Drake Baer’s Lazy Critique of the MBTI

By Ryan Smith and Eva Gregersen

Business Insider seems to be developing a penchant for publishing poorly researched articles about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Last September it was Professor Adam Grant’s critique of the MBTI which quoted unfaithfully from one of the scientific studies that it used as the basis of its argument. Now it is reporter Drake Baer who is out to discredit an instrument he does not understand.

This website has no affiliation with the MBTI. But man, are we tired of seeing the same lazy critiques hitting print.

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Baer opens with a well-known critique:

It’s a little troubling, given that Myers and Briggs were a mother (Katharine Briggs) and daughter (Isabel Myers) who studied the works of psychologist Carl Jung a hundred years ago, particularly his book “Psychological Types.” Myers and Briggs weren’t social scientists themselves. Briggs was a housewife with a deep interest in Jung; before she wrote a survey that served as a prototype of Myers-Briggs personality tests, Myers wrote mystery novels.

So Myers and Briggs weren’t social scientists, and Myers had previously written a novel. However, none of these criticisms say anything about the quality of their work.

First, simply saying that Myers and Briggs were not social scientists and leaving it at that is a blatant appeal to authority. This critique is often levelled at Myers and Briggs by people who don’t understand the seminal nature of the innovations they added to Jung’s theory. It commonly goes unrecognized, for example, that Myers and Briggs achieved what social scientists and statisticians of their time had failed to do, namely to operationalize Jung’s ideas and convert them into a workable scoring system. It is worth noting that while Myers and Briggs were developing their interpretation of the Jungian ideas, academics at Stanford University were busy with their own attempts to operationalize Jung’s typology. Yet their attempts that lack precision when compared to the MBTI.[1]

As is plain to anyone who has studied the history of the instrument, Myers did what nobody else was able to do at the time. To fault her for her lack of credentials is a naked appeal to authority that disregards the manifest accomplishments of her work.[2] Also, by describing Briggs as a housewife, Baer is implying that Briggs had no education. In reality, though, Briggs was a college graduate, so even on its own erroneous premises, the argument still fails.

Likewise, it was Myers and Briggs who added a fourth dimension (Judging/Perceiving) to Jung’s preceding three (Extrovert/Introvert, Intuition/Sensation, Thinking/Feeling). It is sometimes argued that this fourth distinction was implied in Jung’s original work (as he called some people “Rational” and others “Irrational”), but Myers’ and Briggs’ conception of Judging and Perceiving goes beyond any intent of Jung’s and introduces the notion of a psychological preference for structure and order (Judging) which allegedly stands opposite to a preference for flexibility and improvisation (Perceiving). The introduction of the J/P scale, which was an invention by Myers and Briggs, is effectively the intellectual forerunner of the Conscientiousness dimension as used in the Big Five system of personality, the system which Baer approves of.

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Baer then writes:

Many people say they [Myers and Briggs] didn’t really understand Jung at all.

This is just hearsay with no arguments or sources cited, which is an extremely lazy form of reporting. Is Baer a journalist or a gossip writer? What sort of journalistic standards does Business Insider hold its writers to, if any? Who are these people to whom Baer refers? What specific points of Jung did Myers and Briggs allegedly fail to understand? Does Baer even know?

Here are some actual facts, as opposed to unsubstantiated rumors: Myers not only read Jung attentively and argued many of her points with specific reference to Jung, she also assiduously studied the works of J.H. van der Hoop, a professor of psychiatry from the Netherlands who knew Jung personally and with whom Jung carried on a lengthy correspondence. Myers based her understanding of Jung extensively on Hoop, so it might be argued that if Myers didn’t understand Jung “at all”, nor did Hoop, which is a pretty questionable position to hold. Predictably, Baer’s article evinces no knowledge of Myers’ engagement with Hoop.

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Here is Baer’s next argument:

The Myers-Briggs (MBTI) has become so entrenched, in part, because people who invest themselves in something are typically loathe to give it up. MBTI training sessions cost a couple grand to go through, and once you believe in something like the personality types, your cognitive biases are going to do everything they can to hold onto it. 

