“I think Chloé is an ENFP,” I said. “Or maybe she’s an ENFJ, like me.”
“Well, Cole is definitely an introvert,” my roommate Nadia chimes in. “We’ll ask them to take the test before they move in.”
It’s a game my housemate and I play, and one that might resonate with you as well. We guess someone’s Myers-Briggs type and then we make them take the test to see whether we’re right. In this case, we were guessing the types of two friends we’re about to move in with.
You might have seen four letters, like ESFP, in someone’s Tinder bio, or you might have been given a quiz before being hired or promoted. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator—commonly known as MBTI or the Myers-Briggs personality test—is nearly ubiquitous, it seems.
The MBTI has been around for nearly eight decades, and its popularity has grown over the years. The test is used by employers and human resources departments to manage and select employees. It’s also a tool used by online dating sites, life coaches, and eager-to-help friends. According to the Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP), the official publishers of the MBTI, their tests are used by 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
But the MBTI has been met with a lot of criticism from researchers, who often disregard it entirely. Is it worth taking the test, or is it something better off ignored? And is it helpful when it comes to dating, career choices, friendships, choosing future housemates, or finding your life’s purpose?
Understanding the Myers-Briggs at a deeper level can help you decide how to use it—or if you want to.
Origins and Abbreviations
The personality test was developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, during World War II. Myers and Briggs were both self-taught enthusiasts of psychometrics, and their work was heavily influenced by Carl Jung’s ideas about personality types. They created the indicator to help women entering the workforce who weren’t sure of what career path they should pursue. The first version of the MBTI—then named the Briggs Myers Type Indicator Handbook—was published in 1944.
From 1975 onward, the official MBTI has been owned by the CCP. Although the CCP charges for administration of the test, you can take the test for free on a number of other sites. The result of your test will have four letters. There are two different possibilities for each of the four letters, meaning there are a total of 16 combinations or so-called personality types.
The letters represent the following:
Extroverted (E) or Introverted (I): Where do you get and spend your energy? Do you learn by interacting with others and focusing on the outside world? Or is your focus more internal?
Sensing (S) or Intuitive (N): How do you take in information? Do you use your senses and observe the world around you or do you tend to look at the bigger picture? Intuitive types tend to daydream, thinking about patterns rather than paying careful attention to the individually distinct things around them.
Thinking (T) or Feeling (F): How do you make decisions? Thinking types value logic and reason over people’s personal feelings, whereas feeling types think about people’s emotions, motives, and responses when making decisions.
Judging (J) or Perceiving (P): How do you prefer to organize or plan your day? Generally, judging types prefer organization and perceiving types prefer a flexible, spontaneous work environment.
All traits identified by the MBTI are said to have their own strengths and weaknesses. And although they seem like binaries, the traits are actually thought of as existing on a spectrum. Few people tend to be extreme extroverts or extreme introverts, for example. Many of us linger around the middle of the spectrum, and the test will tell you how much of a preference you have for certain traits over others.
I’m classified as an extrovert, for example, but according to the test, I only have a 65 percent preference for extroversion over introversion.
Different Myers-Briggs types are given different names and profiles based on their tendencies. Certain types tend to gravitate toward certain careers. INFJs, or “advocates,” are generally compassionate people concerned with justice and kindness. ESTJs are called “executives” and demonstrate strengths related to managing people and projects. ISFPs, or “adventurers,” are curious artsy types who find beauty and adventure in the world around them. ENTPs, or “debaters,” are said to enjoy an intellectual challenge and often try to spark controversial and interesting conversations.
It’s believed that your type can indicate your ideal work environment. But I’m an ENFJ, and despite my extroversion, I prefer to work alone. According to the foundational philosophy of the Myers-Briggs, my tendency toward judging (rather than perceiving) means I prefer structured, organized plans, but I actually value the flexibility of working from home as opposed to going into an office where I might have to follow a specific routine.
I like the idea behind MBTI, but like many, I’m skeptical of whether it’s truly helpful.
In a viral LinkedIn post, Adam Grant, professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, outlines some of the criticisms of Myers-Briggs. “When it comes to accuracy, if you put a horoscope on one end and a heart monitor on the other, the MBTI falls about halfway in between,” Grant writes. Indeed, criticism like this coming from many psychologists and behaviorists over the past few decades has emerged for valid reasons.
AJ Marsden, PhD, assistant professor of psychology and human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida, and an expert on organizational psychology, notes that using tests like the Myers-Briggs for employment purposes is potentially problematic. “Using personality tests for selection is rather controversial,” she says.
“The predictive validity of personality tests in general is only about 20 percent, which is rather low compared to the predictive validity of other types of selection assessments.”
According to Marsden, Myers-Briggs in particular is “not very predictive of future behavior and our results can even change depending on our mood and environment.” For this reason, she believes the test shouldn’t be used to hire or promote employees.
