The Myers Briggs Type Indicator – What Is It and Is It Any Good?
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator, commonly referred to as the MBTI, is a personality test and theory that has both achieved enormous success as a way to test people’s personalities and sparked a huge number of varied stances and opinions during the years it has existed. From reading of a psychologist claiming that the MBTI is not accepted in the field to hearing a psychotherapist say that the test is absolutely alright, one hardly knows what to think of all of it, right? So what is MBTI all about then?
The MBTI was created by the mother-daughter duo Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, who based it on Carl Jung’s typological theory. The MBTI theory is grounded on the idea of four different continuums of personality preference, each person being located somewhere along each continuum after taking the test, and that determining the person’s four-letter Myers Briggs type. There are 16 different types (all the combinations of the letters) and each of them according to the theory shares certain basic personality preferences and a basic character type. The four different continuums are Introversion (I) – Extroversion (E), Sensing (S) – Intuition (N), Thinking (T) – Feeling (F) and Judging (J) – Perceiving (P). According to their preferences the test taker is then assigned a personality type – for example, ENFP (extroverted, intuitive, feeling, perceiving).
Still with me? Let’s delve deeper into the meanings of these labels:
The 1st Continuum (attitude towards environment)
Introversion: An introverted person is naturally inward-turning and gets their energy from spending time alone. They prefer depth instead of frequency in their social interaction.
Extroversion: An extroverted person is naturally outward-turning and gets their energy from spending time with people. They prefer more frequent social interaction and breadth in their social circles.
The 2nd Continuum (gathering information)
Sensing: A sensing person prefers information that is concrete and in the present. They use their five senses to make sense of the world around them, and are good at noticing details. They are more practical than abstract.
Intuition: An intuitive person seeks patterns and wider contexts for the information they gather, and look at future possibilities rather than focusing on the present. They look at the big picture rather than the details, and are more abstract and theoretical.
The 3rd Continuum (making decisions)
Thinking: A thinking person is fact-oriented and prefers making decisions based on logic and causality, measuring the situation by external facts.
Feeling: A feeling person is people-oriented and prefers making decisions based on consensus and balance, measuring the situation by the needs of people involved.
(Both of the above functions are used to make rational decisions, so the notion that people who prefer the feeling function are irrational is incorrect.)
The 4th Continuum (lifestyle preferences)
Judging: A judging person seeks closure in situations. They prefer planning and deliberation in their life and like to have matters settled.
(Disclaimer: judging in MBTI does not mean a person is judgmental).
Perceiving: A perceiving person is spontaneous and prefers to keep matters open before making definite decisions.
Note that these four dimensions of personality are not black and white dichotomies, but, as said above, continuums with numerous shades of black, white and gray. If you’re extroverted and the person next to you is extroverted, chances are that one of you is significantly more extroverted than the other (i.e. the preference for extroversion in daily life is stronger). We all have all of these qualities, but the test is about the general preferences a person has and how they are balanced. Everyone has a different combination of locations on the continuums, and thus, everyone is a bit different from each other – even the ones with the same type.
To complicate matters more, the theory also adds a hierarchy of cognitive functions to each type. Cognitive functions are based on sensing, intuition, thinking and feeling. There are eight different cognitive functions, which consist of the aforementioned four, being either extroverted or introverted (e.g. introverted feeling). Each MBTI type has a stack of four cognitive functions – a dominant, an auxiliary, a tertiary and an inferior. This hierarchy of functions represents the type’s default pattern of behavior. The descriptions of the functions can often be somewhat abstract and difficult to grasp, which is why I won’t go into detail of all of the functions. The cognitive functions, in any case, add layers to the MBTI theory, making each type description ultimately a quite elaborate maze of personality preferences.
As stated, the MBTI has sparked plenty of criticism, especially in the fairly recent times. One of the most repeated piece of criticism is pointed at the supposed general nature of the type descriptions. According to Dr. Ronald Riggio, the description for an individual MBTI type is “so general it can apply to anyone”. Dr. Riggio’s view is repeated by many. However, I can say that my personal empirical experience doesn’t support it. My own type is INFJ, while someone very close to me is an ESFJ. I can see myself in my type and them in their type, and I absolutely could not imagine it being the other way around, both the type descriptions and our personalities being so fundamentally different. Furthermore, after reading the descriptions of the other types, it is clear that I can personally relate to my own assigned type the most. The only other type that has a fairly high relatability to me is INFP, but even that only to a certain degree. All of this is why it is difficult to agree with a criticism that simply relies on some sort of academic understanding and contradicts one’s own experience so visibly.
Other popular criticism includes the notion that personality can’t be measured in such rigid dichotomies as the MBTI suggests. However, as I wrote above, the preferences occur in spectrums rather than black and white dichotomies. The Myers-Briggs Foundation states that the instrument tests preferences rather than fixed traits. Everyone can act according to both ends of the four continuums but the theory is concerned with what individuals generally prefer to use in their lives. This makes the criticism a bit baffling even though it, of course, does not erase the notion that the spectrums still have two ends of opposing personality preferences. Ironically enough, whether this is viewed as a rigid dichotomy or not is, I suppose, up to personal preference.
So what, ultimately, do I personally think of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator? First of all I think it is a very fascinating and fun test. But no, I don’t think it should be used in official situations and making important decisions, such as job recruitment (the practice of using the test for employment is apparently common especially in the US), because I don’t believe the test describes the full breadth of a human personality – which undoubtedly is a very intricate and complex phenomenon. However, for getting to know and understand yourself and your loved ones a bit better, I think the test is just fine (even the critical Dr. Riggio concedes “I think it’s fine for self-exploration”). Personally, I can admit to being a little bit of an MBTI geek – I say: go for it, analyze yourself and others around you, but don’t base your whole identity on the test because there are so many different sides to you and all of it can’t be quantified in your MBTI type! This is what I think after reading plenty of articles and comments with different stances on the test, but it is, of course, up to you to make up your own mind about it.
Ruminating on these kinds of tests may often bring new viewpoints and depth into the way you think about yourself; in understanding your preferences, strengths and weaknesses and how to develop yourself to be a better, more rounded person, and also in understanding when to give yourself a break. Furthermore, increasing the awareness of the inborn personality preferences we all have may better your understanding of the actions and reactions of others around you. Even if doing a test just makes you think more about the concept of personality and increases your understanding and empathy towards yourself and others, isn’t that a win?
Pretty good free online tests (not the official test, which cannot be found online):