This is probably true, but you could say that about anything. It also costs money to become a certified coach, psychologist, or practitioner of competing personality inventories, and all of these certifications are usually in the range of “a couple of grand,” if not more. People don’t just get attached to the MBTI in this manner; the problem is endemic to the field as a whole.

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Baer continues:

Once people find out their type, they take it as a “badge that they stamp on their forehead and use as an identity marker,” Little says. In extreme cases, people get tattoos. 

This is a problem. 

“This is a problem?” Says who? Why is it a problem? What are the arguments? Again, we are not told; it is simply declared. It is commonly recognized that it was the Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea (ca. 515-450 BCE)  who pioneered the practice of substantiating one’s claims with arguments. Apparently, Baer didn’t get the memo.

Baer could just as well have said, “This isn’t a problem,” and his reporting wouldn’t be any less cogent.

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Baer then quotes Professor Brian Little:

“If you only see yourself as an extrovert or as one of those four-letter codes on the Myers-Briggs,” Little says, “you will have foreclosed on paths that might open to you if didn’t think in terms of types of people.”

This statement is true, but also a platitude. It applies to practically anything. “If you only think of yourself as a licensed accountant, you will have foreclosed on paths that might open to you if you didn’t think in terms of credentials.” The problem isn’t that one perspective excludes certain competing perspectives on reality; all perspectives do. The problem arises when someone can’t let go of their pet perspective, no matter what that perspective is.

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Baer then quotes Grant:

Wharton organizational psychologist Adam Grant criticizes the either/or approach of the system. Thirty years of research show that you can both be a thinker and a feeler; in fact most thoughtful people also spend lots of time feeling emotion. “When I scored as a thinker one time and a feeler one time, it’s because I like both thinking and feeling,” he writes. “I should have separate scores for the two.” 

First, the binary breakdown of the MBTI scales is indeed at odds with the empirical evidence. This is the single biggest weakness of the MBTI, as well as of Jungian typology in general.

However, as we have detailed here, Adam Grant’s critique relies on a fallacious and unresearched understanding of how the MBTI functions. To repeat ourselves, Feeling, as defined in the MBTI system, is not about actual feelings. One can hardly open a book on the MBTI without being cautioned that Feeling is not about feelings. The very first hit on Google when searching for “MBTI thinking feeling” will take you to a page on the official Myers & Briggs Foundation website which tells you not to confuse Feeling with emotion.

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Baer then cites another critique of the MBTI:

Philosopher Roman Krznaric notes that if “you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category compared to the first time you took the test.” This is bad news for the test’s reputation, given that replicability is an essential part of scientific inquiry. 

As we have dealt with here, a substantial reason for why people come out as different types on retests stems from the fact that the MBTI breaks its scales into two halves. Presenting them as two separate critiques as he does, Baer does not seem to understand the connection between this critique and the one that preceded it.

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Baer then calls upon a book that describes the genesis of the MBTI:

In her scathingly illuminating book “The Cult Of Personality Testing,” journalist Annie Murphy Paul writes that “no personality type test has achieved the cult status of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” which is unfortunate, given that “the 16 distinctive types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis whatsoever.”   

One wonders if Baer has read the book. Paul’s book is not “scathingly illuminating” with regards to scientific critique, but mostly consists of anecdotes detailing the personal quirks of the people who invented the theory. One such censure against the MBTI is that Myers allegedly wrote the prototype of the MBTI at her kitchen table. Well, okay, but Einstein also conceived his theories in his own home, so apparently that cancels out the Theory of Relativity too.

With regards to the claim that “the 16 types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis,” that claim is halfway true, but the statement is phrased in a misleading manner that aims to inflate the critique. This is not becoming of someone who invokes scientific rigor as part of his argument.

