The Myers-Briggs is no fad -- it’s a research-based instrument that delivers results
5 min. read
This blog was originally posted in 2013.
The validity and reliability of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® instrument (MBTI®) has been documented in thousands of peer-reviewed journals and case studies, and its publisher, The Myers-Briggs Company, freely makes its supporting data publicly available. I should know -- I head the research department and team of psychologists that’s tasked with keeping the MBTI instrument up to date. In fact, its efficacy is so well-established that I find myself scratching my head when I come across the kind of criticism recently levied by Adam Grant.
While I can’t fathom why a Wharton professor feels academically justified in making such an attack based on anemic sources -- only one piece of actual research, the thesis of which could be easily contested by dozens of peer-reviewed articles -- I’ll be happy to address a few of his complaints.
Grant compares the MBTI assessment to “a physical exam that ignores your torso and one of your arms.” To be clear, the MBTI instrument was never intended to be a comprehensive assessment of one’s entire personality, and it doesn’t claim that individuals of the same type are exactly alike. According to this logic any bit of insight into a person’s preferences for thinking, behaving, communicating, working and learning is useless because it doesn’t identify everything that makes them tick. Countless managers, counselors and psychologists at Fortune 100 companies feel otherwise. For them, identifying certain common dimensions of personality is tremendously useful in team-building, conflict management, leadership development and numerous other applications.
However, to fully appreciate the absurdity of the physical exam comparison, let’s take it a little further. Is he suggesting that a routine physical exam is a comprehensive assessment of one’s overall health? Does a 30-minute visit with a physician screen for every disease that a person could possibly have? Of course not. To make such a determination would require multiple exams and most likely take weeks to complete. By the same token, it is not reasonable to expect the MBTI assessment, or any other assessment, to provide an all-encompassing view of one’s personality. It is reasonable to expect it to accurately identify certain aspects of personality which affect one’s day to day functioning and outlook, and that is exactly what the MBTI instrument does.
Grant also plays on a familiar criticism of the MBTI assessment’s forced-choice format, which identifies an individual as either preferring Introversion or Extraversion, Sensing or Intuition, Thinking or Feeling and Judging or Perceiving. This criticism is misrepresentative of both the theory behind the instrument, and its measurement capabilities. The Myers-Briggs assessment merely says that we’re predisposed to behave in certain ways, not that our behavior is limited to one direction or the other. According to the theory, we use both preferences of any dimension, but we’re innately predisposed toward one. A right-handed person prefers their right hand. The fact that they’re capable of using their left as well, and may even have become very proficient at it, doesn’t render their designation as “right-handed” less accurate. Likewise, the fact that someone prefers Introversion doesn’t preclude them performing in an Extraversion capacity -- it simply means that it will require more of their energy.
Furthermore, the Myers-Briggs assessment actually does have a means for determining the degree to which a person identifies with a certain preference. It is called the “Preference Clarity Index (PCI),” which measures how clear an individual is about a particular preference — slight, moderate, clear, and very clear.
It’s also important to point out that his encapsulation of the Thinking/Feeling dichotomy is grossly misrepresentative. It does not, as he suggests, indicate one’s ability to think, reason or manage emotions. Rather, it describes how one is naturally predisposed to make decisions, either placing more weight on logic and facts (Thinking), or on how those decisions will affect people (Feeling) -- factors which play into most people’s daily decisions and have nothing to do with one’s logical or emotional capacities.
Grant, who says that he took the MBTI twice and got contradictory results, declares, “I’m not schizophrenic.” This is good news, but to his larger point that the MBTI assessment lacks test-rest reliability, I would counter that in actuality the test-retest correlations for the most recent version of the Myers-Briggs are in the range of .57 to .81, which is considered quite good for psychometric assessments. In fact, instances where people receive different results typically occur when they have a low Preference Clarity Index (PCI) along a certain category. For example, if results initially show a slight preference for Extraversion, that individual might at a later time show a very slight preference for Introversion. Someone with a clear or very clear preference will typically not show conflicting results from a subsequent assessment.
However, this does bring up a challenge that The Myers-Briggs Company constantly faces, in that there are a lot of MBTI knock-offs out there, particularly on the web. Often we find that people who receive radically contradictory results have actually taken a fake assessment, rather than the Myers-Briggs instrument, which can be accessed online at MBTIcomplete.com.
Grant states: “a test is valid if it predicts outcomes that matter.” That’s a pretty narrow view of assessments. While it is true that the MBTI instrument does not predict performance or satisfaction within an occupation, to position this as a criticism is misleading because it gives the impression that the assessment is intended to provide this kind of insight – it’ not. Some instruments are predictive, some are descriptive, and the MBTI falls in the latter category. No, it doesn’t tell you what career you’ll be successful in. However, people find that knowing their own personality type and the personality type most prevalent in the career they’re entering to be very helpful. Such insight, for example, may be extremely beneficial when it comes to communicating, presenting ideas, recognizing where workstyle and other difficulties may arise, and in enabling groups of people of varying personality preferences to work together cohesively.
Grant asks why the MBTI assessment remains popular, and poses several convoluted explanations. Allow me to pose a much simpler and more straightforward explanation -- people find its insights useful. Like all popular tools it has its critics, but it is well-established that the Myers-Briggs instrument meets all requirements for psychological tests, and The Myers-Briggs Company openly publishes information substantiating its validity and reliability (the Center for Applications of Psychological Type also publishes information on the reliability and validity of the Myers-Briggs at http://www.capt.org/mbti-assessment/reliability-validity.htm).
If it didn’t do what it’s supposed to do, or if it lacked a solid research-based foundation, it wouldn’t be used by the world’s top organizations, including Hallmark Cards and Southwest Airlines. It has withstood more than 50 years of scientific scrutiny, and has been cited and reviewed thousands of times. It’s not a fad, and, if the thousands of organizations and millions of people worldwide that reap its benefits have their way, it’s not going away anytime soon.
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