The Myers-Briggs Test: Science or Scam?

ENFJ-T. Those were my results to the Myers-Briggs personality test in my freshman year, less than three years ago. It didn’t matter if I was exhausted or hyper when I was clicking countless meters ranging from ‘agree’ to ‘disagree’. For the last two years, I was always ENFJ-T: the protagonist.

That is, up until a few days ago. Out of pure boredom, I came upon the website 16personalities.com, one of the many websites which identifies one’s Myers-Briggs type, and clicked through the survey, expecting the same conclusion. 

ESFJ-T. Had I changed? Was this a fluke?

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The contrasting results from my freshmen year to my junior year, with the percentage of each “trait”. Photos screenshotted from 16 Personalities website.

The theory behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was originally proposed in 1923 by Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. In his book Psychological Types, he described humans to use four main psychological functions: sensation, intuition, feelings, and thinking. Meanwhile, Katharine Cook Briggs, an American teacher, often analyzed her family and came up with four aspects of human personality: meditative (thoughtful), spontaneous, executive, and social. Upon discovering that Jung’s theories were incredibly similar to her own—even extending beyond them— she published two articles on this phenomenon in the journal New Republic in 1926. Her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, used these theories to construct a valid personality test that could be scored using statistical methods. Created during World War II, the test was initially intended to determine which war-time job women entering the industrial workforce would be the most comfortable with and effective at. Despite the fact that neither one of the mother-daughter duo had any formal education in psychology, their project was published as the Briggs Myers Type Indicator Handbook in 1944.

The results of the test reveal your four dominant traits, each percentage of each trait, and a comprehensive profile (often more than 4000 words) that describes aspects like your strengths and weaknesses, romantic relationships, and parenthood. Today, the website 16 Personalities contains an easily accessible personality test that utilizes these theories, and more than 100 million tests have been taken worldwide.

“It works through factor analysis– you answer a series of questions. It seeks to describe personality…in four categories and give you a holistic personality description based on that combination of traits. Some are meant to give introversion versus extroversion, some at intuition versus sensory in terms of how you gather information, feeling versus thinking about how you make decisions, and then the judging versus perceiving is kind of how you structure your life.” – Ms. Proffitt

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A sample of ten statements a respondent would receive on the 16 Personalities website. They would be expected to plot their answer on a range from ‘agree’ to ‘disagree’. Photo screenshotted from 16 Personalities website.

In recent years, SAS has used a plethora of personality tests and surveys in advisory. However, these are not really qualifiers for anything; they’re simply a discussion point or an icebreaker for students to get to know each other. Students can reflect on their results and the parts they feel they identify most with.

If anything, it’s a question of accuracy. The Myers-Briggs test has several factors helping it out: its status, its vague wording, and the tendency humans have to want to read about themselves. In this survey format, the problem stems all the way from how participants are answering the question. Ms. Proffitt, an AP Psychology teacher at SAS, said “Well the biggest concern is…when you’re answering those questions are you answering how you are, or how you think of yourself, or how you would like to be?” Our interpretation of ourselves often doesn’t align with how our friends or family think of us, and this would obviously affect the test outcomes.

Not just this, but a lot of the analysis that goes on within the test is simply unreliable. Mr. Knipmeyer, another AP Psychology teacher at SAS, recalled a time when he searched up people through history with similar Myers-Briggs personality types to those of his students in his advisory so that they could compare themselves to well-known figures. In his research, he noted that “Goebbels, one of the leaders of the Nazis in World War II, and Mother Teresa had the same personality type. So, it doesn’t really give one a full picture of personality because I think those are two very different people.”

“We found that Goebbels, one of the leaders of the Nazis in World War II, and Mother Teresa had the same personality type.” -Mr. Knipmeyer

Within human personalities, there’s always an extent to which each trait is seen as well. However, the Myers-Briggs test neglects this in their profiles. Abby Fry, a senior at SAS, pointed this as well as other flaws out shortly after taking the test, stating that “Even though I am 53% introvert and 47% extrovert, I am still described as being very private and withdrawn–even though on the survey I stated that I always initiate social conversations.”

This analysis and critique of the Myers-Briggs test can be interpreted as incredibly brutal. After all, how much should we really expect from an online survey? SAS Junior Maria Veloso said that “there’s a lot more that makes me a person rather than just am I an introvert?, or do I like imagining things? People are a lot more complex than their stated personalities”. The flexibility of the human psyche is difficult to put into words. The Myers-Briggs test already took on a demanding task to which not everyone could be satisfied with when they created their study.

So with all of these faults, why do so many people still see a truth within this test? One of their ‘tricks’ is the vague and positive wording of their lengthy descriptions. For example, on my ESFJ profile, it was stated that “At their hearts, Consul personalities are social creatures, and thrive on staying up to date with what their friends are doing”. Of course, I agree with this for myself, but then again, who would want to be shut out from their friends’ lives? Not everyone is a ‘social creature’, but almost everyone can somehow relate to wanting to know what their friends are up to–after all, they’re a friend.

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16 Personalities split up 7 billion people into precisely that– 16 groups. It’s up to test takers to evaluate how much they wish to read into their results. Photo screenshotted from 16 Personalities website.

16 Personalities as a website and the Myers-Briggs test also rely on their status as well. Carl Jung’s theories are used worldwide in countless psychology curriculums. The impressive number of more than 113 million tests taken on the 16 Personalities website would almost be enough to ensure the credibility of the ‘custom’ profiles. When asked about how accurate she thought her results were, Ms. Proffitt said “So I am an INFJ or ENFJ. It’s incredibly accurate. Again, this could just be hindsight. I’ve got this thing now and I have a confirmation bias for my own behavior”. Confirmation bias arises when new incoming evidence verifies one’s preexisting beliefs. As a teenager, I am in the process of forming the idea of who I am as a person; those around me are similarly developing their identities. These drawn-out explanations of ourselves are simply new information coming in; we can use it to confirm those identities that we have already come close to figuring out.

There’s a threshold presented when we regard how much we should use these results as well. Without a doubt, the Myers-Briggs test is a fun activity. As humans, we never stop when it comes to figuring out more about ourselves. The descriptions themselves can be harmless. However, as Mr. Knipmeyers puts, it’s nothing more than “a nice icebreaker. It’s a fun kind of way to get to know things about yourself and get a little insight. But, it is not an objective imperial study of a human’s personality”. Adding to this, Ms. Proffitt states that “the danger also comes in when people think of it as prescriptive instead of descriptive. Like, ‘I do these things because I’m an INFJ’ versus ‘I do these things and that’s being described as being an INFJ’”. We cannot put too much faith into these characterizations of ourselves. These four letters are not horoscopes; they don’t attempt to predict your future. You cannot live your life by it.

I believe that it’s merely impossible to simplify the entire human population of more than 7 billion people into only 16 different personality types. If you write 16 different profiles consisting of more than 3638 words, there’s bound to be something in there that the reader can relate to. In the same way that a Chinese Zodiac sign cannot possibly apply to everyone in your grade, these mixes of letters based on questionable theories do not tell you who you are. We should trust that we know ourselves better than a 100-question survey does.

Author: Jonna Chen

Jonna Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Eye this year. This is her fourth year in Singapore (and SAS) and her second year working with The Eye. Currently a senior, she can be found stressing over a formative quiz or poking her friends on a normal school day. Once at home, she multitasks by doing homework, organizing her life in color-coded lists, and watching Worth It on YouTube. Her phone constantly being on silent causes her to miss all her friends' calls, but she can always be contacted at chen47991@sas.edu.sg.

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