The actual truth of the matter is this: There is no scientific basis for claiming that 16 distinct types exist as blueprints of the human psyche. However, all of the scales measured by the MBTI do have scientific validity. To use an analogy, the “cake” that the MBTI describes is real, but the way the MBTI cuts the cake is arbitrary.

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Baer then cites a review article concerning the MBTI:

In a review of research comparing Myers-Briggs personality types and job performance, management scholars William Gardner and Mark Martinko find that “few consistent relationships between type and managerial effectiveness have been found.”

The cited claim is true: Almost no predictive evidence has been found that just being a given type will make you better as a manager. However:

  1. The MBTI doesn’t purport to be able to measure or predict how good a manager you are (it claims to measure preferences, not abilities). Like Adam Grant, Baer is faulting the MBTI for not doing something that it doesn’t purport to do.
  2. There are statistically significant patterns regarding which types that end up as managers.[3] This finding is consistent with the MBTI’s assertion that it measures preferences and not abilities.

The criticism thus falls back on Baer for not having done his research.

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Finally, Baer ends with the obligatory reference to the Big Five as superior to the MBTI:

The best alternative to the Myers-Briggs is the “Big 5” personality types, which operate along five continuums: conscientiousness, agreeability, emotional stability, openness to experience, and extroversion. Unlike the Myers Briggs, the Big 5 traits have been observed by social scientists and tested in the lab and in the field. What’s more, they do predict outcomes: conscientiousness predicts success; openness predicts creativity.

As the reader may have noticed, there is a consistent theme running through the rebuttals of Baer’s piece: His research is superficial and lackluster, and his reporting is lazy. In this final paragraph, Baer gives himself away red-handed, as the Big Five, as a theoretical construct, is not about types. Indeed, one of the central reasons that the Big Five is empirically superior to the MBTI is precisely that the Big Five doesn’t postulate types.

Next, Baer calls the Big Five an “alternative” to the MBTI. Yet though there are overlaps, the Big Five cannot be an “alternative” to the MBTI, since the Big Five doesn’t purport to do the same thing as the MBTI. To understand how these systems of personality differ, Jung’s typology is a theory of consciousness, while the Big Five relies on trait theory. The pioneers of the Big Five were conscious of this distinction.[4] Baer is not.

Then there is the criticism that “unlike the Myers Briggs, the Big 5 traits have been observed by social scientists and tested in the lab and in the field.” Again Baer’s faulty research ends up misleading the reader here. The MBTI has been tested by social scientists, numerous times.[5] A simple search for scientific papers would instantly reveal this.

As for Baer’s final claim, it is true that the Big Five is better at predicting behavior and ability than the Myers-Briggs. Naturally, if you are an empiricist, you will therefore prefer the Big Five, but again, the MBTI does not purport to predict behavior and ability, and so the critique is like faulting a hammer for not being a saw. The Big Five can indeed do some things which the MBTI is unable to do, but the reverse is also true.

In our work on personality, we use both the Jungian framework as well as the Big Five. The two do not exclude each other, but rather complement 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 the theory of cognitive functions. The true psychological craftsman needs both hammers and saws, and many more tools besides – there is no need to be parochial.

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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.

NOTES


[1] Wilde, Douglass J.: Jung’s Personality Theory Quantified. Springer 2011. p. 12

[2] Geyer, Peter: Psychological Type and the MBTI® Past, Present and Future? APTi e-chapter presentation 22. August, 2013.

[3] Bradley-Geist and Landis: Homogeneity of Personality in Occupations and Organizations: A Comparison of Alternative Statistical Tests. Journal of Business and Psychology, Volume 27, Issue 2, pp. 149-159, 2012.

[4] Costa and McCrae: Personality in Adulthood. Guilford Press 2012. p. 105

[5] Furnham, Adrian: The big five versus the big four: the relationship between the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and NEO-PI five factor model of personality. Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 21, Issue 2, August 1996, Pages 303-307.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for deconstructing and dissecting the poor excuse for journalism that was Baer’s article/argument (if one can even rightfully call it that).

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