Do I still like MBTI? (Part 3)

Abstract lights

Sometimes a personality just won’t stand still

In part 1 of this series, I gave my take on some of the weaknesses and limitations of MBTI and its underlying Jungian theory of psychological types. In part 2, I tried to reconstruct Jung’s ideas into a rather over-simplified model of how we deal with information and make decisions, leaving out a few of his most troublesome assumptions. Now I will explain how this model influences my work with clients and how I actually use MBTI in practice.

In defence of dynamics

Before I do that though, having criticised the MBTI, I would like to balance things a little.

One of the criticisms levelled at the MBTI is that, compared to other psychometric instruments, it has poor test-retest reliability. This means that if the same person answers the questionnaire on two separate occasions they might come out with different results. This is a fair criticism if what you are trying to measure is a fixed trait which ought not to change over time.  Part of this is probably due to the arbitrary allocation of people in the middle of the spectrum to one preference or another, something I have never been comfortable with.

However, if Jung’s model is not really about fixed preferences between opposing traits, but a dynamic balance of complementary functions that depend on the needs of the situation as much as the natural inclinations of the individual, then the low reliability of the MBTI may be giving an insight into the adaptability of our brains.

One way of testing this situational hypothesis might involve getting people to focus on a scenario geared towards a particular mode of thinking before they complete the questionnaire. If you made them think about the same scenario before they did it again then test-retest reliability ought to get better, and if you gave them a different type of scenario it should get worse. If anyone knows of any research along these lines, please let me know.

Even if the above is true and the lower reliability is a feature rather than a bug, this still leaves the question of whether you should be trying to measure something that is, by its nature, changeable. Against that, let me pose another question: why should we assume that relatively stable aspects of personality are more important than the way in which someone’s responses change with different circumstances? If we are helping people to navigate change in their lives, perhaps both the fixed and the changeable aspects of human nature are worthy of attention. You could argue that what you can alter may be more relevant if you are looking at a change of career identity. Perhaps the MBTI is not the best tool to do this, as it was designed with a lot of differential psychology assumptions about static traits. If there are other tools around that specifically examine the dynamic, contextual aspects of personality, I’d be interested in hearing about them.

For an overview and comparison of the dynamic-cognitive and the static-trait approaches to personality see this article:

Mischel, W., & Shoda, Y. (1998) Reconciling processing dynamics and personality dispositions. Annual Review of Psychology, 49(1), 229-258. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.psych.49.1.229

I have a related general reservation about the use of psychometric instruments in career helping. It’s a common assumption that the more information you have available about a client the better. However, research on the limits of rationality seem to show that, if we have a lot of information we find it hard to distinguish the important from the irrelevant.

My rules of engagement

All of this leads me to my first rule about how I might use MBTI in my work:

I use it with caution and honesty.

Every practitioner who uses MBTI should be fully aware of its weaknesses and limitations. They should also be open with clients about those limitations. I focus more on explaining the underlying theory than using the instrument as a diagnostic tool. In doing this I am giving clients something that they can apply to themselves and experiment with beyond the discussion rather than fostering dependence on me as the person who can use the magic tool.

I also try to get clients to think about their behaviour in particular settings rather than as an overall pattern (When are you more likely to be using extraverted thinking, etc.?). I also encourage clients to think about exceptions to the rule.

Rather than forcing clients to express a black-or-white preference, I express it in terms of percentages or ratios. For example, most of the time I consider myself to be a 70/30 Thinking/Feeling, but this fluctuates between 60/40 and 80/20 depending on the situation.

I use it sparingly and only when the client wants it.

In a lot of my work with clients, MBTI or Jungian functions play no part at all. It just doesn’t come up because it’s not relevant.

In other cases, I might apply it in the background — much as I might apply any theory. It gives me a set of questions to bear in mind when interacting with clients (see ‘What could go wrong?’, ‘Behaviour ranges’ and ‘Rumination and reaction’ in part 2). As with any other theory, I don’t apply it rigidly or indiscriminately, and most of the time it just hovers inthe background suggesting possible lines of enquiry.

I am suspicious of any career consultant who always uses psychometric measures, especially if it’s the first thing they get clients to do. At best, it may be relevant and helpful. It may be harmless, but an irrelevant waste of money. At worst, it could set an inappropriate frame for the subsequent discussions by focusing on information that is available and accurate but not relevant, thus preventing the real issues to emerge.

As far as I’m concerned it’s the client’s choice. If a client requests the actual questionnaire, or I agree with an informed client that it might be useful for them…

I consider how to use it most appropriately for the individual client.

