A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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reader comments: MBTI®

17 Nov 96

When I first heard of this MBTI™ stuff, I also thought it was pseudo-science just like biorhythms and astrology. I based that on some of the very same things that you brought up: for example, one of the axes is "Thinking vs. Feeling", which is one of the most superficial and just plain *wrong* kinds of psychological dichotomies, for the very reasons you gave. Having seen people draw all sorts of false conclusions about others on the basis of that dichotomy in particular, and act on them in unfortunate ways, I didn't want to hear any more about MBTI™. Also, the sheer vagueness of the terms, like "Energizing", should make any reasonable person suspicious. But since then, I've heard more about it, and I think there's something to it even though it's probably got some nonsense mixed in.

I think your criticisms of it, as well as my reasons for dismissing it at first, actually have very little to do with the theory itself, though there might well be some good reasons against the theory. Here are some specific replies you might find interesting.

1. Thinking vs. Feeling: You're right that thinking vs. emotion is a false dichotomy, but that's not what the T/F scale is about. The terms used for the axes of the MBTI™ classification are confusing; most don't mean exactly what the words ordinarily mean. Here's a quick attempt to explain each of the four axes--admittedly written by someone who doesn't know a whole lot about MBTI™:

Extroversion vs. Introversion: What you tend to see as the main "stage" where life is played out, i.e. what "counts": the "external" world of people and things, especially strangers, or the "internal" world of intimates and your own mind and feelings.

Sensing vs. iNtuition: Your preferred mode of "perception"--that is, what you tend to rely on for gathering information: the senses or mental structures of the sort that don't have any appearance at all. Note that "intuition" here has *nothing* to do with the ordinary sense of "intuition", the latter meaning more that one tends to go with hunches or that one has beliefs that one can't explain or defend. The S type is supposed to be more interested in the here and now, while the N type is supposed to be more interested in the future or lives in a world of ideas.

Thinking vs. Feeling: Your preferred mode of "judging"--that is, how you make decisions: by subsuming things under articulable rules or by following hunches and especially by empathizing with people. "Feeling" here is closer to what is commonly called "intuition"; it means "feeling your way around" rather than "feeling emotion". A T is supposed to want a *reason* for making a choice one way or the other, whereas an F is supposed to be more comfortable choosing something "because it just felt right".

Perceiving vs. Judging: Whether you tend to use your perceiving function or your judging function for matters in the "Extraverted" sphere of life. The idea is that if you're a P, you use your S/N function (whichever it is) for the external world, and if you're a J, you use your T/F function (whichever it is) for the external world. A J is supposed to like getting things done, while a P is supposed to prefer to keep matters open-ended. Notice that without the explanations, you'd hardly have a clue what any of these are about (except extroversion vs. introversion).

reply: Even with your explanations, I have hardly a clue as to what this is supposed to mean. To tell you the truth, I feel a lot more comfortable applying these bifurcations to situations, rather than to people. I could understand replying "it just felt right" when the question is "why did you make that move while making love?" but I'd be appalled if a nuclear power plant operator replied "it just felt right" when asked "why did you push that button?"

2. What's the Use?--You Can Tell All This Just from Getting to Know Someone: I think it's true that just by getting to know someone, you can intuitively tell everything about him that the MBTI™ tells you and much more. But I don't think that makes it useless. After all, what's the use of having any words or concepts at all? It seems to me that the main point of MBTI™ is to introduce a set of concepts so that you can think and talk in a systematic way about certain aspects of personality (but certainly not all). You used the word "loner" in one of your replies, saying that a "loner" probably wouldn't find satisfaction in being a rock star. Well, does that make the concept "loner" useless? No, it's a useful distinction to attend to. (Not the same as "Introvert" on the MBTI™ axes, though!) So, the idea is that by attending to the four types of distinction in MBTI™, you can lead yourself to notice some useful facts. Here's an example. Most computer programmers are supposed to be N, whereas most people are supposed to be S. Programmers have no difficulty with command-line interfaces, and having to learn an intricate conceptual structure to operate a program doesn't bother them; in fact, they enjoy it. It definitely bothers someone who prefers the sensory, right-now approach to things. Most programmers are somewhat blind to the fact that the user interfaces they create are comprehensible only to programmers. Understanding the N/S distinction can help someone see what they're likely to be blind to in user-interface design. It doesn't mean that they *can't* design a good GUI, but it can lead them to pay attention to important aspects of it that they're likely to ignore. Could you be directed to these facts in others ways than MBTI™? Yes, of course, but that doesn't make it useless, it makes it one of many tools.

reply: while it is true that there is more than one way to skin a cat, some ways are better than others. If I have two hammers but one of them is more dangerous than the other, which one should I use?

