Myers Briggs Criticisms
As the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) questionnaire has increased in popularity, it has also attracted greater criticism. The psychologist David Pittenger wrote a seminal paper in 1993, entitled Measuring the MBTI... And Coming Up Short, which was published in the Journal of Career Planning. It highlighted a number of problems with the MBTI® and questioned its use in choosing a career:
Although the MBTI appears to measure something, many psychologists are not convinced that any significant conclusions can be based on the test.
This article takes a look at fresh look at those criticisms, particularly from a Jungian perspective.
Carl Gustav Jung developed his theory of psychological types around the time of the First World War. He initially sought to understand how conflict arose and how it could be resolved. In its final version, published in 1921, his theory became a wide-ranging model that could be used not only to resolve conflict but also for personal and cultural development.
However, many readers noticed only his description of the problem (the typological functions) and not his solution (the transcendent function). They also used his theory to classify - which raises additional problems. From the early 1930s to the late 1950s, Jung raised various concerns and criticisms about the way his theory was being used, but these were largely ignored. As a result, Myers-Briggs typology has developed in a different direction to Jungian typology. The most significant differences are:
- Myers-Briggs theory puts people into one of 16 categories in which there is a dominant-auxiliary function combination. It says that type is inborn and fixed. The aim of personal development is to become a better, more balanced version of your type.
- Jungian theory sees the types as points of reference on the way to developing the transcendent function. Type can (and often does) change during the course of life. The aim of development is to transcend your type and become an increasingly unique personality.
To use a geographical analogy, Myers-Briggs typology has created sixteen countries with clearly-defined borders and no migration between them. Jungian typology has created eight landmarks that can be used to navigate oneself out of the territory and into a new, unexplored world.
The main criticisms that are frequently directed at the MBTI are:
- The types are only stereotypes, they do not describe individuals.
- The MBTI puts you in a box that does not allow a person to use a mix of the preferences.
- The descriptions only appear accurate because of the Barnum or Forer effect.
- MBTI data does not show a bimodal distribution for the preferences, which would be expected if everyone's personality fitted into one or other category.
- The reliability of the MBTI is poor, especially given its claim that type is inborn and remains the same throughout life.
- There is no validity data that shows the MBTI can be used to predict job performance.
It is important to note that the first three of these are about the interpretation of MBTI results. The latter three relate to the psychometric properties of the MBTI questionnaire. However, as we shall see shortly, these criticisms are due to interpretation as well. The psychometric properties of the MBTI are good, when using an appropriate interpretation.
The types are only stereotypes, they do not describe individuals.
This is a valid point, and one with which Jung agrees. Although he didn't use the word "stereotype", he described the types as "Galtonesque family portraits". Sir Francis Galton was a statistician and a pioneer in psychometrics who invented composite photographs, centred on the eyes. The layering of multiple individuals produces an average picture that is devoid of any individual features. A Galtonesque portrait is therefore a form of stereotype. Jung created the stereotypes as "points for orientation" to help individuals understand their own personality. This concept is best expressed by talking about which type(s) are 'closest' to one's own unique personality, rather than talking about which category one falls into.
The MBTI puts you in a box that does not allow a person to use a mix of the preferences.
This argument is a misinterpretation of both Myers' and Jung's versions of the theory, and conflates behaviour and preference. Every individual can use all the behaviours but, in situations of free choice, they may prefer some over others. As an analogy, right-handed people use both hands when the situation demands it (e.g. when driving a car) but prefer to use their right hand when there is a free choice (e.g. when writing notes). Even in the latter situation, the left hand still plays a supporting role, e.g. in holding the paper still on the desk.
The descriptions only appear accurate because of the Barnum or Forer effect.
The Barnum effect is the tendency for individuals to view general statements, which are true of most people, to be an accurate description of themselves. This is a natural human trait, but it does not explain typology or MBTI results. When presented with multiple descriptions of personality types, many people think that most of the descriptions do not apply to them. Also, they usually identify traits in their description as being true of themselves but not of other people. If the descriptions contained only Barnum statements then this would not happen.
MBTI data does not show a bimodal distribution for the preferences, which would be expected if everyone's personality fitted into one or other category.
The words bimodal and normal are descriptions of what a graph would look like when it contains the results from lots of people. A bimodal distribution looks like the back of a camel that has two humps, one on either side. A normal distribution only has one hump in the middle. The MBTI data reports a normal (or near-normal) distribution. This supports Jung's interpretation of typology. He said that, if one is going to classify, there are three groups not two - and the biggest group is in the middle.
The reliability of the MBTI is poor, especially given its claim that type is inborn and remains the same throughout life.
Pittenger observed that, when a test-retest interval is short (e.g. 5 weeks) as many as 50 percent of people will be classified into a different type. He (rightly) observed this occurs because there are cut-off points that divide the dimensions. This problem is illustrated by the geographical analogy discussed above: small changes at the boundaries (which is where most people are) can produce a big change in the result. However, if the types are used as 'closest reference points' as Jung suggested, rather than as 'boundaries', then this aspect of the problem goes away. Jung also pointed out that type changes throughout life. Therefore, when a Jungian interpretation is used, the reliability of the MBTI is much better.
There is no validity data that shows the MBTI can be used to predict job performance.
This criticism conflates skill and preference. Neither Isabel Briggs Myers nor Carl Gustav Jung claimed typological preference could predict job performance. If the MBTI is ever used for that purpose then it is a misuse. There is validity data to show that typology is related to job enjoyment (not performance). For example, see the manual for the MMDI (our alternative to the MBTI).
Criticisms that suggest the MBTI is simplistic are often simplistic themselves, because they oversimplify and thereby misrepresent Myers-Briggs theory. However, from a Jungian perspective, there are some valid criticisms that coincide with Jung's own. These criticisms relate to the intepretation only, not to the psychometric performance of the MBTI instrument, which is very good. Most of the criticisms can be addressed by adopting a more Jungian approach to typology, i.e. recognising that:
- The types are stereotypes.
- Some individuals may be close to particular types, but others may be in a middle group that is not close to any one type.
- Type preferences can change throughout life.