It’s no secret that people have an inherent affinity for labels. As humans, labels are often a convenient way for us to further understand the world around us. These categorizations are seen throughout society, from the way that we sort species into kingdoms, phyla and genus to the way that we sort our sock drawers. Labels provide comfort and understanding. This natural urge to compartmentalize, however, fails to acknowledge the nuance and attention that many subjective topics, such as personality type, require. How do you define the indefinite?
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is by far the most popular of the established pay-to-play personality questionnaires. The internet is full of entire social media profiles dedicated to different MBTI personality types with corresponding memes, mood boards and aesthetics. Take a look at this Tumblr account that solely posts “typical mbti conversations.” Although MBTI has become a household name in corporations and schools alike, the test has acquired significant criticism since its publication in 1943.
You’re checking his sun and moon signs while I’m out here comparing our Myers-Briggs Type Indicator results for compatibility. We are not the same.
— ci (@iCanCiYou) December 30, 2019
Questions of personality and character have evaded psychologists for decades. Development of personality types first began during World War I in an effort to further understand mental health. Its original purpose was actually to test whether or not soldiers were mentally fit to fly aircraft. James N. Butcher, an emeritus psychologist at the University of Minnesota, says that the main problem with early personality evaluations was that they were largely based on the creators’ particular understanding of personality. Instead of basing their tests on researched attributes and influences, questionnaires were based on intuition. Additionally, the test’s creators were more interested in the direction of the participant’s preferences — for example, extroversion versus introversion — than the degree of the preference. In other words, the MBTI was designed with extremes in mind, not middle-of-the-road results. Researchers have found that, for example, only 30% of MBTI participants fall on either extreme end of any of the four categories. The test is designed to polarize traits in order to diversify its results and convince participants that its methods work.
The MBTI claims influence from Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung who believed that personality type is determined by four principle functions: sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking. Despite its roots in Jung’s research, psychologists have still labeled the MBTI as pseudoscience due to its unreliability and limited scope. Not only has this test been repeatedly debunked by researchers, but it also costs a whopping $50 to take online, not including tax.
The Lie: The Myers–Briggs test helps you to develop a deeper understanding of your personality, allowing you to better relate to the people and world around you.
The Reality: The Myers–Briggs test exists to sell more Myers–Briggs tests.
— April King (@CubeApril) December 12, 2019
Simine Vazire, a personality researcher at the University of California, Davis, calls the Myers-Briggs “shockingly bad,” citing the poor wording of questions and the fact that someone’s personality type can change day by day. Vazire goes on to liken the loyalty to the MBTI to that of astrology and horoscopes: “Until we test [personality tests] scientifically, we can’t tell the difference between that and pseudoscience like astrology.” The popularity of astrology first emerged in the 1960s with the New Age movement, but the trend gradually faded, and horoscopes were once again confined to their section in the newspaper.
By the very definition of astrology, it is not science-based. In order to qualify as scientific, a topic or idea must focus on the natural world, aim to explain the natural world, use testable ideas, rely on evidence, involve the science community and lead to ongoing research. Astrology and the practices related to it check none of these boxes. In addition to these requirements, the researchers involved in a field of study must also behave scientifically. It is difficult to argue that amateur fortune tellers and enthusiasts conduct rational experiments and research related to astrology.
Myers-Briggs is just astrology for McKinsey consultants
— Kunal Sheth (@itsKunalSheth) December 22, 2019
Despite its flaws, millennials have revived astrology through the medium of social media. Astrology has infiltrated internet culture from zodiac themed fashion collections to entire Instagram pages dedicated to Scorpio jokes. Again, this obsession with finding your personality type or sign is a relatively new social phenomenon; however, this trend seems to be becoming ingrained in our culture. Just look at the Harry Potter fandom for example. Fans have collectively sorted themselves out into their respective Hogwarts Houses, and again, just like MBTI, there is an entire culture centered around these self-determined categories. A person’s identity as a Slytherin can define how they express themselves and how other people see them.
Whether you identify as a Hufflepuff, an Aquarius, an ENTJ or whatever else, it is important to remember that at the end of the day, while these tests might be amusing, they do not define your character. Just because Cancers are supposedly sensitive and emotional, it does not mean that every single horoscope joke and stereotype has to resonate with you. While personality types and labels can be a fun point of reference to compare yourself to, kind in mind that they are just that: a point of reference.
In terms of MBTI and astrology’s scientific validity, there still seems to be much disagreement amongst psychologists. Ultimately, experts like Butcher and Vazire advise consumers of these personality tests to be skeptical. Due to the lack of research that surrounds many of these evaluations, their conclusions are not reliable. Vazire recommends that if you are looking for a personality questionnaire that is backed by actual psychology, to look into the Big 5 Personality Test. The Big 5 functions under the main principle that everyone possesses some level of extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism. Instead of emphasizing exaggerated results and the differences between the personality types like the MBTI, the Big 5 instead focuses on the levels of each trait. It also does not pigeonhole participants into individual personality types, which helps to keep the results more open-ended and relevant to each person.
This does not mean that people should feel embarrassed or shameful for taking these tests. While taking part in these personality tests can be entertaining, it is important to keep in mind the pitfalls of their systems. So the next time that your boss, coworker, friend or whoever else suggests you check out your personality type, whatever that means, just make sure to keep your expectations in check.