Monday, July 19, 2010

Me, Myself, and MBTI: How Jungian Typology Falls Flat

I’ve had my share of liaisons with the MBTI over the years. It’s been a tempestuous relationship. She seems sincere enough, she’s obviously passionate, and while I may be naïve for still thinking this, I honestly believe she wants what’s best for me. But every time I go back to her, I’m forced to confront the ugly truths that she’s not one to keep her promises, she tends toward capriciousness, and if she seems too good to be true, she probably is.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was published in 1962 as a way to evaluate people for their personal psychology and connect them with one of sixteen archetypal personalities. These archetypes are not the work of either Myers or Briggs, but rather of the more famous psychologist Carl Jung, best known for his description of the “collective unconscious” and for being a sometime protégé of Sigmund Freud.

Over the last half-century, the MBTI and the archetype theories of Jung have become so conflated that they’re often thought of as the same thing. To be sure, aside from Psychology 101, Jung’s dichotomies are rarely seen outside the MBTI. However, as MBTI enthusiasts are quick to point out, the two are separate (though related) entities. For example, a perceived failure of the test to portray an individual’s personality could be taken as a failure of the test but could just as easily indicate a weakness in the underlying psychoanalytical theory.

I won’t endeavor to give a complete description of what the MBTI does or how it works—there are parts of it that make about as much sense as Turkish Star Wars, and even the parts I think I do understand, I’d probably still get wrong. For a quick summary, though, the MBTI asks you a series of questions. In the real test, the test-taker is asked to indicate a preference for one of two words; in various online recreations, the test-taker indicates a degree of agreement or disagreement with a statement. After answering a few dozen of such questions, the test returns an archetype, which is an alignment across four axes of opposing personality traits. The clarity of each alignment is also reported, so a typical output might look something like “INFP: I 68/32 E; N 54/46 S; F 71/29 T; P 57/43 J”.

The first axis, introversion/extraversion, describes the test-taker’s relationship with the external world. Colloquially, an “introvert” might be someone who is quiet, reserved, or shy, while an extravert might be outgoing and energetic. People who are introverts or extraverts by the MBTI standard may well have some of these traits, but this axis more correctly refers to whether an individual is more comfortable alone (introverted, I) or in the company of other people (extraverted, E). A popular way to phrase it is that it describes where a person “regains his energy,” but that’s just a little too new-agey for me.

The second axis is intuitive/sensing, and it describes how the test-taker gathers information. Intuitive (N) types lean more toward theory and abstraction while sensing (S) types put more emphasis on practicality and facts. Feeling/thinking is the third axis, and it describes decision-making. Feelers (F) prefer emotional arguments and tend to make decisions based on what’s right; thinkers (T) base their decisions on facts and what’s just. Together, these axes form the psychological “functions”.

Finally, there’s the perceiving/judging axis. It’s the only one that Jung himself never described, and you can tell because it’s the goofiest. “Wait,” you might be thinking. “I get how all the other axes form opposing pairs, but ‘judging’ and ‘perceiving’ don’t seem that opposed to me.” It’s not clear to me either. “And doesn’t ‘perceiving’ mean nearly the exact same thing as ‘sensing’?” Yes, it does.

Once you’re finished, the MBTI spits some numbers at you and assigns you an archetype, one of sixteen (24 to get fancy and use math). It takes your alignment on each axis, explains all of them, and describes your overall personality by taking the four traits holistically. Then, you can gain some insight about how your own mind works and why you have certain psychological tendencies. Simple as that.

I first encountered the MBTI when I was sixteen, on the verge of being done with my high school emo phase, but not quite out of it yet. I met her online. At that point, I was pretty desperate to find out anything I could about myself, and I didn’t yet have the self-confidence to realize that I knew myself better than the internet did. I listened to what she had to say, and while some of it was undeniably true, most of it just wasn’t as deep or insightful as I thought it should have been. We parted ways, and I figured I probably wouldn’t run into her again.

But over the next few years, I did, over and over again. Mutual friends repeatedly introduced me to her. Facebook and blog posts by people I know kept making reference to her. She even showed up in a few of my classes—talk about awkward. Every time, I figured that maybe there was something I’d been missing about her; there had to be something that all these people saw in her that I failed to. And every time, I was disappointed to see the same old song and dance.

