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Myers-Briggs Type Indicator®

An instrument for measuring a person’s preferences, using four basic scales with opposite poles. The four scales are: (1) extraversion/introversion, (2) sensate/intuitive, (3) thinking/feeling, and (4) judging/perceiving. “The various combinations of these preferences result in 16 personality types,” says Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., which owns the rights to the instrument. Types are typically denoted by four letters--for example, INTJ (Introversion, Intuition with Thinking and Judging)--to represent one’s tendencies on the four scales.

According to CPP, the MBTI® is “the most widely used personality inventory in history.” According to the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, approximately 2,000,000 people a year take the MBTI. CPP claims that it “helps you improve work and personal relationships, increase productivity, and identify leadership and interpersonal communication preferences for your clients.”* Many schools use the MBTI® in career counseling. A profile for each of the sixteen types has been developed. Each profile consists of a list of “characteristics frequently associated with your type,” according to CPP. The INTJ, for example, is frequently

insightful, conceptual, and creative

rational, detached, and objectively critical

likely to have a clear vision of future possibilities

apt to enjoy complex challenges

likely to value knowledge and competence

apt to apply high standards to themselves and others

independent, trusting their own judgments and perceptions more than those of others

seen by others as reserved and hard to know

The people at CPP aren’t too concerned if the list doesn’t seem to match your type. They advise such persons to see the one who administered the test and ask for help in finding a more suitable list by changing a letter or two in your four-letter type. (See the report CPP publishes on its Web site.) Furthermore, no matter what your preferences, your behavior will still sometimes indicate contrasting behavior. Thus, no behavior can ever be used to falsify the type, and any behavior can be used to verify it.

Jung’s Psychological Types

The MBTI is based upon Carl Jung's notions of psychological types. The MBTI was first developed by Isabel Briggs Myers (1897-1979) and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. Isabel had a bachelor’s degree in political science from Swarthmore College and no academic affiliation. Katharine’s father was on the faculty of Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University). Her husband was a research physicist and became Director of the Bureau of Standards in Washington. Isabel’s husband, Clarence Myers, was a lawyer. Because Clarence was so different from the rest of the family, Katherine became interested in types. She introduced Isabel to Jung’s book, Psychological Types. Both became avid “type watchers.” Their goal was a noble one: to help people understand themselves and each other so that they might work in vocations that matched their personality types. This would make people happier and make the world a more creative, productive, and peaceful place in which to live.

According to Jung, some of us are extraverts (McGuire and Hull 1997: 213). (The spelling of “extravert” is Jung’s preference. All citations are to McGuire and Hull.) They are “more influenced by their surroundings than by their own intentions” (302). The extravert is the person “who goes by the influence of the external world--say society or sense perceptions (303). Jung also claims that “the world in general, particularly America, is extraverted as hell, the introvert has no place, because he doesn’t know that he beholds the world from within” (303). The introvert “goes by the subjective factor....he bases himself on the world from within...and...is always afraid of the external world....He always has a resentment” (303). Jung knows these things because he is a careful observer of people. He did only one statistical study in his life, and that was in astrology (315). In fact, Jung disdained statistics. “You can prove anything with statistics,” he said (306). He preferred interpreting anecdotes.1

Jung also claimed that “there is no such thing as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum. They are only terms to designate a certain penchant, a certain tendency...the tendency to be more influenced by environmental factors, or more influenced by the subjective factor, that’s all. There are people who are fairly well balanced and are just as much influenced from within as from without, or just as little” (304). Jung’s intuition turns out to be correct here and should be a red flag to those who have created a typology out of his preference categories. A typology should have a bimodal distribution, but the evidence shows that most people fall between the two extremes of introversion and extraversion. Thus, “although one person may score as an E, his or her test results may be very similar to those of another person’s, who scores as an I” (Pittenger 1993).

Jung claimed that thinking/feeling is another dichotomy to be used in psychological typing. “Thinking, roughly speaking, tells you what [something] is. Feeling tells you whether it is agreeable or not, to be accepted or rejected” (306). The final dichotomy, according to Jung, is the sensation/intuition dichotomy. “Sensation tells you that there is something....And intuition--now there is a difficulty....There is something funny about intuition” (306). Even so, he defines intuition as “a perception via the unconscious” (307).

Jung claims that it took him a long time to discover that not everybody was a thinking (or intellectual) type like himself. He claims that he discovered there are “four aspects of conscious orientation” (341). He claims he arrived at his typology “through the study of all sorts of human types” (342). These four orientations cover it all, he claims.

