Myers‑Briggs Test Has Been Debunked Time and Again. Why Do Companies Still Use It?
When Arpit* was interviewing at a start-up last year, he noticed an odd task in the interview process: taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality assessment. “The founder was a strong believer of this test to deduce … what type of people I would work best with and to align the team members accordingly,” explains Arpit.
While the test results were not a “deal breaker,” the traits showcased in the results did unofficially influence the decisions made by management for the employee in the entire span of their employment.
Although the MBTI, which categorizes people into 16 personality types, has been widely debunked as having no scientific basis, it continues to be used extensively in professional settings today. Consulting firms like McKinsey famously use the test during the application process. The MBTI is currently a massive industry, reportedly making $20 million annually from public and private institutions, universities, charities, and even the military.
Why an unscientific measure like the MBTI continues to be so commonplace and seen as a legitimate filter of people’s abilities is not just a pertinent question, but also one that reflects deeper problems with the systems that use it.
One part of the puzzle comes from capitalism and the need to extract productivity out of someone for them to be valuable.
The link between the MBTI and its purported end goals of efficiency was first formed back in the 1940s. The assessment was developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers – a mother and daughter duo – during the second world war to boost recruitment. Briggs Myers built on her mother’s work and decided to contribute to the war effort, matching women in the area to “suitable jobs” with the help of the type indicator.
The test is based on the idea that people are strictly born with a preference for either extroversion or introversion, intuition or sensing, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. And various permutations of these four binary categories gave way to the 16 personality types the MBTI comprises today.
Arguably, MBTI is not alone in its quest of telling people who they are; the desire to “typecast” people is a cultural programming that dates back to the Hippocratic tradition. This cultural desire was amplified around the 20th century, with the influx of office workers after the industrial revolution, a time that coincided with the rise of personality tests. Slowly and surely, an impulsive work culture hastened the need to categorize people, typecasting them by virtue of binary traits.
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“Companies cannot deal with the volume of applicants and so they’re looking for ways to legally cull applicants,” says Tim Travers Hawkins, who directed a 2015 documentary on the dark side of personality testing through MBTIs Hawkins.
There is also an assumption of a cause and effect at play here: because people know who they were courtesy of a personality test, they would perhaps be more efficient in the workplace.
In corporate settings, “the type indicator emerges as this incredibly useful tool for convincing people that they are doing exactly what it is that they are meant to do — and that they should bind themselves to their work freely and gladly,” wrote Merve Emre in The Personality Brokers, a book about the history of assessments.
In 2017, a management consultant noted that people routinely discussed their scores during meetings at Bain & Company. He lists some examples: “‘I’m a strong E (extrovert) and so sometimes I need to leave the team room to really focus on work, otherwise I will get caught up inside conversations.’ These are usually not studied at length but rather used as a sort of jumping off point for teams to discuss team expectations and preferences.”
But for individuals in the workplace, the value of using the test goes deeper than simply understanding their working style. A lot of the test’s popularity “has to do with the idea that you need control over life, especially when life is already out of control,” explains Mathangi Krishnamurthy, an associate professor of anthropology at IIT Madras who has researched the history of work.
It gives people a way forward, almost acting as a guideline. Krishnamurthy likens the MBTI to the Oracle of Delphi; if it says it’s going to rain tomorrow, you will act accordingly. When Harleen Kaur, 21, took the test, she realized she was an INFJ, which meant she was suited to a career in writing or anything that involved less social interaction. She eventually grew fascinated with marketing and now works as a content writer. “The [result] was like an additional push to my career decision.”
This need for identity is also a result of globalization. Krishamurthy explains that “when you have large swaths of humanity increasingly trying to find work and livelihood in urban centers … there is a breakdown of other forms of identity, like community, religion, ethnicity.” People become part of this large, anonymous urban space where they could be anybody. “In that sense, identity becomes a new kind of marker…, and to fill in that identity becomes very important for people to ground themselves. In this scenario, you’re constantly looking outside for somebody else to tell you who you are… A personality test is that slight bit of certainty that at least I know who I am.”
The test tells you not only who you are, but who you want to be. Zelam, 22, used “it to personally validate things I already felt about myself. It helped me navigate my career and live more authentically.”
However, despite the test’s benefits in individualistic use, anything that is monetized to such a degree warrants caution, especially when there is little science and evidence of productivity attached to it.
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On multiple occasions, organizations like the U.S. Educational Testing Service (that regulates the SATs), have concluded that the MBTI was “without psychometric merit.” Moreover, “there is scant evidence that MBTI results are useful in determining managerial effectiveness, helping to build teams, providing career counseling, enhancing insight into self or others, or any other of the myriad uses for which it is promoted,” noted writer Annie Murphy Paul.
