A while ago on LinkedIn someone asked a question about why many career coaches persist in using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) when it seems to be lacking in validity as a testing tool. A number of other contributors joined in the criticism, describing MBTI as being on a par with horoscopes as well as attacking its Jungian origins and amateur-led development. I threw a few comments into the debate to defend MBTI, mainly because I like being a devil’s advocate rather than because I’m a wholehearted believer in the instrument.
Even though I am a qualified practitioner and have used it fairly extensively, I do have a number of doubts and criticisms about the MBTI and Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types on which it is based.
In this post I would like to talk about some of those reservations and ask some questions about what MBTI is all about.
In the next post I will attempt to look at how, despite these reservations, some of the concepts of MBTI can be useful in helping people with career decisions that goes beyond an unconvincing matching of personality types to particular occupations.
For those readers who are not familiar with MBTI concepts and terminology, you might want to do a quick bit of background reading first.
If you didn’t do the background reading then you need to know the following bits of information to have any chance of understanding what I’m going to talk about next.
- Jung identified four types of mental function: two ‘irrational’ or perceiving functions (Sensing and Intuition) and two ‘rational’ or judging functions (Thinking and Feeling)
- Each of these functions could be introverted (focused inwards) or extraverted (focused outwards). This is their attitude.
- This results in eight attitude-function combinations (Introverted-Sensing, Extraverted-Sensing, Introverted-Intuition, Extraverted-Intuition, Introverted-Thinking, Extraverted-Thinking, Introverted-Feeling and Extraverted-Feeling)
Not the usual
[Please note I have now extensively rewritten this paragraph to clarify my meaning and avoid people focusing on this bit to the exclusion of my main arguments.]
Many of the objections to MBTI from psychologists centre on arguments about statistical reliability and validity. Whilst this is a serious issue if you are going to use MBTI (unwisely) as part of a test-and-tell strategy for working with clients, frankly, those problems don’t concern me right now for the purposes of this blog post.
Of course empirically-derived instruments based on the Big Five personality traits will do better on empirical tests of validity. Such instruments are developed by asking the question ‘What can we consistently measure using these tools?’ but they have a harder time answering the question ‘Why?’
The theory behind MBTI attempts to answer the question ‘How might differences in personality arise from basic cognitive functions?’ In this case, Jung’s theory is the most important feature of MBTI (from the perspective of this blog anyway).
I have serious doubts about the ability of the MBTI instrument to do justice to the original theory. However, I also have some doubts about the assumptions that Jung made when formulating the theory…
A dubious dichotomy
In traditional MBTI thinking, although you use all four of the paired functions (Sensing-Intuition and Thinking-Feeling), you are born with (or develop somehow) a preference for one from each pair. So, for example, you might be consistently more likely to use Intuition (N) than Sensing (S) to perceive things and Feeling (F) rather than Thinking (T) to judge things.
However, some psychologists claim that, if this either/or preference was the case, the distribution of preference scores on the S-N and T-F scales of the MBTI questionnaire would show a bimodal distribution (i.e. it would have two peaks with a dip in the middle). Instead it shows a fairly standard normal distribution, with most people scoring somewhere near the middle. According to MBTI ortodoxy this is explained by saying that people are often unaware of their natural preference, but a simpler explanation might be that lots of people do use both almost equally. When talking about extraversion and introversion, Jung himself was quite happy to admit that there are people who are not strongly one or the other. Why couldn’t that be true for the other dimensions as well?
But, I have an even bigger question.
What’s the opposite of opposite?
Jung’s original theory of psychological types assumes that the functions in each pair are mutally exclusive opposites. So, Sensing is the opposite of Intuition. The more you are drawn to using Sensing the less able you are to use Intuition. Through this idea of opposites Jung developed the idea of dominant and inferior functions. If you put most of your energy into Thinking (dominant) then your least developed function would be Feeling (inferior), etc.
