Are you an ESFP, or an INTJ? Maybe an ISTP, or an ENFJ? If you’ve taken any sort of personality test, you’ve likely heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI for short. It’s one of the most popular personality tests, taken by 2 million people every year.¹ It can be taken unofficially for free online, or from the Myers-Briggs company for $50.
The MBTI is extremely popular. In fact, many companies use the test to evaluate potential employees.² To corporate executives, it offers a way to assess workers’ personalities. But is this fair? Does the MBTI accurately describe and categorize people?
The answer is… not really. A lot of evidence suggests that the MBTI oversimplifies our true personalities, lacks reliability, and fails to predict workplace performance. Let’s examine the theory behind the MBTI, and where its problems lie.
History of the Myers-Briggs
Ben Sweet / Unsplash
The MBTI was created in the 1940s by Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.³ This mother-daughter duo took inspiration from the work of Carl Jung, an influential psychologist whose book Psychological Type described how people could be categorized by personality traits.⁴ Myers and Briggs wanted to develop a personality evaluation tool that could help managers make hiring decisions.⁵
Since its creation, the MBTI has become a big business. Today, the Myers-Briggs Company earns 20 million dollars annually, and its tests are used across the globe.⁶
The MBTI consists of 4 key parameters: Introversion-Extroversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judgment-Perception.⁷
Each of these parameters represents a pair of two “opposite” traits, and each trait corresponds to a letter.⁸ Your results tell you which trait in each pair is “preferred” in your personality, by assigning you a 4-letter personality type.
So a person with type ENTJ has a personality dominated by Extroversion (E), Intuition (N), Thinking (T), and Judgment (J). Conversely, a person with type ISFP scores highest in Introversion (I), Sensing (S), Feeling (F), and Perception (P).
There are 16 total personality types in the Myers-Briggs model, each with its own unique set of characteristics and traits. Supposedly, by knowing someone’s Myers-Briggs type, you can predict their demeanor, social tendencies, and effectiveness as an employee.
Jake Beech / Wikimedia Commons
Problems With the MBTI
The Myers-Briggs Test seems pretty interesting, right? You might even be trying to figure out what type you are. But hold on a second. We need to talk about the MBTI’s many flaws.
Humans love categories: we like to know where we fit in among the crowd. We want to know who we are in relation to everybody else. But just because a category exists doesn’t mean that it describes what it claims to.
Fares Hamouche / Unsplash
This is one of the big problems with the MBTI: it doesn’t represent our true personality. Here’s why:
1. Lack of Retest Reliability
If a test accurately describes your personality, it should be consistent between trials. In other words, if you take the same test again at a later time, you should get the same results.
Unfortunately, the MBTI has proven itself very inconsistent. In one study, participants retook the MBTI five weeks after their first testing session. 50% of them received a different personality type in their second session.⁹
This suggests that the MBTI ignores important factors that influence our responses. As many scientists point out, our behaviors and the traits that we show are shaped by situational factors.¹⁰ Variables like our surroundings, mood, and health are just as important as our personality in determining how we respond.
A good personality test accounts for these variables. But the unreliability of the MBTI tells us that it doesn’t.
César Abner Martínez Aguilar / Unsplash
2. Oversimplified Traits
The trait-pair descriptors of the MBTI seem a little odd, when you think about it. Why are “Thinking” and “Feeling” treated as opposites? Why is “Judgment” the converse of “Perception”?
The MBTI describes personality using pairs of arbitrary absolutes.¹¹ It tells us that we can either be an introvert or an extrovert—but not somewhere in between.¹² It tells us that we’re either a “Thinking” or a “Feeling” person—but not both.¹³
In other words, the MBTI oversimplifies personality. It fails to represent the fact that few people fall at one extreme or the other. And it’s hard to imagine a person who “thinks” without “feeling” at the same time.
This oversimplification is confirmed by research. When psychologists graphed responses to personality surveys, they found no evidence of the 16 discrete categories described by the MBTI.¹⁴ Instead, people’s responses were distributed continuously, all across the spectrum.¹⁵
Take a second look at the personality type chart earlier in the article. For most of the trait pairs, you probably identify with characteristics listed on both sides. That’s because, like the rest of us, you’re a complex human being. Your personality can’t be described with four letters alone. And one of the risks of the MBTI, especially in the workplace, is that this complexity gets ignored.
3. Irrelevance to Workplace Performance
Despite its lack of scientific proof, the MBTI is widely used in corporate settings. Its name recognition makes it seem trustworthy to business leaders, despite its inaccuracy.¹⁶
Charles Deluvio / Unsplash
In fact, there is no correlation between MBTI type and success in the workplace.¹⁷ Your Myers-Briggs results don’t tell employers anything about whether you’d perform well at a particular job. And researchers have found no connections between MBTI type and occupation.¹⁸ In other words, MBTI types don’t even predict what type of job we’ll choose, much less whether we’re good at it.
The Myers-Briggs isn’t just a poor personality predictor: it can be actively harmful. Some managers use the MBTI during the hiring process, to screen for the best candidates. But if your test result doesn’t align with the “ideal” type, your chances at getting the job could suffer.
There’s also a huge potential for discrimination. For instance, ethnic and religious minorities respond differently to personality test questions than non-minorities.¹⁹ Personality tests like the MBTI were designed for white, middle-class subjects. Choosing candidates based on test results may create an unintentionally biased hiring process.
Charles Forerunner / Unsplash
So here’s what needs to be done. Companies need to stop using MBTI to make hiring decisions. And we all need to be cautious about how we use personality tests. There’s no harm in taking these tests for fun: it’s entertaining to see what category the test assigns us. But keep in mind that personality tests are often oversimplifications of our true selves. If there’s no scientific evidence that they’re effective, be careful what conclusions you make from your results.
Stein, R., & Swan, A. B. (2019). Evaluating the Validity of Myers‐Briggs Type Indicator Theory: A Teaching Tool and Window Into Intuitive Psychology. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(2). doi:10.1111/spc3.12434
Stabile, S. J. (2002). The Use of Personality Tests as a Hiring Tool: Is the Benefit Worth the Cost? University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law, 4(2), 279-313.
Pittenger, D. J. (1993). Measuring the MBTI... And Coming Up Short. Journal of Career Planning and Employment, 54(1), 48-52.
Stein & Swan (2019)
Pittenger, D. J. (2005). Cautionary Comments Regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 57(3), 210-221. doi:10.1037/1065-92126.96.36.199
Stein & Swan (2019)
Lake, C. J., Carlson, J., Rose, A., & Chlevin-Thiele, C. (2019). Trust in Name Brand Assessments: The Case of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 22(2), 91-107. doi:10.1037/mgr0000086