Wednesday 20 March 2013

In defence of MBTI (sort of...)

Yesterday, in his online blog at the Guardian, Dean Burnett launched an attack on the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.

Whilst I don't think the MBTI is above criticism, it seems to me that his post conflates the abuse of the MBTI, questions about the underpinning Jungian theory, and the MBTI's own validity, into one messy, anecdotal, misinformed mess.

He gets off on the wrong foot straight away, referring to it as a test throughout the piece.  It is not a test, but an indicator (the clue is in the name). He goes on to say that it 'isn't recognised as being scientifically valid' but gives no data or source to support that assertion - an interesting approach to science writing.

He makes much of the fact that it 'is largely ignored by the field of psychology,' again an unsupported assertion; however looking at some of the critical articles to which he links, I think he means it isn't used in clinical psychology - which is scarcely surprising as it isn't a clinical tool.

And so it goes on.  He retails lots of anecdotal evidence, most of which demonstrates misunderstanding and abuse of the tool, and makes rather large leaps of logic along the way.

He is particularly incensed by the binary choices offered, but misunderstands what the tool is doing: nowhere does he explore the notion of preference (ie that one might be left-handed or right-handed, but certainly value and use boh hands) instead saying ' in the category of extrovert v introvert, you're either one or the other; there is no middle ground.' That is simply to misunderstand and misrepresent the tool.

I think it would have been more sensible to have addressed three questions:

1 What is this tool trying to do, and how well does it do it?
2 Is that a sensible or useful thing to be doing?
3 What problems are there with abuse/misunderstanding of the tool?

On that basis, I think MBTI has a pretty clean bill of health on 1; I think 2 -  how much one accepts the Jungian underpinning of MBTI -  is debatable: but he deliberately side-steps this issue.  And his article provides ample evidence, with regard to 3, that the tool is much misunderstood and misused.  He (rightly) points out that it is an absurd way to recruit people - but he fails to point out that when one is trained in MBTI it is made clear that it should not be used for recruitment.  

I do share his frustration with the evangelical zeal, and uncritical true-believer faith, of some MBTI practitioners; but with regard to that, MBTI isn't where I'd start.  Try NLP, with its 'master-practitioners', its pseudo-philosophy, and its largely unproven and extravagant claims (though again, I am not saying there is no value in all the NLP stuff: much of it is lifted from skilled psychologists - but there's an awful lot of bunkum stirred into the mix!)

All in all, a poor piece of journalism, that looks to have been based on a superficial understanding supplemented by reading a few websites and getting some angry readers' comments about MBTI.

For myself, although I am not a fan of Jungian psychology, I find it a useful tool, principally for enabling reflection and discussion about some interesting aspects of ways in which we differ from each other.

I always present it as a hypothesis that should not be swallowed whole: indeed I normally explain my relationship to it by relating the story of Niels Bohr and his good-luck horseshoe: 'of course I don't believe in it, but I'm told it works, even if you don't believe in it...'


  1. So his article doesn't have cited evidence, and then you reject his assertions without citing evidence?

  2. A fair point, perhaps, though I think I question his approach rather than reject his assertions. Which bits of my argument would you like me to cite evidence for?

  3. great it's wonderful information. thanks for sharing

  4. Although I appreciate you are very much brought into the whole concept, I think its good to see this spurious area of corporate training getting challenged. The very idea of labelling people and categorising them in the vain hope of 'understanding people' according to some pre-made system needs little evidence to debunk. If you want to understand people better you need to get to know them -Fact-, and even those who you know all your life might still surprise you from time to time. So, making judgements on people according to a box you've placed them in, is going to be as helpful as it is useless.

    In my workplace we carried out some training similar to this whereby we were given colours based on our responses to a test. It was fun (for most people) and informative at first but I felt really needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, sadly the entire day was based around reinforcing the concept and many seemed sold up to the point they felt they had been bestowed with some amazing new power by the time the day was out. One advocate at work even suggested putting our 'colours' on the company intranet so we could all understand each other better. So I think some people benefited from the training, which I find a shame because I would like to have thought they should not need such training, after all being a child, a teenager, growing up and interacting with others should teach us about the sheer diversity and natural mystery of how people think and behave and change!

    It sounds like you personally have a good grasp on the topic and dont take it too seriously. But I think a lot of corporate trainers need to take into account the negative feedback around this topic and use that to improve their training. Its the 21st century after all and high time we moved on from stereotypes as a means to understanding people.

    From OB

  5. Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. I share some of your reservations about such tools: going around saying I'm a Blue, or I'm an ESTJ, as though that adequately describes a human personality is pretty superficial.

    However, categorising can be an aid to understanding; consider, for example, the fairly widely accepted difference between introversion and extraversion. As an introvert myself, I sometimes find that many approaches favoured by organisations are unhelpful and uncomfortable for me, and these labels can help extravert leaders to understand why that might be, when the same approaches work so well for them, and without making them feel defensive.

    But I certainly agree, as I hope I made clear, that all these models should be taken with a healthy dose of salt.

  6. Have you even read proper epistemological criticism of MBTI - ordering of function and suchlike? There is no practical usage of MBTI. What it tells you is what you know. You are criticing the Guardian guy for things that are simple to criticise - his phraseology or unpleasant mode of communicating. This is called nitpicking. Not sure how you have defended MBTI in any manner but okay.

    1. Hi Anon, I wrote this nearly 10 years ago; and do you know what I would write a different piece now, much ore critical of MBTI, and in particular of its unfounded categories and false binaries. In fact I haven't used it for a long time, preferring the Hogan tools (qv) that are founded on evidenced psychological traits (the big five) etc, and helpfully identify risks such as being passive aggressive (which is a kind of passive aggressive way of pointing out that your comment has an element of that...)