Why Adam Grant’s Critique of the MBTI Is Useless

SUMMARY OF THIS ARTICLE

  • Adam Grant calls the MBTI “useless” but can’t cite a single study to back up his claim.
  • Grant faults the MBTI for not being able to evaluate job performance. But the MBTI doesn’t claim to be able to do that. So Grant is ignorant of what the MBTI does and doesn’t do.
  • Grant is ignorant of the difference between Feeling and emotion in the MBTI framework.
  • Grant confuses MBTI preferences with aptitude. Another example of ignorance of the MBTI’s most basic tenets.
  • Grant misconstrues a study he is citing, quoting disloyally and unfaithfully from the scientific source material.
  • Grant applies a double standard when comparing MBTI to the Big Five.
  • Grant’s ignorance and bad faith must raise some doubts as to his scientific credentials.

Why Adam Grant’s Critique of the MBTI is Useless

By Eva Gregersen, Ryan Smith, and Sigurd Arild

In his piece, ‘Why The Most Popular Personality Test Is Useless‘, Adam Grant purports to convince the readers of Business Insider that the world’s most popular personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is “useless”. But is this really true, or is Grant leading his readers on?

To argue his claim, Grant compares the Myers-Briggs Test to the equipment used to diagnose medical injuries such as bone fractures. This, however, is an erroneous comparison. When we want to assess a tool we do not compare that tool to some completely different tool (as Grant does) but to similar tools within the same trade. How does Jungian Typology hold up, compared to other instruments that purport to do the same thing?

Adam Grant would have us believe that the answer is “useless”. The answer, however, is not “useless”, but “acceptable“. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has repeatedly been found to be of medium validity and Grant cannot cite a single study that backs up his claim that the MBTI is useless.

The MBTI test may or may not be the state of the art its field, but it is nevertheless better, on or par, with several other personality inventories. By comparing a personality test to a radiologist’s equipment, Grant is essentially furnishing his readers with the illusion that there exists some alternative to the MBTI which is supposedly the equivalent of the radiologist’s equipment within the field of personality tests. This is not the case. Within the field of personality studies, even the state of the art is more ‘state’ than it is ‘art’.

The Argument from Ignorance

Next, Grant treats his readers to a normative claim: “If we’re going to use [the MBTI] in organizations, it should shed light on how well I’ll perform in a particular job or with a certain group of people.” But this is not necessarily the case. HR tools are deployed for a wide range of purposes within an organization, with some being used for recruiting and assessment while others are merely used as an exercise to strengthen the mutual understanding between employees and to allow them to raise of everyday phenomena with each other in a non-threatening way.

In the workplace, the MBTI is primarily deployed for purposes such as the latter. In fact, the Center for Applications of Psychological Type has long admonished that the MBTI test should not be used for recruiting and evaluating job performance. So it seems odd that Grant faults the MBTI for not doing something which it says that it cannot do. Is Grant purposefully setting up a straw man? Or is he ignorant of one of the most basic precepts surrounding the MBTI?

Then we get Grant’s “exhibits” for the supposedly faulty construction of the Jungian framework that underpins the MBTI: Within the MBTI, Thinking and Feeling are opposite poles of a continuum, but in the real world, thoughts and feelings are not necessarily opposed to each other. Again there is a rather grave problem with Grant’s way of arguing. With the MBTI, Thinking is not about thoughts and Feeling is not about feelings. Both are conventional names for ways of ordering information; structures in the psyche that govern the flow of perception and judgment.

Like the fact that the MBTI should not be used for recruitment or to predict job performance, one of the first lessons that anyone researching the MBTI will learn is that Feeling is not about feelings. One can hardly open a book on the MBTI without being cautioned that Feeling is not about actual feelings. The very first hit on Google when searching for “MBTI thinking feeling” will take you to a page the official Myers & Briggs Foundation, which tells you not to confuse Feeling with emotion.

With regards to MBTI precepts, Grant also commits the cardinal sin of mixing preference with aptitude. For example, I may have a preference for logical thinking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am good at it. Again, Grant is completely ignorant of what the MBTI actually claims to do. Go to the Myers & Briggs Foundation and they will say that test results do “not imply excellence, competence, or natural ability, only what is preferred.”

Thus, in the course of his short article, Grant repeatedly shows that he doesn’t understand even the most basic conditions surrounding the Myers-Briggs. He misunderstands and misapplies the instrument he is out to discredit and so it is no wonder that he concludes it is “useless”.

