"In 1993, 89 of the Fortune top 100 companies were administering the Myers-Briggs test to their employees. The philosophy behind personality tests is that they don't want you to be in the wrong kind of job. The tests have been completely exposed as nonsense."
-- Barbara Ehrenreich 

Best-selling author and muckraker Barbara Ehrenreich is right -- the very familiar and widespread Myers-Briggs personality test has indeed been denounced in recent years as not valid or useful. Many still believe, though.

Is there still some value in the test? Here's a look at how it can be used in the business world and what critics have said. See what you think.

blurry woman in suit writing on a graph with introvert-extrovert and sensing-intuitive as the two axes

Image source: Getty Images.

Your Myers-Briggs type: What it is

The "Myers-Briggs Type Indicator" (MBTI) assessment is a kind of personality test developed decades ago. More than 50 million people have taken it, and some 2 million or more take it annually, paying to do so and generating about $20 million annually for the company that offers it. According to The Washington Post:

More than 10,000 companies, 2,500 colleges and universities, and 200 government agencies in the United States use the test. From the State Department to McKinsey & Co., it's a rite of passage. It's estimated that 50 million people have taken the Myers-Briggs personality test since the Educational Testing Service first added the research to its portfolio in 1962.

Drawing on the psychology of Carl Jung, the MBTI features 93 questions aimed at determining where you fall on four "dichotomies," resulting in your classification as belonging to one of 16 personality types. Here, from CPP, Inc., the company that markets the MBTI, are the four dichotomies:

  • Extroversion (E) and Introversion (I): differentiating people who direct their energy primarily outward toward other people and events from people who direct their energy primarily inward toward their inner environment, thoughts, and experiences.

  • Sensing (S) and Intuition (N): differentiating people who take in information primarily through the five senses and immediate experience from people who take in information primarily through hunches and impressions and are more interested in future possibilities.

  • Thinking (T) and Feeling (F): differentiating people who make decisions primarily based on logic and objectivity from people who make decisions primarily based on personal values and the effects their decisions will have on others.

  • Judging (J) and Perceiving (P): differentiating people who prefer structure, plans, and achieving closure quickly from those who prefer flexibility, spontaneity, and keeping their options open.

These four sets of possible classifications result in the 16 possible types that are referred to with the preceding letters: ENTJ, ISFP, and so on. Here are the 16, ranked by the percentage of the population that falls in each:

Type

Percentage of Population

ISFJ

13.8%

ESFJ

12.3%

ISTJ

11.6%

ISFP

8.8%

ESTJ

8.7%

ESFP

8.5%

ENFP

8.1%

ISTP

5.4%

INFP

4.4%

ESTP

4.3%

INTP

3.3%

ENTP

3.2%

ENFJ

2.5%

INTJ

2.1%

ENTJ

1.8%

INFJ

1.5%

Source: Careerplanner.com. 

As an example, here's a summary of the most common type, the ISFJ, from the myersbriggs.org site:

Quiet, friendly, responsible, and conscientious. Committed and steady in meeting their obligations. Thorough, painstaking, and accurate. Loyal, considerate, notice and remember specifics about people who are important to them, concerned with how others feel. Strive to create an orderly and harmonious environment at work and at home.

Proponents of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator believe that knowing our types and the types of others can help us get along better and work alongside each other better.

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Myers-Briggs types, applied to business

Many in the business world have embraced the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, in various ways. Understanding the personality types of your coworkers, bosses, and underlings can, arguably, help you work better with them, motivate them more effectively, and group them into more productive arrangements instead of, say, partnering two clashing personality types.

In the hiring process, knowing a candidate's type may offer insights into what will motivate the worker and what they may need to be successful. Some types are more suited to repetitive tasks, for example, while others are good at dealing with people and resolving problems. Delving into the personality types of customers might also help design marketing campaigns that will effectively speak to them.

Even individual workers might use type-related insights to think about what kinds of jobs might suit them best. Their current position might not be the best fit.

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Image source: Getty Images.

The case against Myers-Briggs types

Increasingly, the Myers-Briggs system has been criticized. Let's review some of the problems critics have cited.

For starters, the system requires that each personality be assigned one of the two preference tendencies in each dichotomy, but those dichotomies might more accurately be seen as continuums, with people falling in different places along them. While one person might have strong introvert tendencies, another might also be classified as an introvert but might only slightly be one. Even Carl Jung, on whose theories the system is based, said that "there is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum." Indeed, many people who take the test multiple times get different results.

Then there's the fact that much of Jung's thinking has not stood the test of time and is not widely accepted. For example, he believed in a "collective unconscious" housing repressed memories from our ancestral and evolutionary past.

A Vox critique of Myers-Briggs points out that each type's description is positive ("thinker," "nurturer," etc.), painting a rosy picture for anyone taking the test. Thus, part of its popularity might lie in the pleasure of taking the test and reviewing results.

Multiple studies have found the system ineffective in being able to predict how successful various people would be at various jobs.

Perhaps most damning of all, relatively few psychologists use the test. There are, after all, plenty of other tests that have stood up better to scrutiny and review.

So, does your Myers-Briggs personality type really matter? The answer is probably not. Some employers and others may put a lot of stock in it, but a careful review of it suggests it mainly offers entertainment value. That said, there is value in thinking about and exploring what motivates you, how you interact with people, and how you operate in life. Insights found there might help you get along and get ahead better.

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