INFP, ESTJ, ISTP — Do these mysterious sets of letters look familiar? They’re a small sampling of the 16 different personality types laid out by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), one of the most widely used personality assessments in the world. More than 2 million people take the self-reporting test each year and it’s become a staple for many companies, schools and government agencies. It’s now so prolific that MBTI results have even become a fixture on dating profiles according to The Washington Post.

Through a series of nearly 100 questions based on the observations of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist, psychiatrist and the founder of analytic psychology, the MBTI classifies test-takers into one of 16 distinct personality types based on four sets of binary characteristics: extraversion vs. introversion, intuitive vs. sensing, feeling vs. thinking, and judging vs. perceiving. According to the Myers-Briggs Company, the assessment provides “positive language for understanding and valuing individual differences,” which can help people improve how they communicate, learn and work. Sounds good, right?

But there’s one small hitch: As far as science goes, it’s about as reliable as a horoscope.

How The Myers-Briggs Test Works

In the early 1940s, Mother-daughter duo Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers (neither of whom were trained scientists) developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator with the intention of helping women entering the workforce find work best suited to their personalities.

To create the type indicator, the two women drew heavily on the influential yet unsupported theories of Carl Jung. Jung hypothesized in his book Psychological Types in 1921 that humans mainly fall into two categories: perceivers and judgers. Perceivers could be further split into people who prefer sensing and those who prefer intuiting, while judgers could be split into thinkers and feelers, resulting in four different types of people. The four types could also be divided into introverts and extroverts.

Jung was not an empiricist and these classifications were shaped by observation and personal experience rather than experiments or data. He admitted that these types were not absolute, saying that, “Every individual is an exception to the rule.”

To create their type indicator, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers took Jung’s types and tweaked them so that people were assigned one trait or another in each of the four categories, based on their answers to a series of two-choice questions.

What Are The  Four Categories?

  1. Extraversion (E) – Introversion (I). This measures how people react to their environment. Extroverts are energized by social interactions and like focusing outward. Introverts are the opposite. They prefer their internal world and tend to be drained after a lot of socializing.
  2. Sensing (S) – Intuition (N). This category is about how people collect information. Do they prefer their own senses and what they can experience? Or, do they look for patterns and abstractions?
  3. Thinking (T) – Feeling (F). This scale is about how people make decisions. Someone high on the thinking scale looks at data, facts, tangible and known information. On the other side of the thinking-feeling spectrum are the feelers. They are more likely to make decision based on feelings and emotions.
  4. Judging (J) – Perceiving (P). If you prefer structure and organization, the idea is you’d score high on the judging scale. More adaptable people who would rather have flexibility than structure would be considered high on the perceiving scale.

What Are the 16 Types?

ISTJ – The Inspector

ISTP – The Crafter

ISFJ – The Protector

ISFP – The Artist

INFJ – The Advocate

INFP – The Mediator

INTJ – The Architect

INTP – The Thinker

ESTP – The Persuader

ESTJ – The Director

ESFP – The Performer

ESFJ – The Caregiver

ENFP – The Champion

ENFJ – The Giver

ENTP – The Debater

ENTJ – The Commander

Just How Flawed Is The Myers-Briggs Test?

Here is the major issue. By relying strongly on limited binaries, the MBTI gives an oversimplified view of human personality. But human beings are complicated. We don’t fit into neat categories, but rather fall along a spectrum. People aren’t exclusively introverts or extroverts or thinkers or feelers. Data from the Myers-Briggs test itself backs this up, yet in practice, test-takers are lumped into one category or another.

According to Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, the MBTI completely overlooks emotional stability vs. reactivity, a key predictor of individual and group patterns of thought, feeling and action.

And not only that oversight, but the categories that the test does sample, are incomplete. Grant gives the example of the judging-perceiving scale, which he says captures whether one is an organizer and a planner, “but overlooks the industriousness and achievement drive that tend to accompany these characteristics—together, they form a personality trait called conscientiousness.”

As a result, the MBTI and its results aren’t exactly reliable. Studies have shown that 50 percent of people are classified into a different type the second time they take the test, even if the test-retest period is short (e.g. five weeks). And several studies have demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the test at predicting job success.

All of this is why most psychologists have abandoned the Myers-Briggs. But despite its shortcomings, MBTI continues to be a top tool for recruiting, team building, and more. So, what gives?

The Attractiveness Of Personality Type

People love trying to make sense out of chaos. Which would explain so many of us are drawn to the idea of categorizing ourselves. We’re complicated beings and the MBTI, much like our zodiac sign, seems to offer insights about others and ourselves — our habits, preferences, and the way we move through the world. Another attractive element is the flattering spin MBTI puts on every personality type.

Ronald Riggio, an organizational psychologist and Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College, puts it down to the Barnum Effect. This is a psychological phenomenon where subjects who think they’ve been given a valid personality test (but haven’t) and are given a description of their supposed personality type, filled with a mix of positive traits, say the analysis is a good description. In other words, they believe it because it’s flattering and usually pretty general.

So, What Is MBTI Good For?

If there is one thing the MBTI does well, it’s offering a jumping off point for self-exploration or sparking helpful conversations about how we relate to and work with others.

But beyond that, we wouldn’t recommend putting much stock in its predictions, particularly where they pertain to recruiting and HR.

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Last Updated: Jun 29, 2020