Parochial and One-sided

Another problem with Grant’s article is that he misrepresents his sources. In more than one place, Grant cherry picks his quotes in order to paint the darkest possible picture of the MBTI. Yet the sources that are invoked throughout his article do not always agree with Grant about the value of the MBTI.

Grant cites Susan Cain’s research on introversion, but fails to note that Cain approves of the MBTI, describing herself as an INFP. Grant also cites the psychologists Costa & McCrae to say that “the MBTI does not give comprehensive information on the four domains it does sample” but neglects to mention that the very study he is citing also notes that “…the four MBTI indices did measure aspects of four of the five major dimensions of normal personality…” and that “even critical reviewers … see promise in the instrument”. Grant also neglects to inform the reader that according to Costa & McCrae’s findings, the “empirical literature to date, suggest[s] that it IS effective at some level.” So much for Grant’s idea that the MBTI is “useless”.

Costa & McCrae, of course, are two of the “grand old men” of the Big Five model that Grant touts as a replacement for the Myers-Briggs. As we have just seen, these researchers do not share Grant’s denigrating view of the MBTI, and even the fact that they find empirical support for the MBTI does not stop Grant from comparing the MBTI to horoscopes and palm readings. This is hardly a faithful or fair exposition of the source material from someone who purports to be a proponent of the scientific method.

Grant proposes to discuss the relative merits of the MBTI and the Big Five in his article. A discussion requires at least some semblance of equal footing, but this is not what we get with Grant: He cardinally faults the MBTI for having four, not five scales, but is then quick to excuse the Big Five for having five, not six scales. In other words, Adam Grant has a double standard and hopefully we can all agree that in a comparative discussion, the best approach is to have one, not two standards.

In his discussion of the two systems, Grant does get around to pointing out the cardinal flaw in the MBTI: That most personality traits appear to be distributed like a bell curve rather than bi-modally (i.e. as two camel humps). This appears to be a genuine flaw in the MBTI instrument, so credit where credit is due. But on the other hand, Grant neglects to mention the cardinal flaw in the Big Five, namely the Lexical Hypothesis. Unlike the MBTI, which is based on the work of C.G. Jung, the Big Five has no cognitive theory to fall back on. It tells us very little about all the fun stuff – the stuff that we ultimately want to know about each other. That is also why organizational psychologists that use the Big Five often have to resort to MBTI-like descriptions of the data in order to make sense of the results.

In our work on personality, we use both the Jungian framework as well as the Big Five. The two are not exclusive to each other, but rather compliment and elucidate each other. Understanding the Big Five can help prevent simplistic thinking and stereotypes, and understanding Jung’s typology can help relate our inner workings to Jung’s theory of the cognitive functions. And it this ultimate reliance on Jung’s cognitive theory that allows us to connect the the results of a simple personality test to our innermost aspirations and motivations; to our wishes and to our dreams.

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Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and MBTI are trademarks of the MBTI Trust, Inc. – CelebrityTypes.com is an independent research venture, which has no affiliation with the MBTI Trust, Inc.

A researcher affiliated with the official MBTI instrument has also answered Adam Grant here.

5 Comments

  1. You’re right about Adam Grant. He’s got the S-P traits. This gives him the temperament which I call “Warriors.” He’s scrappy, and he’s looking to make a name for himself. And the way warriors make a name for themselves is to go into battle. In this case, he’s fighting the MBTI and its supporters. I’m glad to see someone standing up to him. I wonder how committed he is to stay in this battle. Usually when they feel outnumbered, the S-P’s will back down.

  2. Ha! Just today on Vox.com, there is a column quoting Grant’s criticisms of MBTI. This guy is still at it. I think the most vocal critics of MBTI take it much too seriously, to be honest. Genuine admirers of the instrument know it is not meant to be empirical or absolutely defining of any individual. Also, yes, as I’ve understood it, MBTI has not been credibly criticized for its validity; only its reliability. This is about as good as many instruments and experiments can get in any social science, even today. Why the vitriol, I wonder?

  3. Thank You for your comprehensive analysis! I am enthusiast and learned a great deal more about MBTI and logical writing/thinking language!
    I have been writing mini essays going over the inconsistencies and misconceptions of articles similar to Adam Grants. You have pulled everything I wanted to say right out of my mouth. With the incredible level of misconception assumed to be correct by the average person, discussing its validity is a headache, choose whatever you want to believe, have truth to back it up. I am relieved to have everything I wanted to say and more on paper,in addition i’ll feel less of a “know it all”.

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