When Francis Galton posited individual differences existed based on genetics, he turned the world on its head. Philosophers could no longer claim people were blank slates. Rather, they had ingrained traits that were difficult, and even impossible, to change an insight that troubled society for over 130 years. Psychologists were eager to jump on this new idea, proposing various tests and methods to measure these traits. These assessment techniques became the basis for the emergence of the modern world and were quickly adapted by various modern organizations: the military, government agencies, corporations, educational systems, and medical organizations. It is like the world has become one big test. Testing made the world fairer, but at the cost of losing the uniqueness of the individual or the belief that mind, character, and personality were not fixed by nature, but adaptable.
With this in mind, Merve Emre, an Oxford University professor, has written an interesting and thought provoking book about one of those tests, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a well-known model of assessing one’s type or personality. More than two million people take the MBTI in a year. Mostly, Emre has written the story of the two women attached to that model, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. Although both were educated, neither woman had training in psychology or psychometrics. What they had was a strong will, entrepreneurial spirit, and an obsessive, indeed maybe even a religious, zeal. It was a story that could only occur in America.
The strengths of the book are as follows. Firstly, as befitting an English professor, the book is well written and tells a crackling good tale about Briggs and Briggs Myers. Secondly, she has a remarkable ability to create empathy for Briggs and Briggs Myers. For example, Briggs’s concern with type largely came from her difficulty in reconciling her religious belief with scientific evidence. In addition, her retelling of the complex relationship between Briggs and Briggs Myers was fraught with confusion and hostility. Likewise, the intersection between various members of psychology, such as Henry Murray, Edward Northup Hay, Donald MacKinnon, Henry Chauncey and MBTI is fascinating and well done.
Mostly, Emre’s observation that the great insight of Briggs and Briggs Myers was not in psychology, but peddling a tool so that people could find insight and understanding of themselves, even in the face of a lack of scientific validity of the tool. Her descriptions and observations over how people treat MBTI as a religion rather than a psychological tool is funny, if not for the stakes being so high. The chants of “type does not change” sounds more like a religious prayer than a statement that would come from a trained psychologist.
Emre’s has another apt observation; MBTI become a tool that people can use to understand themselves and their place in the world. Although people learn they are similar to others, for certain personality types, it could be liberating. Take Briggs’s early life, introverted, highly intelligent, and non-athletic, she was probably separate from most of her classmates and presumably had a difficult time finding friends. But when, through a test, she discovered that there are others out there like her, it could be comforting. As much as people claim they want individuality, they also want social acceptance from their peers. In fact, believing oneself to be radically different from others is usually a sign of a dangerous narcissist.
Emre points out the obvious problem with such an approach, that such tests can flatten human behavior into a “static predetermined set of traits” that are used by “powerful institutions” to support their own affairs. Basing this concept is her regarding of such organizational classics such as William H. Whyte’s The Organization Man. However, Emre does not recognize that all groups impose conformity on its members. I wish that she had consulted newer literature on organizational behavior.
There are several problems in the book. The largest is that Emre does not have any training in psychology, meaning that she lacks the understanding of psychometrics. For example, she does not understand the difference between statistical significance and test/retest reliability. Nor really does she dive into the concept of validity in the book, which for a book on a psychological concept is a major miss. The fact that type does change, at least in measurement, means that the MBTI measures lack validity. Likewise, concepts, such as test theory, faking, relationship between personality, and intelligence, are not mentioned. The citations do not have many references to scholarly journals or addresses the larger historical atmosphere. Industrial and organizational psychologists were never fooled. In fact, psychologists and management scholars discounted the use of personality in the workplace up to the 1990s.
Little attention is given to other measures of personality that are used, such as the Big Five, which is valid and reliable. In fact, many of the problems that Emre points out about MBTI, such as dividing people into categories; lack of validity and reliability; have been corrected by the Big Five model. Personality is not a dichotomy, although we often make it one to understand, but rather it is a continuum between various aspects. But there is little to no mention of the Big Five or any other recent model of personality. Basically, Emre is willing to discount all psychometrics based on the failings of MBTI, even though there are measures that are accurate, such as intelligence. She admits she does so because such measures support those in power and because there is racial/sexist bias with measures. Of course, personality is usually free from biases, unlike other measures such as intelligence.
Mostly, the book reads like a psychology book written by an English Professor; a stylish, well-written, and an engrossing story but one that lacks depth and nuance. It is a much better biography of Briggs and Briggs-Meyers than a history of the MBTI. The world can be divided between those who understand psychometrics and those who do not. Unfortunately, Emre falls in the latter category.