What I didn’t like about the MBTI eluded me for a long time. It wasn’t that almost all personality tests—and large chunks of psychoanalytical theory, at that—are crap and that I dismissed the MBTI right away. To be sure, most personality tests are crap, but I was keeping an open mind about the MBTI. It wasn’t that the results varied too much, either. I labor under the delusion that I’m good at statistics, but I like to think I understand enough to realize that some variation is natural, even for the same test-taker answering the same set of questions. When the questions change, the chances of a drastically different output increase, and when the test format changes, all bets are off. Finally, it wasn’t even that the MBTI got it all wrong. In fact, I’d say that at least half of what the MBTI told me on any given run was spot-on.

What did the MBTI tell me? Of course it varied, but again, I was fine with that. The two most common archetypes I got were ISTJ and INTJ, with ISTJ being my most recent result, and INTJ being slightly more prevalent historically. Occasionally, I’d get some IxTP thrown in for good measure, and one (surely anomalous) result pegged me as ENTP.

Here’s the thing: much of that is true. I’ve never gotten “F” for “feeling” on any MBTI I’ve ever taken, and I certainly self-identify with the “thinking” type. I rarely get “E” for “extraverted”, and if there’s one thing I knew about my personality before taking this test, it’s that I’m an introvert. As for the rest of the alphabet soup, the other two traits seem like a tossup. But for everything that MBTI has claimed that I am, I’ve been able to agree with at least part of it.

Among the phrases I like that are associated with my supposed archetypes are: “low tolerance for spin,” “want people to make sense,” and “trait combination of imagination and reliability” (INTJ); “earn success by thoroughness and dependability”, “realistic and responsible”, and “prefer concrete and useful applications” (ISTJ); “impatient with bureaucracy” and “quick wit, especially with language” (INTP); “quick to see complex interrelationships” and “laid back and nonjudgmental” (ENTP).

But each carries a few traits that I’m surely not: “perfectionist”, “do not see the need for affection”, and “ambitious” (INTJ); “like to be accountable for their actions”, “painstaking attention to detail”, and “enjoy positions of responsibility” (ISTJ); “especially drawn to theoretical constructs” and “makes things more difficult than they are” (INTP); “outgoing” and “visionary” (ENTP).

And here’s the part that really got the ball rolling in my criticism of the MBTI: if I look hard enough in any personality type, I can find some trait, concept, or idea that I identify with. Looking at phrases I like from the types most unlike what the MBTI says I am, I find: “learn more by doing” and “practical and realistic” (ESFP); “basically happy people” and “warm and affectionate toward significant others” (ENFP); “serious about their responsibilities” and “value the rule of law” (ESFJ); “interested in maintaining order and harmony” and “do not enjoy giving orders” (ISFJ).

Although I haven’t done it, I feel confident that I could open a website for any of the sixteen archetypes and find at least two phrases that I identify with and at least two that seem the exact opposite of me. In that sense, these personality types seem to be more of a tarot reading than actual analysis: no matter how glittering the generalities that the diviner offers, you can always find meaning in some of them by interpreting them fit your situation. Or maybe it’s more akin to a Jungian horoscope: I checked mine and it told me (as of July 19, 2010) that I’m “grateful for the thrilling life [I] lead right now” and “bursting with ambition”. Aside from the dramatic flair, those concepts sound very ENFP and INTJ to me.

With that in mind, I looked again at the results from the most recent time I took the test, and suddenly it makes sense why I haven’t found the MBTI particularly enlightening. Sure, “I”, “S”, “T”, and “J” all had scores of higher than 50%--but none of them had scores higher than 60%. This apparent lack of a clear preference along any of the MBTI’s axes is probably why I’ve never gotten a particularly satisfying answer from it. At the same time, people I know and trust swear by it… and now I realize that must be because they’re so clearly one particular archetype that the MBTI actually did afford them some insight. Even I was forced to admit that, reading through the archetypes’ descriptions, some of them perfectly describe my friends or co-workers.

In other words, MBTI, I guess it just isn’t going to work out between us. For what it’s worth, I take back those hurtful things I might have said about you being useless, or about you having no idea what you were talking about. You're bound to make someone very happy someday. But it's probably best for both of us if we part ways.

Currently listening: "Poppies", Marcy Playground