3. It Doesn't Make Predictions: Actually I think it does, and not just the sorts of superfluous predictions you mentioned, such as that a loner probably wouldn't enjoy sharing an apartment with five other people. MBTI™ makes predictions because the four axes are supposed to be "deep": they're supposed to explain many other, "less deep" personality traits. One prediction is that people who tend to rely more on the senses than on internal conceptual structures are more firmly planted in the here and now than in the future. An even more basic prediction is that the axes tend to be either/or: that people who rely heavily on the senses tend not to invent complex, internal conceptual structures. I have never heard of any of these predictions being put to any sort of test. I haven't even heard of anyone trying to systematically identify these predictions. Since the main thesis of the MBTI™ is that the four axes explain many relatively superficial distinctions, the MBTI™ could stand or fall based on whether these predictions bear out. Until such testing is done, MBTI™ cannot be said to have any scientific basis. Note, though, that if in fact no one is testing these predictions, that is a fact about a pseudo-scientific *approach* being taken by *people* who are interested in MBTI™, not about the MBTI™ ideas themselves. My suspicion is that testing would unravel a lot of nonsense from a small but non-negligible amount of deep insight. I don't know if people who rely heavily on their senses tend to dislike building up elaborate conceptual schemes. It would be interesting to find out. Even if it turns out that the S/N axis is really two independent axes, those two axes are still useful to know about.

reply: Given the fuzziness of most of the basic concepts in MBTI™, I doubt that the testing will consist of much more than has already been done with statistical correlations of personality types and occupations, personality type changes while in a cult, etc.

4. Vague Descriptions Are "Accurate" for Everyone: Expecting what you might call the "astrology fallacy", I immediately read all the other 15 descriptions after reading my own. Some of the descriptions were rather vague, but I do think that the sixteen types are reasonably clear-cut. Only one of the other 15 types seemed to apply to me, and the numbers said I was pretty close to that type. And really, this is no surprise: the test asks you stuff like whether you have few close friends or many, whether you stay by yourself at parties or mingle a lot, and whether you're at ease with strangers, and then tells you whether you're an introvert or extravert. As another respondent said: the test doesn't return any information that you didn't put in. That's not its job. The four axes are supposed to be continua, by the way. It's not supposed to be "You're either a T or an F and that's the end of it." There's supposed be more of a preference for making decisions by appeal to explicit rules vs. less, that's all. I wouldn't be surprised if many people treated the axes as simple dichotomies, though.

5. Test is Unscientific: Indeed the quick test that you can do on-line isn't supposed to be perfectly accurate. People can easily answer what they would *like* to be true about themselves rather than what is true.

6. Various Abuses of the MBTI™: I would expect that as with any theory about psychology, true or false, the MBTI™ would get abused and people would tend to use it to pigeonhole other people. But that's no criticism of the MBTI™. That's a criticism of people misusing it. I think the MBTI™ should be used in career counseling only in this way: to come up with suggestions for careers to *find out more about*, not to say, "You're a P so don't even think about management." If a large percentage of people who've tested a certain way on the MBTI™ have found success and fulfillment in a certain career, that's useful information--just not the *only* information to base the choice on. As a criticism of MBTI™, you mentioned that it would be foolish to cluster people of the same personality type in one job, since it's better to get a mix of types. But that's no criticism of the MBTI™. You could just as easily use the MBTI™ to try to bring about a mix. For example, "Our whole staff is NT. We should bring in some Fs and Ss." This only holds good if the MBTI™ axes are really on to something, though.

Ben Kovitz 

reply: Maybe MB personality types will be next in line for preferential treatment to make up for past discrimination. It ought to be easy to prove using statistics that certain professions have systematically excluded specific personality types for generations. The non-traditional types might begin to demand their 14th Amendment rights to equal treatment under the law! 

01 Jan 97

While I agree that doubt and skepticism should precede all absorption of new knowledge, I was both interested and disturbed by your representation of the MBTI™. First of all, unlike clairvoyance and divination, it is based on tangible data.

reply: I think I compared the MBTI™ personality profiles to astrological readings, not clairvoyance and divination. Astrological profiles are based on tangible data. So are other pseudoscientific theories. Being based on tangible data doesn't make something scientific.

