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Published 26 March 2013 12:18, Updated 15 April 2013 11:24
The Myers-Briggs pyschometric test is regarded as having little more scientific validity than astrological signs, yet it remains wildly popular among employers.
Imagine being turned down for a role because your star sign did not qualify you for the job. Leos are fine, but Capricorns should look somewhere else.
It would be silly, right? Yet millions of people around the world have been analysed and sorted by a 20-minute test that has questionable scientific validity and is generally ignored by psychologists.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become wildly popular in business settings since being developed 60 years ago by two fans (untrained in science or psychology, but often derisively described as housewives) of the theories of psychologist Carl Jung.
It is now one of the most popular tools used by business and, as an industry, is said to be worth $US20 million a year. It is used to help employees develop some self-knowledge, to help managers know how to deal with the preferences of their staff and to assess people’s suitability to join teams or perform roles.
However, psychologists are concerned that a test, that some describe as “pop psychology”, is being used to make serious decisions about people’s potential.
Doctor of neuroscience Dean Burnett recently wrote of his concerns about the test in an article in The Guardian : “... the more you look into the specifics of the MBTI, the more questionable the way its widespread use appears to be”.
The test sorts people into four types: Extraversion-Introversion, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling and Judging-Perceiving.
Burnett says the test relies on people to make binary (either/or) choices about their personalities, despite the fact that this does not relate to the way people actually are.
“For example, in the category of extrovert v introvert, you’re either one or the other; there is no middle ground. People don’t work this way, no normal person is either 100 per cent extrovert or 100 per cent introvert, just as people’s political views aren’t purely ‘communist’ or ‘fascist’,” writes Burnett, who lectures at Cardiff University in the UK.
“Generally, although not completely unscientific, the MBTI gives a ridiculously limited and simplified view of human personality, which is a very complex and tricky concept to pin down and study. The scientific study of personality is indeed a valid discipline and there are many personality tests that seemingly hold up to scientific scrutiny (thus far). It just appears that MBTI isn’t one of them.”
Burnett says the MBTI is “harmless and potentially useful” if you are aware of its limitations.
Senior lecturer in psychology at Melbourne-based Monash University, Dr Simon Moss, says the MBTI persists because people like simple answers.
“I would argue that [its popularity] isn’t going to diminish for a while because, in the work environment, people are seeking simple – and even simplistic – solutions,” he says.
“In some ways, it is not so much a problem with the tool – it is a problem with consulting. Consultancy is looking for simplistic solutions, it is not comfortable with complexity and ambiguity and it is using tools that are inappropriate and obsolete. It would be better if we didn’t use tools like that.”
Moss says the test does have more validity than star signs, because astrology sorts people by the accident of their birth date whereas in the MBTI people are providing information about themselves, which can give a degree of understanding.
“I would argue that it is marginally more valid,” he says.
And people like the test because they are providing information about how they see themselves, and it would be hard for them to argue with the findings.
“But it is how it is used that is the issue,” Moss warns.
The danger of the MBTI is that it does not acknowledge that people change. Indeed, several studies of the test show that five weeks after they are tested with the MBTI, 50 per cent of re-tested people are classified into a different type.
Moss says he is concerned that an acceptance of a MBTI classification could lead to people being resistant to change and may also diminish problem-solving and innovation.
“As soon as you give people a series of letters [their classification], they start to think they are fixed [unable to change],” he says.
“As soon as people feel they are fixed, they won’t change fundamentally and are resistant to criticism.”
Instead of receiving uncomfortable feedback as a challenge to grow, they will become defensive and less malleable.
“Basically, it is a self-fulfilling prophesy. People like to feel consistent.”
When it comes to problem-solving and creativity, people perform best when they are acting out of their usual habits because they are not thinking of the obvious solutions, says Moss.
However, a belief in the fixed nature of an MBTI classification will encourage people to only tackle things in a way that aligns with their stated preferences.