I got a question for the Diecast this week, and I really felt like I couldn’t do it justice in the context of a podcast due to the inherent complexity. Also, Paul didn’t have much to say on the issue. So here it is:
Thanks as always for your hard work. Random question for you — have either of you ever taken a Meyers-Briggs (aka MBTI) personality type test, such as the kind found here?
It’s possible to put too much stock in them; I think they’re a good starting point for understanding people rather than an ending point. Nonetheless, it’s nice to have a good starting point, and I’ve found that trying to understand people as (for instance) intuitive vs not, or extroverted vs introverted can really be beneficial. Talking through personality type differences has been something really fruitful for my wife and I lately, as we approach our tenth anniversary and still find there are things worth discovering about one another :)
So, the follow-up question is (assuming you’ve taken the test) what personality types you are, and whether this kind of categorization ever proves useful in understanding yourselves or other people in your lives.
~David F. Ellrod, Sr.
I find this topic to be really interesting, but every time I bring it up there’s always a bunch of eye-rolling and general hostility from a handful of people. The Meyers-Briggs is not much respected these days. In fact, the Wikipedia entry on it spends more time discussing the criticism of the Meyers-Briggs than actually explaining the Meyers-Briggs itself!
In general, this criticism can be divided into two broad categories:
- The test is tautological. You answer a bunch of questions in a way that indicates you’re introverted, and at the end it tells you that you’re an introvert.
- The test is meaningless and random. It’s no more useful or relevant than a horoscope.
Of course, these things can’t both be true. I’m a big believer that #1 is true, so #2 never makes any sense to me.
However, I think this suspicion and hostility is the result of how the test has presented itself in the past. I haven’t taken the Meyers-Briggs in almost 20 years, but back then it had the style and presentation of those frivolous online quizzes like “Which Power Ranger are you?” and “Which house would you belong to in Hogwarts?” It gave a little blurb describing your personality, and it was a little overeager to make bold declarations for traits that were borderline. It also listed famous people with your same personality type. It was definitely tapping into the same general appeal of a horoscope, of having a test describe you in various flattering ways.
The tests did this for years, and I think it eventually sabotaged the public perception of the Meyers-Briggs system. Ironically, I think the biggest problem with M-B is that people keep trying to turn it into a business. That means taking steps to drive engagement, encouraging people to share the test with strangers, and make promises that the system was never designed to fulfill. I just looked at the link that David provided, and I see right on the front page there’s a section labeled, “Unlock Your Potential – Grow into the person you want to be with your optional Premium Profile.” Ew. The M-B system has uses, but it can’t – and was never designed to – change your personality.
If you’ve never heard of it, the system goes something like this:
The test is called the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. In the MBTI, your personality is divided into four sections.
Introversion / Extroversion:
Also called “extraversion”. I think most people are familiar with this. Introverts generally have a small number of close friends, while extroverts generally have a long list of acquaintances. Introverts prefer being alone or in small groups of familiar people, while extroverts love large gatherings and meeting new people.
This trait exists on a spectrum. The MBTI even measures it as one. But then at the end it collapses that spectrum into a binary where you’re either an Extrovert (E) or an Introvert (I). This is one of the reasons the system is criticized for being a bunch of nonsense. It’s possible for someone to be in the middle of this spectrum. So if you lean towards introversion ever so slightly, the results page will declare you an introvert and list all of these traits that don’t apply to you. This is also why the test gets criticized for giving different results for the same person on different occasions.
Imagine if the results were expressed as a number from 0 to 100. If you took the test one day and got 48, and the next day you got 52, then I think most people would agree that this is a fairly reliable measurement, given the inherent difficulty of quantifying something as imprecise as “personality”. But instead, the test says that everything below 50 is Introvert and everything above is Extrovert. Which means that you got introvert on the first test and extrovert on the second. Again, turning a spectrum into a binary makes things nice and simple for the general public by reducing a complex spectrum into a binary answer, but it does so at the expense of making the test unreliable.
Sensing / Intuition:
In general, this is related to how you perceive the world around you. Do you use your senses (S) or intuition (N)? I’ll just let Wikipedia describe this one:
Sensing and intuition are the information-gathering (perceiving) functions. They describe how new information is understood and interpreted. People who prefer sensing are more likely to trust information that is in the present, tangible, and concrete: that is, information that can be understood by the five senses. They tend to distrust hunches, which seem to come “out of nowhere”. They prefer to look for details and facts. For them, the meaning is in the data. On the other hand, those who prefer intuition tend to trust information that is less dependent upon the senses, that can be associated with other information (either remembered or discovered by seeking a wider context or pattern). They may be more interested in future possibilities. For them, the meaning is in the underlying theory and principles which are manifested in the data.
Thinking / Feeling:
This one encompasses a lot of different ideas, but the big one for me is how much tact a person has. Do you like to state plain facts you believe to be true (T) or do you use your feelings (F) to avoid upsetting someone? If your wife asks if this dress makes her look fat, do you tell her the truth, or do you lean towards telling her what she wants to hear?
This goes both ways. We tend to project our preferences onto other people. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t get emotionally hurt when someone tells you you’re putting on weight, then you’ll probably treat other people the way you want to be treated. (That is, blunt honesty.)
Judging / Perception
Here is another one that bundles things that usually (but not always) go together.
Do you like getting a decision out of the way (J) or would you prefer to put off the decision while you gather more information(P)? When you have an unpleasant task to do, would you prefer to get it done first (J) or do you procrastinate (P)? In your personal space (like a desk, workbench, garden, etc) do you prefer to have everything organized (J) or do you tend to leave it messy or cluttered (P)? When you decorate, do you have a minimalist style where the room is very open and the clutter is hidden away (J) or do you put knick-knacks on every shelf, pictures all over the walls, and throw pillows everywhere you can (P)?
The 16 Types:
So we have 4 traits, with a binary answer for each. If you know your binary numbers, then you realize this gives us 16 possible types. Here are two examples:
(E) An Extrovert…
(S) with very concrete thinking, often a manager or engineer of some sort…
(T) who tends to communicate in plain facts without worrying about the feelings of others…
(J) and who prefers a clean house and getting their work done before they goof off.
(I) An introverted…
(N) iNtuitive sort with very creative thinking, possibly an artist of some sort…
(F) who tends to be sensitive and easily hurt while also caring a great deal about the feelings of others…
(P) who keeps a cluttered room and tends to procrastinate.
Hopefully you get the idea.
So What’s the Point of All This?
If you’re curious, a more respected system is The Big Five. That system has five traits instead of four, and they’re expressed as a spectrum instead of a binary. This is the system typically used by clinical psychologists. I gather that M-B is looked down on as a “toy” systemOr worse. in those circles. On the other hand, the MBTI is much more comprehensible and accessible to the general public.
I’ve listed a lot of problems with the M-B. It’s unreliable, overly reductive, tautological, imprecise, not respected by experts, and it’s a bit of a mess. So why am I a fan?
Like David above, I’m not as attached to the descriptions of individuals as I am to the general ideas expressed by the system. Specifically, I think a huge number of common interpersonal problems are the result of people fundamentally not understanding what personalities are or how they work.
Please Understand Me
When I was young, my mother (a massive extrovert) was always pushing me (a MASSIVE introvert) to go out and DO something. Leave the house! Spend time with your friends! Like most people, she was projecting her preferences onto everyone else. I was alone all the time, and so she assumed I was missing out on the joy of socializing. When I was little she was always shoving me in the direction of people she knew and telling me to introduce myself. I didn’t have a way to explain to her that her suggestions would lead me to terror and misery.
Other kids have neat-freak parents (***J types) that are always pushing their kids to “Clean up your room!”. And the kid (a ***P type) invariably answers “But it IS clean!” The parent looks at the cluttered desk and assumes it’s the result of laziness, not personal preference. They look at the kid’s laptop, which is covered with dozens of stickers, and demand to know why the kid “ruined” it. To the kid, the machine was sterile, impersonal, and it didn’t feel like it was theirs until they personalized it with stickers and hand-drawn doodles.
Or you’ll have a (**T*) boss who is blunt and careless when criticizing the work of their super-sensitive (**F*) employee. The boss just thinks they’re being straightforward, while the employee thinks, “My boss hates me. He’s so mean all the time!” This lowers their morale, makes them think that nothing will be good enough for their “asshole” boss, so they stop trying. If you’re going to be criticized no matter what you do, then it’s better to not work too hard for the daily erosion of your self-esteem. Meanwhile, the boss thinks, “Everyone here is too sensitive. People keep complaining to HR because they can’t handle criticism. I’m just doing my job.”
Maybe a parent needs to explain why the dog needs to be put down. Their sensitive child is inconsolable. Dad (*S**) tries to make all of these factual arguments to comfort the kid: The dog will be dead soon anyway. He’s actually lived a long time for a dog. We can get you a new dog. But these facts are of no comfort to the kid (*I**), and actually make him think that Dad is heartless. If Dad had a better understanding of how the kid thinks, he could make an argument that appeals to emotion, which is what the kid needs. “Look, we all love the dog very much. But he’s suffering all the time. And that suffering is going to get worse in the coming weeks. This is the only way to end his pain. We gave him a good home and a good life, but now this is the only thing we can do for him. We’re not doing this to be mean. We’re doing it because we love him.”
Just knowing that the system exists can make you a better parent, coach, boss, preacher, or caregiver. Some people understand this stuff intuitively, but a lot of people don’t. Understanding the MB system can help those people spot the difference between a difference in personality and an actual problem. It’ll help them communicate with other people. It’ll help maintain morale, avoid frustrating other people, and help them make more persuasive arguments.
The most popular book regarding the MBTI is even called Please Understand Me.I have not read it. The value of the system isn’t in shoving everyone you know into one of 16 boxes. (And it’s certainly not appropriate to use as a guide for hiring people, which was actually a fad back in the early aughts. Yikes.) The system is more useful for helping you identify when you’ve got a conflict based on a lack of understanding of personality. It’s not helpful knowing that random person X is an EFTJ or whatever, but knowing that introversion vs. extroversion is a thing is immensely useful!
To answer David with regards to my own personality, I’m an INFx. The last digit is pretty borderline. I’m prone to procrastination and I hate making big decisions, but I also keep my desk very open and I hate clutter. So I’m either an INFP or INFJ. (Or the test is conflating two different ideas with the J/P spectrum. My wife is the opposite of me: She likes to get work out of the way, but she goes crazy if her desk / drawing table is “too clean”. She puts stickers on everything. All of her stuff is personalized and cluttered.)
So that’s why I’m into M-B. My personality type is a bit rare. INFP’s are just 4.4% of the general population, and INFJ’s are the rarest at a measly 1.5%. This means I tend to be more acutely aware of personality differences than people with some of the more “mainstream” personality types. The more popular personalities have a bad habit of assuming everyone has the same preferences, and the people with other behaviors are dumb, thoughtless, or just bad at life. Which means I want the more common types to familiarize themselves with Meyers-Briggs so they can understand that I’m not crazy or dysfunctional, just different.
Sadly, those folks are also the ones most likely to dismiss the whole thing as bunk.
 Or worse.
 I have not read it.
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