Friday, June 18



I spent just under 3 years as a full-time student, from the summer of 1998 to the winter of 2000-2001, getting an MDiv from the School of Theology and Ministry (STM) at Seattle University. In retrospect, I realize now that this was largely an egregious – and jaw-droppingly expensive -- waste of time. (I was on a "vocations" jag at the time.  Long story ... ) With the exception of specialized courses like the single required course in Catholic canon law, I could have taught most of the classes I took, and I did teach one class – hermeneutics – in a secular context at a different school in a previous professional incarnation. But the single most egregious waste of time in this almost-3-year-long Death Valley of wasted time was the time my fellow students and I spent taking what I have come to regard as the thrice-cursed Myers-Briggs survey, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory (MBTI). Seattle University is theoretically a Catholic, even Jesuit, institution, ostensibly heir to the Jesuits’ long-standing and admirable tradition of intellectual and academic rigor, which makes STM’s persistent dedication to the fortune-cookie mysticism of the MBTI, despite a voluminous and severely critical literature, conspicuously anomalous.


At the time, in the late 90s and very early 2000s, I was not aware of this contra-MBTI literature. But, even so, and strictly as an untutored lay person, even as someone who had never taken the MBTI before, it seemed to me that the methodology and categories of the MBTI were suspiciously and conspicuously subjective and devoid of interpretation-limiting definition. One typical example of this simplistic assessment methodology is cited in a scaldingly averse Vox article on MBTI:

[T]he [MBTI] test is built entirely around the basis that people are all one or the other [of the four MBTI personality types]. It arrives at the conclusion by giving people questions such as "You tend to sympathize with other people" and offering them only two blunt answers: "yes" or "no."

I remember reading this question in particular, and wondering “Hmmm … how much do I ‘sympathize’ with, say, a black-market arms dealer who cheats his suppliers and is knee-capped in retribution? His family? Yes, probably. He himself? Well … not so much”. Part of my dissonance with MBTI originated in my having read, years before, C. G. Jung’s Psychological Types, recalling what I had read decades before, comparing it to MBTI – and realizing that the originators and purveyors and administrators of MBTI had, it must have been deliberately, misappropriated, distorted, and misrepresented Jung’s work in ways that Jung himself, in that very book, had already rejected. For example, Jung himself, in Psychological Types, asserts that no one is, as MBTI implicitly assumes, purely one type or the other, and that even the type one “is” at any given time usually varies between, say, breakfast and dinner. In Psychological Types, Jung also explicitly says, MBTI’s methodology notwithstanding, that anyone who is purely introverted or purely extroverted belongs “in a lunatic asylum” because “there must be as many different ways of viewing the world [as there are psychological types]. The aspect of the world is not one, it is many--at least 16, and you can just as well say 360”. Given how up-in-your-face explicit Jung was about such limitations, I can only conclude that MBTI is built on a foundation of deliberate intellectual dishonesty.

Carl Gustav Jung

Furthermore, there are other issues that cast suspicion on whether (a) what is being measured by MBTI actually exists, at least in a form amenable to quantification, and (b) whether that which is being measured, even if it exists, is being measured reliably. In 1993, the Journal of Career Planning and Placement published a paper by Prof. David Pittenger of Marietta College in which Prof. Pittenger goes into a fair amount of technical statistical detail casting doubt on both (a) and (b) vis a vis MBTI. Rather than get lost in the technical weeds of Prof. Pittenger’s statistical critique of MBTI, I will simply paraphrase the conclusion of his paper: no one doubts that some people are more introverted than extroverted, and vice versa, but it is doubtful that MBTI reliably quantifies this difference, and it is even more doubtful that MBTI is a stable, reliable, and statistically significant measure of this difference, even if it were quantifiable.

The reason for the non-bimodal distribution, referred to by Prof. Pittenger, in the MBTI results is not far to seek: MBTI seeks to shoe-horn the ebb and flow of the human personality into the Procrustean bed of pop psychology for the sake of layperson usability and – let’s be honest, shall we? – sales to corporate clients. In the process, nuance goes out the window along with methodological rigor and, in consequence, reliability. In 2013, Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton School of Business, and an MBTI “alumnus,” wrote an article for LinkedIn asserting the following:

My name is Adam Grant, and I am an INTJ. That’s what I learned from a wildly popular personality test, which is taken by more than 2.5 million people a year, and used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies. It’s called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and my score means that I’m more introverted than extraverted, intuiting than sensing, thinking than feeling, and judging than perceiving. As I reflected on the results, I experienced flashes of insight. Although I spend much of my time teaching and speaking on stage, I am more of an introvert—I’ve always preferred a good book to a wild party. And I have occasionally kept lists of my to-do lists.

But when I took the test a few months later, I was an ESFP. Suddenly, I had become the life of the party, the guy who follows his heart and throws caution to the wind. … One researcher even called it  an “act of irresponsible armchair philosophy.” … [R]egardless of your type, it’s hard to argue with the idea that if we’re going to divide people into categories, those categories ought to be meaningful. In social science, we use four standards: are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive? For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really.

No wonder that, contrary to one’s expectations, there is only a single Gaussian distribution when we look at the statistical results for Myers-Briggs: the shoe-horning of personality types into rigid categories erases all those nuances that would otherwise be relevant – but that would detract from MBTI’s usability and salability.


The reason this is an important issue is because of the practical uses to which MBTI is being put: not only for theology and pre-ordination students at STM, but also, and far more prevalently, for people taking MBTI to gain ostensibly useful insights into what professional degrees to pursue; which employees human-resources departments should assign to what jobs; which people companies should promote – even the type of person one should marry. During my tenure at STM, I also participated in personality inventories whose end-result was to assign one’s personality to an animal type. I turned out to be a Labrador retriever. That was comparable in usefulness to MBTI.

My conclusion? MBTI is a form of entertainment, like taking those endlessly proliferating personality assessments on Facebook, i.e., harmless unless you propose to use it to make critical, make-or-break life decisions. Otherwise, and for any serious purpose, regardless of whether you are ENFJ or ISTP or INTJ or … , you can be sure that your Myers-Briggs is BSHT.

James R. Cowles

Image credits:

MBTI circle diagram: Jake Beech ... Creative Commons 0

C. G. Jung portrait: public domain

Rose window of Marsh Chapel, Boston University ... John Stephen Dwyer ... Creative Commons by SA

Prague Astronomical Clock ... Courtesy of Flickr ... Creative Commons 2.0

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