During our medical school orientation, a guest speaker came from the Business School, as a part of an Inter-School Collaborative Effort, to administer and explain the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator. I left the auditorium with nothing but a feeling of regret at time wasted. I had always been skeptical of the Meyers Briggs personality test. But now, I fully understand that the MBTI, without even the slightest glimmer of doubt, is worthless.
The MBTI test tells the test-taker where she stands on each of four spectra: from introversion to extroversion; from sensing to intuition; from thinking to feeling; and from judging to perceiving. After finishing the test, each test-taker has a type. One might be an INTJ, or an introverted intuition-using thinking judger; another might be an ESFP, or an extroverted sensing feeling perceiver.
Why didn’t the test just ask me which type I was, right off the bat? Are you an introvert, or an extrovert? the test could have asked. This would have saved me 90 minutes. Instead, the test asked 90 questions that were supposed to elucidate for me which type I am. But the questions were no more effective in elucidating my type than they would have been had they simply asked me my type. Make sense?
Take the thinking/feeling dichotomy, for example. Here are a few example questions.
6. Do you more often let
_ your heart rule your head, or
_ your head rule your heart?
16. Are you inclined to
_ value sentiment more than logic, or
_ value logic more than sentiment?
These are real questions, straight from the test! And they’re honestly, whole-heartedly designed to help me decide whether I’m a thinker or a feeler. Why beat around the bush, MBTI? We’re all friends here! We all know you want to find out whether I’m a thinker or a feeler. Why not just ask?
Parts II and IV ask:
Which word in each pair appeals to you more?
Think about what the words mean, not about how they look or sound.
Let’s look at a few samples, once again for the thinking/feeling dichotomy.
_ Objective _ Passionate
_ Compassionate _ Logical
_ Sympathize _ Analyze
_ Competent _ Kindhearted
And the pattern doesn’t change. Once again, I wish they would cut to the chase and ask whether I’m thinking or feeling. Oh wait: they actually do!
_ Thinking _ Feeling
MBTI, you finally plucked up the courage. I only wish you had done it sooner.
The questions posed to determine the test-taker’s placement within the other dichotomies are no less shallow and blunt. From the manual:
People who prefer Judging tend to like a planned and organized approach to life and prefer to have things settled. People who prefer Perceiving tend to like a flexible and spontaneous approach to life and prefer to keep their options open.
To determine whether the test-taker is a judger or perceiver, the test asks:
2. Do you consider yourself to be
_ more of a spontaneous person, or
_ more of an organized person?
10. When you have a special job to do, do you like to
_ organize it carefully before the start or
_ find out what is necessary as you go along?
11. In most instances do you prefer to
_ go with the flow, or
_ follow a schedule?
These are just a few of the many judging/perceiving questions, but the pattern—I promise you—does not change.
So far, I’ve argued that the 90-question test may as well be reduced to a four-question test. Even as a four-question test, though, the MBTI would still have problems. The introversion-extroversion dichotomy might hold some scientific validity. The other dichotomies, though, are so simplistic that they become nonsensical.
Do I prefer to make plans, or to just delve right in? Well, now that I think about it…I’d probably choose to get started on a given task as soon as possible, to learn its demands and to learn the lay of the landscape. Only then would I develop a strict and rigorous plan. I’d then apply the same understand-then-compartmentalize approach to each element of that plan, and so on. If I find that my project doesn’t seem to be taking shape properly, I’ll at least then be able to create an entirely new rigorous plan, and start from scratch in a better place.
So, does that make me a judger or perceiver? What should I answer to question 10? The judging/perceiving dichotomy is too simple to capture my actual stance, and it’s probably too simple to capture most people’s.
The MBTI questions are also often poorly worded. Consider the word pairs section. If the test asked me which word describes me better, the task would be much simpler. Instead, it asks which word appeals to me more.
_ Analytical _ Sentimental
I’d probably consider myself more analytical than sentimental. But the word sentimental appeals to me more. Everyone knows that calculators dislike other calculators! I’d rather spend my time with sentimental people than with analytical people.
_ Warm _ Objective
Which one appeals to you more, dear reader? Even the shrewdest of thinkers, short of comic book villains, would probably find the word warm more appealing. I certainly did.
So the MBTI ultimately pegged me as a Feeler. My ultimate result was INFJ, or an introverted intuiting feeling judger. INFJs:
Seek meaning and connection in ideas, relationships, and material possessions. Want to understand what motivates people and are insightful about others. Conscientious and committed to their firm values. Develop a clear vision about how best to serve the common good. Organized and decisive in implementing their vision.
Hey, that actually sounds pretty accurate. Maybe there is something to this test after all.
Hold on a second, though. We already decided that I’m probably more of a thinker, even though the MBTI selected me as a feeler. So, if I were actually an INFJ, my type would:
Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance—for themselves and others.
Woah…that’s pretty accurate too. Let’s try something else, then. What if I were an…ENFP?
Warmly enthusiastic and imaginative. See life as full of possibilities. Make connections between events and information very quickly, and confidently proceed based on the patterns they see. Want a lot of affirmation from others, and readily give appreciation and support. Spontaneous and flexible, often rely on their ability to improvise and their verbal fluency.
You know, that also describes me pretty well. I think I’m seeing a pattern here.
In 1948, a psychologist named Bertrand M. Forer gave each of his students a personality test. He then gave each student a “personalized analysis”. On average, students rated their analyses as 4.26, on a scale from 0 (least accurate) to 5 (most accurate).
The catch: Forer gave each student the same analysis! This analysis consisted of the following assessments:
- You have a great need for other people to like and admire you.
- You have a tendency to be critical of yourself.
- You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
- While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
- Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you.
- Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside.
- At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
- You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
- You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
- You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others.
- At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.
- Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic.
- Security is one of your major goals in life.
Forer had assembled these assessments from a newsstand astrology book (2). Since Forer published his result, the Forer Effect has come to describe the readiness with which people attest to the accuracy of a personality assessment that’s actually vague and general enough to apply to anyone.
So, it really doesn’t matter that the MBTI is simplistic and confused. No matter what final result I get, it’ll still be accurate!
As much as we’ve had fun criticizing the MBTI for the past few minutes, I do think it was a pretty serious waste of my and my classmates’ time. The MBTI might be more at home at a carnival psychic’s stand, next to the Tarot cards. But it has no place in a medical school, whose attendees quickly see it for the hand-wavy pseudo-psychology that it is.
But hey, maybe that’s just the INTJ in me talking.
- The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility. By B.R. Forer