Responses to Adam Grant’s “MBTI – you need to change too” article

Posted 30 September 2013 by
Melissa Summer

7 min. read

Below are excerpts of Adam Grant’s 2013 article in Psychology Today, with responses from psychologists, researchers and HR professionals, both working for The Myers-Briggs Company and from third party psychologists and researchers.

Grant: “…your mother and grandmother were obsessed with Carl Jung, who made up his three “types” based on his personal experiences rather than science (with the help of your mother, who made up the fourth). You had years of those experiences, and I was young and naïve, so why would I doubt you?”

“Jung's ideas about archetypes, alchemy, synchronicity, the collective unconscious, the paranormal, and so forth are irrelevant to his theory of psychological types. Jung's theory of types gave us the concepts of introversion and extraversion, which modern, scientific personality psychologists are perfectly happy to use today. While it is true that most modern personality psychologists would be afraid to conduct research based on Jung's theory of types or the MBTI, that has not always been the case. For example, Rae Carlson and Ravenna Helson (both highly respected, award-winning psychologists) have published empirical research based on Jung's theory of types in the top journal in the field.”

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University  

Additionally, while the MBTI assessment isn’t used widely in all circles of psychology, it is used in all kinds of academic research in other fields, particularly by academic researchers who study business.

Grant: “…instead of inventing categories, Big Five’s ancestors realized that the major dimensions of personality could be found in natural language...”

“For the last 30 or so years, the approach to personality that’s been common in academic circles is the Big Five. How the Big Five was arrived at was they took all these other personality models and factor-analyzed them, and found that in general of all the different ways people think about personality, there’re five categories, that account for most of the measures of personality. What’s interesting is that Isabel and Jung had 4 of these 5 measures accounted for long before the work with factor analysis…”

Dr. Rich Thompson, Sr. Director of Research at The Myers-Briggs Company  

Additionally, Dr. Aqualas Gordon notes that the fact that the Big Five wasn’t rooted in theory isn’t necessarily a good thing. The fact that the MBTI is rooted in a well-thought out theory that was then tested is a good thing. Read more.  

Grant: “They also found that there was really no such thing as a type—every personality trait was on a continuum, and it was very rare to be on one extreme or another.”

“Type theory is a very complex subject that does not boil down to how scores are distributed and whether people fall into discrete categories. There are some extremely successful and well-supported type theories today, especially John Holland's theory of six personality-vocational types, currently the most widely used theory in vocational psychology. Even trait psychologists occasionally think in terms of types when they consider people who score at the high end of an extraversion scale as "extraverts." Types can (and often are) thought of as traits when we talk about the degree of resemblance to a type. I have written on the similarity of type and trait theory in practice in the reference below. Those who are interested in the intricacies of type theory should also read the monograph by Grant Dahlstrom.”

John A. Johnson, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Pennsylvania State University

“The way that I tend to look at this is, yes personality TRAITS are on a continuum. That’s because they are ultimately measures of human behaviour, and that does lie on a continuum. Personality TYPE is what lies underneath that behaviour; it is perfectly logically consistent to have an underlying type category and a surface behavioral continuum. And type is a much easier way for people to understand themselves and others, which after all is the point of using tools like the MBTI, than normally distributed traits.”

John Hackston, Head of Thought Leadership at The Myers-Briggs Company

“Type and Trait can and should co-exist, they are different. One can identify their type preference, an underlying predisposition or inclination – yet purposefully and consciously choose a particular behavior depending on the needs of the circumstances.”

Sherrie Haynie, Sr. Director of Professional Services at The Myers-Briggs Company.

Critics who point out that such preferences are not absolute, and might more precisely be described along a continuum, are correct! However, the MBTI doesn’t describe someone as an “Extravert” or “Introvert” for exactly that reason.

Rather, we “prefer” one or the other, but are capable of -- and advised to -- flex our preferences to best serve the situation. There are also reasons for this design that relate to the instrument’s theoretical underpinnings, but setting those aside for the moment, the fact is that the MBTI presents information in a way that people can readily understand and easily relay to other people.

While expressing traits along a continuum, vs. a bi-modal format, might be useful for clinical psychologists, identifying a four-letter personality type helps people more quickly internalize and socialize the information and experience.

Dr. Rich Thompson also addressed this in his video.  

Grant: “…I told you that theories should be revised based on data—if we don’t learn from our research, what’s the point?—but you were blinded by Jung’s armchair theory.”

If both type theory and trait theory are different ways of measuring personality, and the Big Five and the MBTI are correlated fairly highly on 4 out of the 5 measures, and the MBTI assessment meets the standards for a psychometric assessment from the American Psychological Association and the British Psychological Society, why revise? They’re two different kinds of measures of personality.

Grant: “…MBTI, darling, you mentioned a team that’s tasked with “keeping the instrument up to date.” Who updates the theory itself? Would it be so terrible to abandon Jung’s creative but antiquated ideas, and start capturing a broader set of preferences?”

Do we want to build trust within teams by conversation starting with “how neurotic are you?” No, thank you. Since the other 4 of the 5 measures of the MBTI correlate with the Big Five, there’s no need to update the theory.

Grant: “…If that’s too much to ask, and you’re devoted to your categories, why do you still insist on calling them types, when we know traits are more reliable and accurate?”

Trait and type are two different personality theories. Both have their use cases depending on the situation. That’s like saying a screw is more reliable or accurate than a nail, so why do we even need nails? Each has a preferred time and place for use, a best application.

Grant: “…you said “its efficacy is so well-established,” but your supporting evidence for that efficacy was a series of case studies. Experts in medicine and management agree that case studies are exceptionally weak forms of evidence. In science, the best evidence comes from meta-analyses of randomized controlled trials. To validate the “efficacy” of the MBTI, you need randomized, controlled experiments demonstrating that participants gain more insight from the MBTI than other comparable tools. I’m willing to bet that if you take the Big Five or HEXACO and walk participants through the same process—provided that the trainers are equally zealous—the MBTI will fare no better…”

We’ve never heard of any specific psychometric instrument that’s gone through randomized controlled trials to test the efficacy, whether it’s the MBTI tool or the Big Five framework. It’s done in the world of medicine, yes, but not for psychometric assessments. If you want to try that methodology, we welcome your analysis of the MBTI tool vs. the Big Five tool in a randomized controlled trial.

There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet and in the media, and the information surrounding the MBTI framework is no exception.

But the best way to fight misinformation is with correct information.

Below are some of the resources where you can find the most up-to-date information and validity and reliability statistics for the MBTI assessment.

MBTI facts page

Creating clarity around the MBTI webinar + whitepaper