There is no doubt that some people are Introverted while others are Extroverted, and they do behave in similar ways - introverts feel drained in big crowds or parties and extroverts need that exact same atmosphere to energize themselves. There is a lot more to being I and E but my point is that all 8 factors on the 4 scales are distinctive traits that entail specific behaviors and patterns of thought. (Before I continue, I do acknowledge that not all Introverts act alike but that they share specific traits. There are indeed moderated Extroverts who have many traits of Introverts but these extroverts will nevertheless prefer to be Extroverted. This variation within each factor creates the millions of different people on earth though they can be roughly assigned to the 16 types.) And because each factor is distinctive, the combined personalities (ie. INFJ or ESTP) can be sketched out. And because these 8 factors are not spiritual or vague, they can be determined with simple questions. Take the Kiersey Temperament Sorter and you will find that you can choose between the two sides quite easily.

reply: I took the Kiersey test and was blown away by the first question: Select one of these: Children often do not (a) make themselves useful enough? or (b) exercise their fantasy enough? Maybe you find such choices clear-cut. I don't. Maybe there should be a test which divides people up into those who find such questions clear-cut and those who don't? I didn't do an exact count, but I'd say for me fewer than half of the questions were clear-cut for me.

Thus, each person can be assigned to one of the 16 personalities because they are made up of simple building blocks (such as S or N) that are specific and explainable using psychology. And although the personality file of an INFJ is close to that of an INFP, there are marked differences between the two. The 16 types do have overlapping qualities (naturally, because factors overlap) but they are nonetheless 16 distinctive types. The biggest differences between the MBTI™ and spiritual divination endeavors is that both examiner and examinee are perfectly aware of what is happening. While it takes some psychological studies to understand everything, it is not difficult to understand the basic reasoning behind why Sensors prefer plot-summary in English class while Intuitives prefer discussing the deeper themes. There is no "spiritual" side to the MBTI™, everything is laid out and have logical reasonings behind them, not to mention actual data.

reply: Maybe I should reconsider my astrology analogy and go with the divination. I get these fideistic vibes when reading such claims as 'examiner and examinee are perfectly aware of what is happening'. Anyway, I'm glad these people use actual rather than potential data.

Furthurmore, the MBTI™ is a written test that is tangible and examines each factor several times while normal divinations come from unseen forces and appear to rely on random choosing. Ironically, when I first studied the MBTI™ by myself, I was struck by the matter-of-factness of it all. The 8 factors were distinctive tangible traits so the 4 letter combinations were based on something concrete and the outcome seemed rather obvious to me. There was nothing spiritual, vague or godly about it. For that matter, anyone interested in the MBTI™ will find books that explain the reasoning of the MBTI™ in a logical, factual, matter-of-fact fashion that astrology and biorhythyms don't.

reply: Obviously you are not a great reader of astrological charts or biorhythms.

You attack the benefits of the MBTI™ several times and I would like to point out that the main question in a skeptic's dictionary is "does it work at all?" rather than its benefits.

reply: That may be your main question, but it isn't mine. Every theory "works" in some sense of "works."

And you do not point out some major benefits of the MBTI™ that Myers and Briggs intended it to have. The central theme to the 16 types is a "celebration of differences" rather than a "distinguishing of opposites". Myers and Briggs held that Introverts are not opposites of Extroverts, they are merely different personalities. This is important in a society where the 2 factors in the 4 scales are not always 50-50. There are more Extroverts than Introverts and this explains why there is a much more negative label attached to being "reclusive, anti-social and reserved" and not to those being "out-going, sociable or even the party-animal". Because the majority of the population is Extroverted, extroversion becomes a culture norm and introverts are severely penalized unfairly. Introverts think before they speak while Extroverts need to speak their ideas and bounce them off others. In a class discussion setting, the Extrovert always has the advantage while the Introverts are unable to speak "quickly enough". An important philosophy of the MBTI™ is that it says that all factors are normal and that no one should feel "different" being Introverted. Myers and Briggs would have argued that all 16 types are equal and it is society that ranks them. Understanding your own personality helps you to foresee potential problems you have in your surroundings and to deal with them in a positive fashion and not think that it's all your own fault.