“It was never validated for those purposes,” she adds.
First, the “science” behind the Myers-Briggs isn’t actually so scientific. Jung’s observations relating to “personality types” were based on observation, not solid evidence. Moreover, Myers and Briggs—who weren’t trained psychologists—didn’t test Jung’s theories. In subsequent years, many psychologists have argued that the Myers-Briggs doesn’t really hold up to the standards of social science.
“In social science, we use four standards: Are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive?” Grant writes. “For the MBTI, the evidence says not very, no, no, and not really.”
The reliability of the Myers-Briggs is often questioned by its critics. “Personality tests are scientifically valid if they provide reliable measurement, meaning that if you take the test today and a year from now you should get about the same score,” Tara Well, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Barnard College, says. “This shows that the personality trait is relatively stable and doesn’t change with the situation or over time.”
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen with Myers-Briggs. Certain statistics suggest that if you retake the test after a five-week period there’s a 50 percent chance that your result will change. Marsden says that our results might change because of our mood and environment.
Well tells HealthyWay that your result is more likely to change if you’re near the middle of the spectrum on certain traits. “One person may have 9 extroverted answers and 11 introverted answers, so they’re considered an introvert. Another person may have 2 extroverted answers and 18 introverted answers—they are also considered an introvert” she explains.
“The first person is more likely to change from an introvert to an extrovert over time because their two scores are closer.”
But what if your result is fairly reliable? My housemate consistently tests as an INFJ, for example, but even in light of that consistency, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything specific for her career or dating life.
Often the test is used to measure whether people are suitable for certain jobs—but our Myers-Briggs types might have very little to do with how good we are at our work.
“Although there are data suggesting that different occupations attract people of different types, there is no convincing body of evidence that types affect job performance or team effectiveness,” Grant writes. He points to research that suggests there’s very little correlation between someone’s efficiency at a particular job and their Myers-Briggs type. Another paper concludes that “there is insufficient evidence to support the tenets of and claims about the utility of the test.”
Even if MBTI were an accurate measure of personality, it’s not the only thing we should consider when it comes to work and relationships. Personality is important to take into account when deciding on a career path, but so are your skills, talents, and interests—none of which is measured by MBTI.
“It’s important to note that MBTI doesn’t assess ability or skills,” Well says. “So you may have the same profile as famous scientists or architects as in the sample of INTJ, but if you don’t have the math aptitude and analytical skills, you probably won’t be all that successful.”
The test also won’t indicate whether you’re a hard worker, whether you have enough knowledge to perform well, or whether you’ll enjoy the work—all factors that influence how well suited you are to your career (and vice versa).
Similarly, personality isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to dating. Your date’s Myers-Briggs type won’t tell you whether they’ll cheat, whether they have the capacity to take on a relationship, or whether their political views will mesh well with yours.
It’s not the best indicator of whether I’ll get along with my future housemates, either, because the MBTI won’t tell me whether they’re messy or clean, whether they respect the boundaries of others, or whether they’ll pay their bills on time.
So the question remains: Is the test meaningless? It depends on what meaning you’re looking for. No personality test can entirely define who you are in your essence. All evidence suggests that we shouldn’t make a major life decision based only on the test—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful at all.
Marsden notes that the Myers-Briggs can be used for entertainment purposes. A big reason why my housemate and I like to predict others’ types is because it’s fun: It’s the same reason why flowchart quizzes and horoscopes are popular.
But the Myers-Briggs offers more than just that: Taking quizzes can promote self-awareness.
“Personality tests are not only fun to take, but they help us become more self-aware,” Well says. “When we understand ourselves better, we make better life choices.” Marsden agrees, adding that the test can be used for developmental purposes and to help employees understand their own personalities a bit better.
The quiz itself encourages you to be introspective because you have to think about yourself in order to answer the questions. Much like an online quiz might prompt you to think about your favourite way to consume potatoes or your ideal date, Myers-Briggs quizzes prompt you to think about how you process the world around you. In that sense, the very act of taking the test can encourage you to become more self-aware.
It might also help you better relate to those around you. MBTI can remind you that we don’t all operate the same way. Just as we can’t all be Princess Jasmine on a “Which Disney Princess Are You?” quiz, we need to remember that other people receive, digest, and act on information differently. Your frustration with your friend’s lack of planning might be because you’re a J (that’s for judging!) while she’s an extreme P (perceiving all the way!)
This doesn’t mean she’s flaky, but rather that she has other positive characteristics, like flexibility, that might benefit her, you, and your mutual interactions. Remembering that we all have different learning styles and preferences can help us get along with our differently typed co-workers, partners, and—in my case—housemates.
The bottom line? Geek out on Myers-Briggs if you’d like. Use it to become more self-aware or for entertainment purposes, but take it with a pinch of salt. After all, we’re all so much more complex than a four-letter abbreviation.