shallowest products of late capitalism”, Emre writes. And yet, for “type watchers” it remains a helpful way to understand themselves and the world.

How do we make sense of the well-documented flaws and enduring appeal of personality typing? On a Myers-Briggs form, all the questions are closed-ended, and respondents must choose just one answer from a set of options. Yet, as Emre observes, real people and real life aren’t like that. There is no either or, there are no neat resolutions. 

What’s Your Type?
Merve Emre
William Collins, 336pp, £20

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This article appears in the 12 Sep 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism