Tested to distraction, Myers Briggs and the like…


So here is how it goes for most of us.

The company/organisation/bureaucracy that you work for is in trouble. There have been rumours of cuts and financial black holes for months. Anxiety gathers like dust on every workstation. Eventually the inevitable happens- it is announced that there will be a ‘restructuring’ of the workforce.

Because our managers are human too (and soon to be subject to their own version of the same) it is possible that a firm of consultants will be brought in- people with relevant expertise in helping other organisations through the ‘essential modernisation process.’ Their skill set is to bring anonymous quasi-scientific ruthlessness to bear in such a way that changes appear inevitable, inexorable.

They will no doubt set up meetings with individual members of staff, who will be subjected to ‘evaluations’ and ‘reviews of job role’. This process will almost always miss the crucial ingredients for the productivity or otherwise of your team- it will not be able to deal with the bullies or the psychopaths, who will probably find the process entertaining, motivating invigorating.

To add to the feeling of objectivity, the consultants will also employ various forms of psychometric testing to measure our supposed fitness for the job roles we are undertaking.

The most common of all being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI.)

Within a few short months, a handful of people will have succumbed to stress related illnesses or high blood pressure. Strangely, unless they decide to jump ship, their employment will probably be safe- although they are very unlikely to rise any further in their organisation. Rather they will be given a backwater to swim quietly in until the next reorganisation.

A few others will be made redundant. Some of them will have made a positive choice in this direction- it is better to have your fate in your own hands of course.

Many more will be in lower paid jobs. There will be fewer middle managers, and staff will be increasingly called ‘autonomous professionals’.

It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Sorry about that- I felt the cynicism building up in my fingers like lactic acid as I typed away…

But back to the point of this piece, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and its many imitators.  It was developed by a couple of ladies during world war two who had become fans of the wild and wonderful work of Carl Jung. Jung had this view of personality as being made up of dichotomies- polar opposites that we all find ourselves fixed upon; our ‘type’. This from Wikipedia;

Jung’s typological model regards psychological type as similar to left or right handedness: individuals are either born with, or develop, certain preferred ways of perceiving and deciding. The MBTI sorts some of these psychological differences into four opposite pairs, or dichotomies, with a resulting 16 possible psychological types. None of these types are better or worse; however, Briggs and Myers theorized that individuals naturally prefer one overall combination of type differences.[1]:9 In the same way that writing with the left hand is hard work for a right-hander, so people tend to find using their opposite psychological preferences more difficult, even if they can become more proficient (and therefore behaviorally flexible) with practice and development.

The 16 types are typically referred to by an abbreviation of four letters—the initial letters of each of their four type preferences (except in the case of intuition, which uses the abbreviation N to distinguish it from Introversion). For instance:

  • ESTJ: extraversion (E), sensing (S), thinking (T), judgment (J)
  • INFP: introversion (I), intuition (N), feeling (F), perception (P)

All of this has a real seductive truism to it- it manages to place us all in a pigeon hole that we are all more or less happy with as it all feels very neutral and more or less supportive of some of our good qualities. Where is the harm in that?

Well, as with all these things, it depends on the use we put things to. If we are going to use something like Myers Briggs as a blunt instrument to knock people into jobs like we would a pit prop, then we need to be pretty sure that it is testing something real, something that makes sense on more levels than our employers organisational convenience right?

Because there is a vase array of criticisms of Myers Briggs. It is simply not used by psychologists- even the ones who are prepared to concede the validity and usefulness of individualised psychometric testing.

This from the Guardian

The trouble is, the more you look into the specifics of the MBTI, the more questionable the way it’s widespread use appears to be. There are numerouscomprehensivecritiques about it online, but the most obvious flaw is that the MBTI seems to rely exclusively on binary choices.

For example, in the category of extrovert v introvert, you’re either one or the other; there is no middle ground. People don’t work this way, no normal person is either 100% extrovert or 100% introvert, just as people’s political views aren’t purely “communist” or “fascist”. Many who use the MBTI claim otherwise, despite the fact that Jung himself disagreed with this and statistical analysis reveals even data produced by the test shows a normal distribution rather thanbimodal, refuting the either/or claims of the MBTI. But still this overly-simplified interpretation of human personality endures, even in the Guardian Science section!

Generally, although not completely unscientific, the MBTI gives a ridiculously limited and simplified view of human personality, which is a very complex and tricky concept to pin down and study. The scientific study of personality is indeed a valid discipline, and there are many personality tests that seemingly hold up to scientific scrutiny (thus far). It just appears that MBTI isn’t one of them.

The lure of a quick fix. An easy simplification. MBTI appears to me to be to psychology what astrology is to astronomy- it uses some shared language but that is about it. It has entered our hospitals, our schools, even our churches….

We are not captured in this narrow set of words about who we are. Sometimes we are both and. Sometimes we revert to ‘type’, often re transcend it. Let us escape the bloody tramlines- whatever ways we do it.

And as I write this, I will be accused of over simplifying MBTI, of dismissing its usefulness. No doubt people will say that those of my type always tend to do these things.

My reply will be that when quasi scientific quackery rises so far as to become a force for narrow stereotypical judgements it becomes a force of empire, and the empire should be resisted.


3 thoughts on “Tested to distraction, Myers Briggs and the like…

  1. MBTI – utter bollocks serving no useful purpose. Yet the MTBI priests will continue to defend their religion.

    • Thanks for the comment. The piece you mention rather underlines the point however- MBTI is a bit of fun, a collection of shallow truisms that only becomes a problem when people take it too seriously- either as a tool to use on others, or even as a badge to wear ourselves…

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