Guest Column: How accurate is the Myers-Briggs?

Guest Column: How accurate is the Myers-Briggs?

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Article by Forest Swisher

My name is Forest Swisher, and I’m an ENFP. At least, that’s what I was told the first time I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. That was back in January when I was putting together a resume and read online that the Myers-Briggs test was a great way to sort people into categories based on personality. The description was perfect! It said that I was extroverted and comfortable in social situations, but liked to have time to myself. It said that I focus mainly on my own thoughts and feelings rather than observing others, but I can direct my attention to others. The result states that I make decisions based on how I feel rather than what I think, although my thoughts are important to me. And finally, I am prospecting in my approach to work, directing my energy towards finding a new efficient solution to whatever it is I’m doing.

If you’re thinking, “That’s totally me!” or, “I’m not like that at all,” you are not alone. The MBTI has been used by millions of people, and can be found in large corporations as a teambuilding exercise to classrooms as a learning tool. I used it, and that was the result I got. And while it sounds like a fantastic idea, unfortunately there are some problems with the MBTI.

During the summer, I forgot I got on my original test. I have since found the previous results deep in the annals of my email history, but before I dug it up I took the test again. If the Myers-Briggs test was all it was cracked up to be scientifically, I would have gotten the same results again. ENFP. Except, you guessed it: I didn’t. The second time around, I got ENTJ. Yes, half of the results are identical, but the point is that for scientific accuracy to be established, the results must be reliable, and reliability is built when results are consistent. Annie Murphy Paul, a former senior editor at Psychology Today magazine, found that up to “three-quarters of test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again.” That is a problem, because if data is not consistent it is inherently not reliable, and if it is not reliable it is not useful.

Another problem is the vagueness associated with the MBTI. It is comparable to the strategy used by horoscopes or psychics. Phrases like “you are extroverted… except sometimes when you like to be alone” can and probably do cover most people. It also uses language that is primarily positive. Everyone likes to hear good things about themselves, so when the results state that you are a great problem solver you automatically tend to agree. This phenomenon of agreeing to things you like to hear is known as “confirmation bias.” If you read the summarized description of my result, you may have noticed this vagueness. “You do this… but also can do this.” It leaves very little room to disagree, because it essentially leaves all the options open to a degree, and makes us not want to disagree by virtually always telling us things we want to hear.

In 1948, a psychologist by the name of Bertram Forer gave a personality test to his students, each one receiving a supposedly personalized result. The students gave the analyses an average rating of 85% accuracy, and only then did Forer reveal that the results were all identical, with zero variation. This became known as the Forer Effect, and it describes how assessments like the MBTI are perceived to be customized, and how that idea of customization effects our perception of the result’s accuracy. Is this result accurate because I find it desirable, or desirable because I find it accurate?

So, the results and the way they’re worded are iffy, but what about the test itself? There’s a bit of a flaw in the binary nature of the test. According to the MBTI, you are either Introverted or Extraverted. As many of us know, this is more of a spectrum that can vary from day to day. That’s like saying you’re either fascist or communist. Most people fall in the middle. The same can be said for all four categories; it’s just not black and white. The test also ignores quite a bit of human psychology. A comprehensive test is meant to assess all major categories that exist, and missing from the MBTI is what personality psychologists call emotional stability versus reactivity (in layman’s terms, the ability to stay calm under pressure). Even the aspects of the test that are measured, such as the judging-perceiving category, are not complete. The judging-perceiving portion measures whether you are a planner and organizer, but fails to consider industriousness and achievement (or lack thereof) that result from this, arguably one of the main results a company or corporation would like to know. So, the test does not measure everything, nor does it achieve complete results for what it does measure.

If you have taken the Myers-Briggs test, the results can be an okay start to learning what kind of worker or learner you are. But your categorization should not be the final step, nor should you allow your results to dictate how you work or learn. Too often, people are told by the test they are introverted and think “Well, I suppose that means I should study alone.” Challenge that. Try a study group or working in teams. The Myers-Briggs test is too incomplete and unstable to be the sole measure of your individual complexities and uniqueness. It’s time to end the romance behind your four-letter classification, and to challenge way that you interact with the world and process information.

Don’t believe me? Try it out. You can take the test at www.16personalities.com/free-personality-test. Give it a good 10-15 minutes to complete, and be honest. You will likely find your result vaguely defined, broad, and geared to appear desirable to you. Just remember: you are more than four letters and a category label.

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