A Critique of The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)—Part Two: a Personal Review

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NOT MY TYPE?/Image: Michael Moffa

[Note: This is the sequel to “Part I: One Expert’s Review ”, archived here at Recruiter.com.]

Recently, I “peeked” at the results of the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory—without ever having taken the test, and faced a very puzzling outcome: Upon carefully reviewing the detailed official Myers-Briggs descriptions of the 16 MBTI types, I discovered that even though the MBTI gives and claims only one type as a personal “score”, there are at least seven different purportedly unique types that, on natural, reasonable interpretations, all perfectly describe me, describe me at least to the same degree and better than the other nine, or, in the extreme and in some respects, describe everybody or nobody at all.

What’s worse, two of the types that perfectly match me are the most extreme opposites in the MBTI typology.

This result obtained even though the test is predicated on the claim that the differences among the types are significant enough to justify listing them as completely distinct in the first place, e.g., “ISFJ”—Intravert-Sensing-Feeling-Judging vs. “ENTP”—Emotional-iNtuitional-Thinking-Perceiving”.

My critique is, as I shall show, not based on wishful thinking, misinterpretation of the descriptions in the official MBTI individual type characterizations, or on any kind of “cherry-picking” among the types or among those I asked who know me well and have known me for years.

Your Final Mark is 63 and 97?

Imagine getting multiple scores on any of your presumptively single-score high school exams or your IQ test, say, 97 and 42,  or 85 and 149. Remember, your MBTI type, like your final exam mark or your IQ test score, is supposed to be unique among the 16 types and not only as a label, but also in the details of the type’s descriptive combination of traits the label, e.g., “ENTP”, designates.

This uniqueness should mean all of the following three things:

1.       No two labels, e.g., “ENTP” and any other, are the same, even if some of the individual letters are.

2.       No two personalities types are exactly the same, even though some may have some traits in common.

3.       It is logically impossible for more than one MBTI test result to exactly characterize the same person. (This means that given the definitions of the descriptor terms in the MBTI type-descriptions, it is as impossible for one person to be both an “ENTP” and some other type, in the same way as it is impossible for an “A” blood type to be an “O”.)

My issue with the MBTI is that the truth of #1 and #2 do not guarantee the truth of #3, which really boils down to the requirement that the MBTI type descriptions, as well as the 4-letter labels for those descriptions, should be “partitions”—which they are not. Without that guarantee, the usefulness, if any, of the MBTI results is thrown into serious doubt.

(A “partition” is a classification into types or elements that are “mutually exclusive” and “jointly exhaustive”—which means that all relevant groups or types are included and that no group is also a second group, much as “heads” and “tails” define a partition of outcomes on a coin toss. “Heads” and “tails” are  all and the only defined betting outcomes; and no “head” is also a “tail”.)

My Multiple Personalities, Intelligences and Debono’s 6 Hats

Reviewing the 16 profiles corresponding to the 16 MBTI “types” (fully listed on the Myers-Briggs Foundation’s website), I discovered that no fewer than 7 of the 16 MBTI categories, straightforwardly interpreted,  perfectly describe me: ISFJ, ISTP, INTJ, INFP, ENFJ, ENTJ, ENTP.

So, like the “6 Hats” of Edward DeBono’s model of thinking and the theory of “multiple intelligences”, it seems there are multiple MBTI personalities for at least some of us, even thought the MBTI conceptual and scoring schemes supposedly preclude this—at least as results for a single taking of the test, if not upon subsequent retesting.

Worse and extremely problematic for the MBTI’s usefulness, the first and last of the MBTI types, which I have boldfaced and underlined, are supposed to be extreme opposites, because they don’t have even a single one of the four type-letters in common. Yet, as I shall show, they unquestionably both accurately and precisely describe me—on specific precise interpretations of the vague and ambiguous official MBTI descriptions corresponding to the types.

In addition to other readily available independent, objective confirmation of my MBTI multiple-matches are the assessments provided by a sample drawn from people who know me very well.  A sample of six friends of many years, to whom I emailed the ISFJ and ENTP descriptions, without their knowing they were excerpted from the MBTI, yielded the result that, on a 0-10 scale, most gave me scores close to 10 for both, with “10” meaning the type in question perfectly described me, “0” not at all.

One physician friend, a more recent acquaintance included for an even more assuredly detached perspective, whom I asked reviewed these two specific types and said that, on specific and reasonable interpretations of the MBTI type descriptions of the “ISFJ” and “ENTP” personalities, I am clearly and perfectly both and to the highest degree possible on a scale from 0-10. Even in the instances in which there was only a 1-point separation, e.g., “10” vs. “9”, the most extreme opposites on the MBTI scale, viz., the “ENTP” and the “ISFJ”, should not both fit anyone that closely.

The key issue here is not whether I might have conceivably scored higher on other types that these independent observers did not examine, but rather how it is possible for me to so perfectly meet the criteria for the two most diametrically opposed types.

Accordingly, the gap between less divergent types should be even smaller, throwing into question the presumption that the 16 types are in terms of their characteristics as easily distinguished from each other as their names are.