Isabel Briggs Myers and Katherine Briggs initially designed their questionnaire to promote mutual understanding and as a career matching tool. In the latter aim they were misguided and not particularly successful. It’s not suitable for ‘what’ questions (What would I be suited to? What am I good at?). It’s better with ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions (How does my decision making work and why does it sometimes let me down? Why do I keep making the same mistakes and how can I stop?). So, rather than trying to match people to jobs, I tend to use the MBTI to explore the client’s career research and decision making methods.

With their other ambition Myers and Briggs have been more successful. Although MBTI is used to help people understand themselves, it’s even better at helping people to understand and appreciate others. Therefore, I mostly like to use it in team-building and conflict situations. With individuals, I sometimes use it to gain greater understanding of  career-related interpersonal issues (Why was I not able to get on with my colleagues?).

I use it on myself

One of the main ways I use Jungian theory is to counterbalance my own natural tendencies. My own MBTI type is INTP (with a good test-retest reliability) and I do tend to have a default approach to problems which is contemplative, abstract, analytical and exploratory. It is very useful to be alert to the times when this is not working with a particular client and to be aware of alternative approaches that I could take. I will be a more versatile coach if I can switch to a more lively, concrete, instinctive, goal-focused approach when necessary.

I use it for reflection

As with other theories, the Jungian model can be applied to reflective practice and review. It helps me to think about:

  • The detailed information and the patterns that I noticed or failed to notice (Pe)
  • The way I decided what was going on and my impressions of what was important (Ji)
  • Which things I remembered to follow up and my awareness of my own internal emotions (Pi)
  • The rational and instinctive decisions I made during the discussion about what to do (Je)

OK, David, answer the question!

The title of these three posts is ‘Do I still like MBTI?’ and it’s a bit of a misleading question. Even though I’m a practitioner, I have never been a whole-hearted believer. The MBTI instrument has many flaws (read the articles below for some more – some of which are wholly justified, some unjustified and some irrelevant). I think Jung’s theories were really insightful at the time, but he made too many assumptions that should have been corrected by later developments and discoveries in cognitive science.

Having said that, I think it does have value if used wisely and cautiously. There have been instances when it’s been very useful and times when it’s been completely irrelevant.

On a recent Radio 4 programme about the MBTI, one occupational psychologist rather dismissively described the MBTI as ‘harmless’. I think that what was intended as an insult is in fact one of its strengths. In presenting the potential positive and negative aspects of different types of behaviour, the MBTI is a gentle, non-judgemental way of getting people to engage with and question their own behavioural habits, and to appreciate and accept other people’s habits.

So, do I accept it unquestioningly and unreservedly? No.
Do I think it’s useful? Sometimes.
Do I approach it with the same combination of enthusiasm and skepticism that I apply to other theories? Yes.
Do I still like it? On balance, yes.

  • Michael, J. (2003) Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a tool for leadership development? Apply with caution Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 10(1), 68-81. DOI: 10.1177/107179190301000106
  • Pettinger, D.J. (1993) Measuring the MBTI…and coming up short.  Journal of  Career Planning and Employment, 54(1), 48-52.

Over to you…

  • If you use MBTI as part of your practice, how do you use it?
  • Do you like it?
  • If you use something else for similar purposes to those I described, what do you use and how does it work for you?
  • What’s your opinion on the use of psychometric tools in general?


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  1. #1 by Todd I. Stark on 20 May 2010 - 13:35

    For me, psychometric research is important in uncovering various kinds of individual differences, but our natural tendency to categorize people by specific differences quickly leads to misuse. There’s a value to IQ testing, but it is at least as often misused as used because of its stereotyping effect and overgenerallization of its meaning. Similar with Myers-Briggs and other personality typologies.

    Historically when some well-meaning manager trots out the Myers-Briggs in a work environment, I’d usually be one of the first ones to point out its flaws and distribute critiques of its basis and its potential for reinforcing and legitimizing misleading stereotypes. The dynamic nature of personality, the very different ways people express the same information processing biases, the instability of the presumed underlying traits, etc.. Yes most people have some relatively stable traits as they mature, but development is lifelong in very significant ways.

    On balance, though I’d have to say that if for some reason you do need a way of getting some initial insight into individual differences, it isn’t a bad way to start looking differently at other people.

    The problem is that this isn’t the way it is typically used. The first thing that seems to happen is that it is presented as a map of stable human personality and then everyone is given their place on that map. It is a much more powerful instrument when you think of it as providing initial insights into why other people presented with similar information in similar situations seem to be thinking and responding in such different ways. It generally only gives you a hint though.

    If we weren’t so obsessed with the stabiity of traits in human life for categorizing ourselves, tools like this could be used in a more productive way.

    kind regards,


    • #2 by David Winter on 20 May 2010 - 13:42

      Thank you very much for your comment. You have pretty much summed up in a succinct few paragraphs what I have been trying to say in three long-winded blog posts.