Secondly, the other important philosophy behind the MBTI™ is that conflicts can be resolved in a constructive manner. When people realize that most arguments come from these 8 factors, then compromises can be reached easier without making personal attacks. Thinkers will always see things more objectively and stay cool-headed while Feelers will always take other's feelings into account and the other differences apply to the other 3 scales. As soon as the argument is placed on a personality type level, then what compromises should be taken will become clear. In conclusion, the MBTI™ cannot be placed on the same level with astrology and crystal-gazing because it is based on tangible factors combined. There is prefect sound reasoning behind the 16 types and this reasoning is accessible to everyone without any spiritualistic powers or mysterious gems. This reasoning also has data supporting it from different psychologists. Furthermore, the MBTI™ does alleviate conflicts and tension in both family and workplace, trying to solve them in constructive manners, and reveal how society is biased towards the majority factors.

Nicholas Yee
Hong Kong 

reply: You are right. I see now that MBTI™ is more like creationism than astrology: it requires a strong faith and ability to make the data fit the theory, ignoring contrary data and introducing ad hoc hypotheses as needed. 

20 May 1997
Interesting bit on the MBTI™. I recently was compelled to take it as part of a staff retreat at work.

Though I'll observe that it doesn't even touch on what I regard as the biggest flaw of the MBTI™: the insidiously reactionary agenda behind its most typical use. Those who tend to question the way society is organized and to not blankly accept mainstream judgements at face value get "typed" into a certain "personality" which is said to be an intrinsic attribute that one is born with. Likewise, the leaders at the top of society, who typically develop belief systems to rationalize their social position in their own minds, end up with a different "personality type" (which, of course is again said to be inborn and _not_ simply a rationalization).

The message, or course, for the questioners of social norms and structures is that "you are just a member of one personality type", that social structures and positions within them are not artifical creations of society but tend to represent the underlying "personality types" of those at various levels within them, that "all types are equally valid" (read: you shouldn't question hierarchy, authority, submission, etc.) and "all are needed" (read: the current hierarchical, authoritarian modes are intrinsically right and are not to be questioned).

I cannot resist the temptation to point out the eerie parallels between this use of "personality types" and the "intrinsic racial characteristics" that were used to justify Negro slavery in an earlier era.
David Barts 

reply: I'll have to say that I missed that parallel when I examined the theory. I don't think that even its most naive proponents hold that there is a hierarchy of personality types, some being superior to others and by nature called upon to rule over their inferiors. 

17 Apr 1997

Okay, you've got me going. I loved your page when I agreed immediately with everything I was reading. I love it more now that you've challenged me to rethink some issues where we don't automatically come down on the same side.

Myers-Briggs is one such issue. I've used it three times, came up with the same answer three times, and always been pretty content that its resulting profile loosely fit what I believe of myself. While I've never held the "soft sciences" in particularly high regard for their intellectual rigor, I did feel that the exercise of conducting Myers-Briggs was useful IN CERTAIN CONTEXTS.

Specifically, each time I used it, it was in the context of understanding and managing diversity. From that perspective it was useful in conveying the concept that everyone's personality is different, and that managers and co-workers need to be aware of and manage around those differences. Now, I am not one to advocate the use of pseudoscience to promote organizational effectiveness, but at the same time I have always tried to glean value out of fiction under the belief that something does not necessarily need to be "true" to convey "truth." (Hmmm, I better check now to see if there is a Skeptic's Dictionary entry under "truth." Grin)

reply: This could get pretty deep, but I agree that fiction is often the way to many important "truths" about ourselves, other people, relationships, the universe at large, being.... And I agree that Myers-Briggs may often be fun and useful, but then so are Tarot cards....

I felt, at the time, that while the actual results of the Myers-Briggs were only marginally more earth shattering than "duh," the discussion and debate
which followed was valuable and needed to occur. It never crossed my mind that the instrument might be used for more pernicious purposes such as
employment screening or performance appraisal. In the same way, I always found Tarot Card readings a lot of fun, but then I tend to forget that some people actual make life changing choices as a result.

The act of taking a Myers-Briggs is primarily a structured process for doing an introspective "cold reading" of oneself. It will reflect nothing that the
test taker does not choose to reflect, and will faithfully record only that individual's self perception (or misperception). It cannot possible get
through the effects on individual self deception. And as such, it can deliver no real value for making important employment or organizational
decisions. I never fully considered this before, and I'm grateful for your kick-start of my reconsideration.
Frank Arduini

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