Where the scores given by those in my sample diverged, it was always due to confusion about what some of the key descriptors in the type-characterizations met, in particular, “quiet” (as will be explained below).

When the ambiguity of these terms was cleared up, the gap between the two ratings virtually vanished and both types were judged to match my observed personality traits almost perfectly.

Unity of Opposites?

What follows will show how it is not only possible, but also very likely and indeed, for some jobs, necessary for you to have multiple MBTI personality types , rather than the alleged single type that “is you”.

Hint: Notice below how the traits of the so-called “ISFJ” are almost entirely moral-social “people-oriented”; then observe how, by contrast, most of the traits of the “ENTP” type are cognitive and task-oriented. That makes the relationship of  the “ISFJ” and “ENTP” types anything but mutually exclusive, since such specific moral-social traits, such as “loyal, considerate” (“ISFJ”) are perfectly compatible with intellectual and task performance traits like “adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analyzing them strategically” (“ENTP”).

Indeed, for many jobs, e.g., mine, as a “conscientious” (“ISFJ”)  and “analytical” (“ENTP”) writer, far from being mutually exclusive, these supposedly opposite traits and types are jointly essential—which means the ideal employee in many jobs should be both an “ISFJ” and an “ENTP”. Hence, these allegedly extreme and unique opposites in fact often do and should characterize one and the same employee.

Now for the details: Here is the official description of the “ISFJ” (Intraverted/Sensing/Feeling/Judging) type, taken from the Meyers Briggs Foundation website, http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/:

ISFJ: “Quiet, friendly, responsible, and conscientious. Committed and steady in meeting their obligations. Thorough, painstaking, and accurate. Loyal, considerate, notice and remember specifics about people who are important to them, concerned with how others feel. Strive to create an orderly and harmonious environment at work and at home.”

Absolutely and perfectly describes me!—If this means what I think it means. (But unlikely to describe anyone at all, on another interpretation, discussed below! On top of that, it may describe everyone, on a third interpretation, also described below!)

  • “Quiet”: YES. I am extremely soft-spoken, have never shouted “Woo-hoo!” for any reason—in fact, I find it very difficult to shout or roar; I lead a “quiet” life—e.g. never go to bars and clubs at night, and never disturb my neighbors. True, I sometimes snore, but that’s physiology, not personality.
  • “Thorough, painstaking and accurate”:YES. To see how this is a perfect match, read my articles and check my editing. You can confirm this yourself. A perfect fit, objectively confirmable!
  • “Friendly”: YES.  both habitually with those I know and spontaneously with those I don’t, I am friendly. I talk to strangers on buses, joke with cashiers, help the elderly when they need it; engage people at parties; avoid formality with my students and have never talked down to them; and pet as many passing dogs as I can. Another perfect fit! (Except for those I am not disposed to be friendly toward, e.g., loud drunks, the evil Illuminati, and dog-kickers.)
  • “Responsible and conscientious”:YES.Definitely. I pay all of my bills, keep all of my promises unless I’m stopped by traffic; take excellent care of other people’s property, including my rented apartment and complete my writing assignments as and when expected. Another perfect fit, again, confirmable by Recruiter.com management, as well as by friends!
  • “Strives to create an orderly and harmonious environment at work and at home”:YES.You bet. I hate physical and social messes, so I keep my workplace and home tidy and hate to fight with anyone. Confirmable by all of my friends.
  • “Loyal, considerate, notices and remembers specifics about people who are important to them, concerned with how others feel.”   YES. However, there is a problem here:  Who is going to see themselves as “disloyal”,  “inconsiderate” or “unconcerned” with “how others feel”?  Nobody, except somebody who will admit that to a guy because she doesn’t want him to ask her out or because she is looking for a masochist.

So, to the extent that the “loyal, considerate, etc.” characteristics have no negated counterparts in any of the other MBTI types, it is unclear how they distinguish any one person from anyone else. Indeed, the MBTI specifically excludes any negative-sounding trait whatsoever. Every descriptor is flattering, none pejorative—thereby lowering resistance to accepting its veracity.

In fact, this is a standard criticism of the MBTI: It capitalizes on what is called the “Forer Effect” or “Barnum Effect”: the tendency to accept as true types of information such as character assessments or horoscopes, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless (Oxford online dictionary), with the Forer Effect emphasizing the additional belief that the vague information uniquely describes oneself.

Note how vague, ambiguous, unclear and confusing the ISFJ “friendly”, like “quiet”, is: Suppose you operate out of a clique—friendly to insiders, hostile to outsiders, which is in fact an all too common occurrence in daily life, including in the workplace. Are you “friendly” or not? How could you possibly not agree you are friendly, even though you are unfriendly to the vast majority of human beings? Therefore, anyone who has any kind of in-group—which is most people, can be called “friendly”. There’s nothing special about that.

One desperate way to rescue the “ISJF” category is to trivialize its meaning until it fits: If  the “ISJF” type’s “friendly” merely means “sometimes friendly” and if its “quiet” means “sometimes quiet”, then “quiet, friendly” will describe virtually everyone—especially if being friendly on one occasion and quiet on another counts as being both quiet and friendly. Hence a perfect, albeit trivial fit.