The test has also been critiqued for its inconsistent and incoherent results. According to data, more than half the people who take the test a second time tend to get a different result. For instance, when Meryl, 26, took the test multiple times, there were occasions where she apparently changed personality types “almost overnight.”
Further, Krishnamurthy notes how using the MBTI within the workplace is a “continuity of the cult of toxic positivity.” The focus is on transforming into some visible form of productivity, that negates the individual in favor of creating a worker that is self-aware, efficient and productive, and has little room for errors and emotions. People aren’t people but types, who are supposed to behave and act and emote in a certain way. Deliberately and nefariously, personality tests like MBTI become sites of manufacturing the perfect worker.
People become “products to be branded, maimed, marketed, and always shown in the best light with the best filters with a golden glow always on.” These products are then sold to companies and the world, with the human within erased. It catalyzes the process of binding the worker to their work identities, further separating people from intimately understanding who they are. Author Merve Emre, who The Personality Brokers, calls these tests “among the silliest, shallowest products of late capitalism.”
Speaking to the Sorting Hat-like nature of these tests, Hawkins notes, “We’re often drawn to systems that seem to explain the world in a way that’s simple and seems to be neutral, but … all of these instruments have a past, and if you really delve into them, you can start to find out things about why they exist that might make you uncomfortable.”
Hawkins’ point is best illustrated when we look at the discrimination at play within the MBTI: the test was conceptualized keeping in mind a heteronormative, cis-gendered, patriarchal view of the world where people of certain ethnicities, gender, class, and abilities do certain things. When companies use the test as an instrument for hiring or making workplace decisions, this fissure has the potential to feed into existing workplace biases.
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Even if one surpasses the stage of hiring, the continued reliance on MBTI as a way to align people “efficiently” carries strong implications.
Israa Nasir, a corporate psychotherapist, explains the flip side of “measuring” personalities openly in the workplace, pointing out how it can become ‘labeling’ and can pit coworkers against each other.” And eventually, “these types of label-oriented measures in the workplace can create workplace bias in hiring and promotions.”
Malur remembers how, when he took the test for a multinational consulting company in the early 2000s, “the results of this psychometric tool weren’t confidential; all of us in the team discussed them, as most people discuss their food habits.”
Tests like the MBTI thus commodify personality traits for people to fit into the workforce, under the larger banner of finding ourselves – all while convincing people that it’s their idea.
The test can also impact people’s mental health, psychologist Namrata Khetan notes, when people start feeling the pressure to mask their true selves. “It may alter how they wish to project their true self, or make them conscious of how they appear/perform on these tests as the outcome may be tied to the work aspect of themselves,” she notes.
It makes it harder for people to ever ask who they really are beyond these binaries. “Categorical thinking by itself limits imagination, because categories are not set in stone. When companies use [tests like MBTI] to filter out people, you are really recklessly signaling that you need certain non-imaginative people to fill out your need for warm bodies in seats,” Krishnamurthy adds.
Munazzah, who is an introvert and categorized as an INFP by the MBTI, notes that “the sad part remains that the people at work always made me feel less than instead of understanding how they could actually make the work environment more inclusive to introverted people.”
In that sense, MBTI can actually limit the scope of what a person can, or cannot do, at the office, manufacturing artificial limitations along the way. Nasir adds that it can be very limiting to believe that the way they are is outside of their control. “We bring our personalities into work, because we spend time there and socialize there. I think the narrative of ‘I am X personality type, therefore better suited for this work than other people is limiting, and can be damaging. At its worst, it can create helplessness or a lack of accountability.”
With postmodernism, the crisis of finding oneself fell on the self and people stopped looking for meaning in relation to one another – to a community. “Am I special? When am I going to be discovered?” These questions work to further alienate the person, further weakening a resistance and pushing people into a culture of conformity.
“As a culture, all these tools point to a tendency of remarkable ahistoricity and speak to an intellectual laziness,” says Krishnamurthy.
If people were to stop and ask, they may realize a radical truth that could undo much of what they know and understand: that this relentless focus on the “self” brought may itself be the problem, preventing us from questioning the way the world functions.
“The continued use of personality tests doesn’t allow us the flexibility to think that maybe I don’t know who I am, and it’s okay. Maybe all that matters is to keep finding out,” says Munazzah.
Eventually, she realized that, “The bottom line was that this whole thing is not to be understood as gospel truth and that we all fit somewhere on a spectrum.”
Krishnamurthy agrees with Munazzah. He believes that the role of MBTI cannot be measured in a binary itself. “The question of it being good or bad is a flawed one. We have to think culturally how to locate a test in the larger sort of jigsaw puzzle that is contemporary life, and what one can learn from a personality test and how it works for people.”
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
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