I came to the conclusion that there must be as many different ways of viewing the world [as there are psychological types]. The aspect of the world is not one, it is many--at least 16, and you can just as well say 360. You can increase the number of principles, but I found the most simple way is the way I told you, the division by four, the simple and natural division of a circle. I didn’t know the symbolism then of this particular classification. Only when I studied the archetypes did I become aware that this is a very important archetypal pattern that plays an enormous role. (342)

Jung’s evidence, from his clinical observations, is merely anecdotal. He talks about the extravert and the introvert as types. He also talks about the thinking type, the feeling type, the sensation type, and the intuition type. His evidence for his claims is not based on any controlled studies. He said he “probably would have done them” if he had had the means (315). But as it was, he says, “I had to content myself with the observation of facts” (315).

Jung seems to have realized the limitations of his work and may not have approved of the MBTI had he lived to see it developed in his name. “My scheme of typology,” he noted, “is only a scheme of orientation. There is such a factor as introversion, there is such a factor as extraversion. The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist to explain for instance, the husband to a wife or vice versa” (305).

However, his typology seems to imply that science is just a point of view and that using intuition is just as valid a way of seeing and understanding the world and ourselves as is careful observation under controlled conditions. Never mind that that is the only way to systematically minimize self-deception or prevent identifying causes where there are none.

Isabel Briggs Myers made similar mistakes:

In describing the writing of the Manual, she mentioned that she considered the criticisms a thinker would make, and then directed her own thinking to find an answer. An extravert to whom she was speaking said that if he wanted to know the criticisms of thinkers, he would not look into his own head. He would go find some thinkers, and ask them. Isabel looked startled, and then amused.* 

This anecdote typifies the dangers of self-validation. To think that you can anticipate and characterize criticisms of your views fairly and accurately is arrogant and unintelligent, even if it is typical of your personality type. Others will see things you don’t. It is too easy to create straw men instead of facing up to the strongest challenges that can be made against your position. It is not because of type that one should send out one’s views for critical appraisal by others. It is the only way to be open-minded and complete in one’s thinking. To suggest that only people of a certain type can be open-minded or concerned with completeness is to encourage sloppy and imprecise thinking.

The Myers-Briggs Instrument

Isabel Briggs Myers learned test construction by studying the personnel tests of a local bank. She worked up her inventories with the help of family and friends, and she tried her early tests on thousands of schoolchildren in Pennsylvania. Her first longitudinal study was on medical students, who she followed up after 12 years and found that their occupations fit their types. She eventually became convinced that she knew what traits people in the health professions should have (“accurate perception and informed judgment”). She not only thought her tests could help select who would make good nurses and physicians, but “she hoped the use of the MBTI® in training physicians and nurses would lead to programs during medical school for increasing command of perception and judgment for all types, and for helping students choose specialties most suited to their gifts.”

Others eventually helped her modify and develop her test, which was taken over by CPP in 1975. CPP has turned it into the instrument it is today.  “I know intuitive types will have to change the MBTI,” she said. “That’s in their nature. But I do hope that before they change it, they will first try to understand what I did. I did have my reasons.”*

As noted above, the Myers-BriggsTM instrument generates sixteen distinct personality profiles based on which side of the four scales one tends toward. Technically, the instrument is not supposed to be used to spew out personality profiles and pigeonhole people, but the temptation to do so seems irresistible. Providing personality tests and profiles has become a kind of entertainment on the Internet. There is also a pernicious side to these profiles: they can lead to discrimination and poor career counseling. Employers may hire, fire, or assign personnel by personality type, despite the fact that the MBTI® is not even reliable at identifying one’s type. Several studies have shown that when retested, even after intervals as short as five weeks, as many as 50 percent will be classified into a different type. There is scant support for the belief that the MBTI® would justify such job discrimination or would be a reliable aid to someone seeking career guidance (Pittenger 1993).

Here are some excerpts from Myers-BriggsTM profiles. Note how parts of each profile could fit most people.

1. Serious, quiet, earn success by concentration and thoroughness. Practical, orderly, matter-of-fact, logical, realistic and dependable. See to it that everything is well organized. Take responsibility. Make up their own minds as to what should be accomplished and work toward it steadily, regardless of protests or distractions.

2. Usually have original minds and great drive for their own ideas and purposes. In fields that appeal to them, they have a fine power to organize a job and carry it through with or without help. Skeptical, critical, independent, determined, sometimes stubborn. Must learn to yield less important points in order to win the most important.

The first profile is of an ISTJ (introversion, sensation, thinking, judgment), a.k.a. “The Trustee.” The second is of INTJ (introversion, intuition, thinking judgment), a.k.a. “The Scientist.” The profiles read like something from Omar the astrologer and seem to exemplify the Forer effect.