On the other unlikely hand, if “quiet” means, as everyone I asked construed it,  always or mostly “silent”—like a Trappist monk or really shy introvert, then, no, I am not the “silent” type.

So the ambiguity of “quiet” and other terms, such as “friendly” makes this MBTI type description uninformative and unreliable.

Worse, this popular, commonsense interpretation of “quiet” as mostly silent makes it extremely unlikely that anyone will be an “ISFJ” type: How is it possible to be both extremely non-verbal and extremely friendly, unless you’re a family dog?

Taking “friendly”, on a natural interpretation of what “friendly” means as habitual behavior with the same people, rather than as a passing gesture of kindness to a stranger, it is hard to imagine how someone can be verbally uncommunicative and yet friendly.

Almost all among those I “polled” construed “quiet” to mean “silent”, even “introverted”, but then immediately saw how odd it is to combine that with “friendly”, as the MBTI does.

This means that it is hard to imagine how anyone at all can be an ISFJ type, much less the statistically second most common type in the test-taking population at an estimated 9%-11% (source: http://www.capt.org/mbti-assessment/estimated-frequencies.htm).

Also, look at “concerned with how others feel”: If you are an anonymous philanthropist unconcerned about how others feel about you, but very concerned about whether they feel safe or happy, are you “concerned with how others feel” or not? And is such concern to be interpreted as a form of compassion, vanity or hyper-sensitivity to criticism or insult?

So, are you, or are you not, “concerned with how others feel”? Absolutely yes and absolutely not—depending on which interpretation you assume or push. Given the Barnum and Forer effects, who is going to reject that characterization of themselves? Again, because of such effects and with inconsistencies like this, the single “ISFJ” MBTI type is either incoherent, ambiguous, seductive or multiple—instead of clear, non-manipulative and unique.

Finally, to nail this issue of excessive generality and vagueness,  do you know anyone who doesn’t “notice and remember” at least some specifics about people who are important to them—even if they forget some, e.g., wedding anniversaries?  Of course not, so we are all, in this respect, this “ISFJ” type.

Now, here’s the “ENTP” type:

ENTP: “Quick, ingenious, stimulating, alert, and outspoken. Resourceful in solving new and challenging problems. Adept at generating conceptual possibilities and then analyzing them strategically. Good at reading other people. Bored by routine, will seldom do the same thing the same way, apt to turn to one new interest after another.”

For confirmation of all of these, except “good at reading other people”, read my full bio here at Recruiter.com and any three of my multi-disciplinary critical articles.

As for “good at reading other people”, does having been invited for testing by CSICOP—the prestigious U.S. Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal count?  On the basis of my performance in a “remote reading” experiment done by telephone communication between Toronto and Buffalo, I was invited by the eminent chairman of that august skeptical group, Professor Paul Kurtz, to fly in for a test, the results of which were published in the Humanistmagazine and subsequently of great interest to some Russian parapsychology researchers.

If that doesn’t count, things get problematic, because even if you or I are able to predict what other people will do, the legions of cynics and idealists among us will argue endlessly about whether we got the motives of those accurately predicted actions right, and by implication, about how well we “read other people”.

Bottom line (in my self-evaluation and in the judgment of those who know me): I’m undeniably, categorically both “ISFJ” and “ENTP”—not just a little of one and a lot of the other, or a little of both. I’m a lot, indeed all,  of both, depending on the which reasonable interpretation of them is accepted.

Slippery Slope?

It might be argued that the 16 types are not outcomes like the discrete, non-gradient “heads” and “tails” outcomes of a coin toss, but more like the temperatures on a graduated thermometer that indicate a gradient of gradually emerging differences in heat and cold identified as points, e.g., 38 degrees, 39 degrees and 40 degrees.  Hence, “ISTP” is one “degree” away from “ISTJ”, because it differs by only one letter, while “ENTP” is four degrees—the maximum—away from “ISFJ”, since all four letters are different.

This would be a cogent argument, but for a couple of problems:

1.       It doesn’t explain how it’s possible for test-takers and those who know them to agree that two or more MBTI types perfectly or equally better than the remaining ones match the personality of the test-taker.

2.       It doesn’t address the kind of problems of vagueness, ambiguity and inconsistency discussed above that seem to be built into the characterizations in a way that precludes unequivocal and unique interpretation of the characterizations.

3.       To the extent that clarification of the interpretations of the results depend on follow-up discussions with MBTI-trained reviewers, it opens the door to a conceptual accordion, on which the tune that the test-taker or the MBTI administrator/reviewer wants played gets played.

Resolution and Solution

The enormous popularity of the MBTI should be neither pooh-poohed nor taken as proof it deserves its acclaim. Likewise, its champions and detractors (including me among the latter) should be neither anathematized nor canonized. Given a probable continuing balance of such support and criticism, is there some way to achieve a truce, if not an outright resolution of the clash?

There is.

In categorizing the MBTI and on reflection, we can all agree to agree that the MBTI really does test us….

…in more ways than one.

By Michael Moffa