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RecensionsBook Reviews

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, By Merve Emre (2018) New York, Doubleday: Penguin Random House, 336 pages. ISBN: 978-0-385-54190-9[Record]

  • Jeffrey Muldoon

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  • Jeffrey Muldoon
    Associate Professor, School of Business, Emporia State University, Emporia, Kansas, USA

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 …