It’s certainly true that when some neural pathways in the brain are activated they inhibit (or shut down) other pathways to avoid competition. This stops the brain getting overloaded. For example, when you are concentrating on an activity, the bits of your brain responsible for concentrating actually put a muffler on signals from other sensory input so that you don’t get distracted so easily (see the post on Flow). However, there are also quite a lot of functions that are quite happy to work in parallel, interact and reinforce each other. See Houghton & Tipper (1996) and Poldrack & Packard (2003), if you don’t mind a bit of neuroscience.
It may be that Jung only noticed these behaviours because he was observing people who were ‘unbalanced’. It would be very easy to pick up on someone primarily driven by their Feeling function if their Thinking function was under-developed. However, it’s a bit of a logical overstep to then say that whenever the Feeling function is dominant, the Thinking function is therefore the least developed.
What if Jung’s functions are not opposite but complementary? From an evolutionary psychology point of view it is very likely that various perception and decision making functions have evolved to deal with the different situations we might have to face. If accuracy and repeatability is more important than speed, then attention to detail (S) and detached analytical decision making (T) will be advantageous. On the other hand, if speed is important, then the ability to spot patterns quickly (N), to make assumptions and rapidly assess personal impact (F) will give us the edge. There will also be situations where a mix of these functions working alongside each other could be useful.
Jung seems to have tied these functions together in pairs with very little justification other than a belief in duality. The fact that the MBTI perpetuates this assumption by presenting the user with only forced choice questions, seems to me like a major potential limitation. (In fact, a couple of Jungians, June Singer and Mary Loomis, thought along exactly these lines and decided to develop a different tool called the Singer Loomis Type Deployment Inventory, which claims to measure each of the eight attitude-function combinations separately. It hasn’t really caught on like MBTI.)
[As an aside, if we keep the assumption that personality is determined by the functions arranging themselves in a hierarchy but we decouple the eight attitude-functions in this way so that they can be ranked in any order, the number of different personality types possible leaps from 16 to 40,320.]
If we call upon these functions to deal with varying external (and possibly internal) situations, then the aspects of behaviour that they describe are likely to be context dependent. Rather than describing aspects of personality that are reasonably constant over different circumstances (habitual traits), perhaps they should be used to look at how behaviour changes in different situations.
It may be even more complicated than that. In a very early post I talked about the theory that what we think of as one whole personality may be made up of a number of distinct mini-personalities. Each personality might be linked to a different set of circumstances, memories and behaviours.
I’m not finished…
Let me push this a little bit further. I might even be brave enough to suggest that Jungian typology and MBTI are actually only indirectly linked to personality.
When Jung was trying to find a way of classifying and explaining different personality types that he observed, perhaps what he created instead was a simple model of basic cognitive function. In the same way that the simple model of atomic structure developed by Neils Bohr can explain some (but not all) of the observable properties and behaviours of atoms and chemical elements. The Jungian model of cognitive function can explain some (but not all) of the observable characteristics and patterns of behaviour in humans.
This is what leads me to include it in a blog on career theory. If Jungian functions are really a simple model of how we observe, filter, recall and act within the world, it could be really useful for looking at how people make career decisions and how their decision making could be improved.
- Boyle, G.J. (1995). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Some psychometric limitations. Australian Psychologist, 30 (1), 71-74
- McCrae, R.R. & Costa, P.T., Jr (1989) Reinterpreting the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator from the perspective of the Five-Factor Model of personality. Journal of Personality, 57(1), 17-40.
- Houghton, G. & Tipper, S.P. (1996) Inhibitory mechanisms of neural and cognitive control: applications to selective attention and sequential action. Brain and Cognition, 30(1), 20-43. DOI: 10.1006/brcg.1996.0003.
- Poldrack, R.A. & Packard, M.G. (2003) Competition among multiple memory systems: converging evidence from animal and human brain studies. Neuropsychologia, 41(3), 245-251. DOI: 10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00157-4.