Myers-Briggs Is Bunk: Why doesn't that stop people from taking the enduringly popular personality test?

Author:Gulliver, Katrina

THE OFFICIAL MYERS-BRIGGS Type Indicator can be taken online for $50, but there are plenty of free knock-offs floating around the internet. I took two while writing this review. One says I'm ISTJ. The other typed me as ENTP.

For those who aren't familiar with the phenomenon, the test is made up of statements like "I prefer to stay home rather than go out" and "I prefer a tidy workplace," which the test-taker marks as either true or false. In the end you are assigned to one of 16 possible personality "types," based on the combination of results on four different axes: extroverted/introverted, sensing/intuitive, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving. As an ISTJ, I am introverted, sensing, thinking, and judging. Unless I am actually extroverted, intuitive, thinking, and perceiving. Whatever any of that means.

The Myers-Briggs test and others like it were huge in the corporate world in the 1980s and '90s. Individuals took them to see what kind of careers they should pursue; H.R. offices used them to decide who to hire or promote. In The Personality Brokers, Merve Emre explores how, precisely, this variety of psychobullshit rune-gazing was born.

BRIGGS AND MYERS were a mother and daughter who shared a personal fascination with psychology. Katharine Briggs, born in the last quarter of the 19th century, was one of the few women of her generation to gain a college degree. Like most female members of the upper-middle-class in her time, however, she didn't pursue a career, instead marrying young and raising a family. Rather than the chemistry she had studied at college, children became her research subject.

With an intensity that sounds frightening, Briggs believed she could develop a scientific approach to raising well-behaved, intelligent children. She seemed to do a good job with her daughter Isabel, and other parents soon sought her advice. Briggs was well-connected--her husband was a Washington bureaucrat, so of course she knew magazine editors. Soon she was writing columns for various publications about ideal parenting and child behavior.

As a devotee of psychology, she developed a correspondence with Carl Jung. She drew on his psychological theories to interpret the personalities of kids, the better to advise their parents on behavior management. The 16 "types" of the Myers-Briggs index directly relate to Jung's thinking, and Jung's approval of her ideas offered validation for her explorations.

But the commercial Myers-Briggs test came...

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