(Note: One reader wrote me to complain that my "claim that any type to a significant extent fits most people is absolute nonsense." Perhaps others have also misread my concluding remarks in this entry. What I suggest is that some parts of the profiles could apply to most people, a characteristic shared by other kinds of readings such as astrological or psychic readings. I do not claim that any profile, taken as a whole, will fit most people. I am not suggesting that one type fits all. Since the various profiles are based on information the client has provided, they shouldn't be telling the customer anything about himself that he doesn't already know. Thus, just as psychics have many satisfied customers because they feed back to clients what the clients have told them, and they make claims that could apply to most people or that most people would want to be true, so too do Myers-Briggs folks have many satisfied customers. In any case, those who read the above article carefully recognize that the main problem is not with the accuracy of the profiles but with the way they are abused by employers and others.)

See also my comments on personality type tests in Newsletter 1112 and the SD entries on Niednagel's Brain Typing and the enneagram.


1. For example, to support his notion that "intuitive types very often do not perceive by their eyes or by their ears, they perceive by intuition" (308), Jung tells a story about a patient. She had a nine a.m. appointment and said to Jung: "you must have seen somebody at eight o'clock." She tells him she knows this because "I just had a hunch that there must have been a gentleman with you this morning." She knows it was a gentleman, she says, because "I just had the impression, the atmosphere was just like a gentleman was here." Jung seems uninterested in critically examining her claims. The anecdote seems to support his picture of the intuitive type. He doesn't consider that she may have seen the gentleman leave but failed to mention this to Jung, perhaps to impress him with her power of intuition. Jung notes that the room smelled of tobacco smoke and there was a half-smoked cigar in an ash tray "under her nose." Jung claims she didn't see it. He doesn't even consider that she may have seen it and smelled the stench of the cigar but did not call attention to it.

The reason scientists do controlled studies rather than rely solely on their clinical observations and memories as Jung did is because it is easy to deceive ourselves and fit the data to our hypotheses and theories. Another Jungian anecdote will help exemplify this point. A male "sensation type" and a female "intuitive type" were in a boat on a lake. They were watching birds dive after fish. According to Jung, "they began to bet who would be the first to see the bird [when it emerged from the water]. Now you would think that the one who observes reality very carefully--the sensation type--would of course win out. Not at all. The woman won the bet completely. She was beating him on all points, because by intuition she knew it beforehand" (306-307, emphasis added). One couple, one try. That's it. No more evidence is needed. The truth is that Jung doesn't know any more than I do why the woman was better at the game than the man. Perhaps the man lost on purpose as part of a misguided plan to seduce the woman. Who knows? But Jung is clearly begging the question with this and most of his other "observations of facts," as he calls these stories.

Some of his anecdotes may have been entirely fictional. For example, to support his notions of intuition and synchronicity, he says:

For instance, I speak of a red car and at that moment a red car comes along. I hadn't seen it, it was impossible because it was behind the building until just this moment when the red car appears. Now this seems mere chance. Yet the Rhine experiments [on ESP] proves that these cases are not mere chance. Of course many of these things are occurrences to which we cannot apply such an argument, otherwise we would be superstitious. We can't say, "This car has appeared because some remarks had been made about a red car. It is a miracle that the red car appears." It is not, it is chance, just chance. But these "chances" happen more often than chance allows, and that shows there is something behind it (315, emphasis added).

Again, had Jung an understanding of statistics he would know that what he thinks happens more often than chance allows, in fact happens in accordance with what chance not only allows but also expects.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Dawes, Robyn M. House of Cards - Psychology and Psychotherapy Built on Myth, (New York: The Free Press, 1994).

Forer, B.R. "The Fallacy of Personal Validation," Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 1949.

McGuire, William and R. F. C. Hull, eds., C. G. Jung Speaking (Princeton University Press, 1977).

Paul, Annie Murphy. (2004). The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. Free Press.

Pittenger, David J. “Measuring the MBTI and Coming Up Short.” Journal of Career Planning & Placement. Fall 1993.

Quenk, Naomi L. Essentials of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Assessment (John Wiley & Sons, 1999).

Thiriart. "Acceptance of personality test results," Skeptical Inquirer, WINTER 1991 (vol. 15, no. 2).


The Enneagram and the MBTI®

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® Online Discover your personality today!

CARL JUNG 1875 - 1961 by Dr. C. George Boeree

The Relationship Between Psychological Type and Professional Orientation Among Technology Education Teachers by Robert C. Wicklein & Jay W. Rojewski

GSU Master Teacher Program: On Learning Styles

The Story of Isabel Briggs Myers


Myers-Briggs personality test embraced by employers, not psychologists "... despite its widespread use and vast financial success, and although it was derived from the work of Carl Jung, one of the most famous psychologists of the 20th century, the test is highly questioned by the scientific community."

Last updated 27-Oct-2015

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