      P.S. Like the look of your own blog

      • #3 by Todd I. Stark on 8 June 2010 - 22:12

        David, thanks very much for your comments and for the compliment!


  2. #4 by John king on 21 May 2010 - 22:00

    Is there not a more modern version of the MBTI which avoids some of the more obvious technical failings but which has the same usefulness?

    • #5 by David Winter on 21 May 2010 - 22:37

      The only alternatives I’m aware of are the Kiersey Temperament Sorter and the Singer Loomis Type Deployment Inventory I talked about in part 1. However, I don’t know if they are any better. The SLTD claims to measure the eight individual functions rather than lumping together introverted and extraverted functions.

      I suppose I’m not too bothered about a better version, because the questionnaire is not the important bit for me. I tend to minimise its use as much as possible and focus on helping people to use the theory as a framework for asking questions about themselves and others.

    • #6 by Bourne on 1 February 2016 - 10:10

      Yes john. Please have a look to the “IJTI-Process” instrument. (Identification of Jungian Type & Individuation Process).
      It is the first jungian tool that takes into account temporality.

  3. #7 by Liz Wilkinson on 2 June 2010 - 15:44

    I used the MBTI a great deal in both 1:1 work and group situations 1996-2003, both with clients and internal staff training. At the time the organisation I worked for (which happens to be now called The Careers Group) was far less accepting of personality diversity than it is now. The MBTI opened up the debate and gave us a vocabulary to explore and celebrate difference, and some tool kit to improve our effectiveness. So my experience of it was very positive in terms of team functioning and adapting to different client styles. (I generally report as ENFP so improved my guidance with more concrete focus and more structure). I have found its greatest value in the way it can open the practioners’ eyes and gives them more intervention options. I share some of David’s reservations in its limitatations for career choice. But overall I still think it has a great deal to offer to professional development for any one who works with people. Alternatively it illuminates, as one of my own training courses for the university was entitled, “Why do your colleagues get on your nerves?”

    • #8 by David Winter on 2 June 2010 - 17:46

      Thanks Liz

      Why do your colleagues get on your nerves?

  4. #9 by Dan on 8 June 2010 - 08:33

    Perhaps it’s just been the skewed samples I’ve seen, but among peers and online test-takers there is an enormous skew towards “N” rather than “S,” in no small part because it comes across as “smarter,” and perhaps aided by the ways talk about intelligence, thought, and personalities has changed in the US.

  5. #10 by David Winter on 8 June 2010 - 22:10

    According to the Myers-Briggs Foundation the estimate for the proportion of the US population with a Sensing preference is 66-74%. So it might depend on your samples.

  6. #11 by Todd I. Stark on 8 June 2010 - 22:16

    I suspect that the proportion in the N/S scales might legitimately change over time, due to changes in what is valued culturally, via at least two mechanisms. First, people will tend to report things that are more valued, and second, there is probably a shift in underlying personality mechanisms as a result of the same trends. As a plausibility example, see James Flynn’s discussion of the Dickens-Flynn effect by which IQ score subscales shift from generation to generation, wihch Flynn hypothesizes is due to shifing cultural priorities.

    • #12 by David Winter on 8 June 2010 - 22:56

      Yes, that could certainly be true. According to some, there may also be changes in the brain because of increasing use of the internet – but not everyone agrees.

  7. #13 by John King on 8 June 2010 - 22:44

    I’ve been having lots of educational fun with Belbin recently. It seems to be very useful in a group dynamics context – a very important part of working life. Any views on Belbin in a guidance context?

    • #14 by John King on 8 June 2010 - 22:45

      Particularly, it is useful to help people understand why their colleagues get on their nerves…

    • #15 by David Winter on 8 June 2010 - 23:21

      Like MBTI it can be extremely useful in team work situations for promoting mutual understanding.

      As long as you apply all the same provisos that I have applied to MBTI about not taking it too literally and it being merely a starting point for a conversation rather than a diagnostic tool – then I don’t see why it couldn’t be useful in a guidance setting.

      It can be helpful to encourage flexibility in thinking about how someone could contribute to a role – especially in a team setting.

      I also think it is important to get students to think more about the realities of working relationships and Belbin could help with that.

      Has anyone used it in this way?

  8. #16 by Todd I. Stark on 9 June 2010 - 15:05

    Re: Lehrer’s comments on Carr

    People who see Jonah as “debunking” Carr are not reading him very carefully, they agree on much more than they disagree. His critique is on very specific points, not Carr’s important general claims about intergenerational change to the brain.

    As a result, this is a grand can of worms that I’m very happy to open, and I apologize that it is not relevant to MBTI but it is perhaps an even more interesting situation.

    From my understanding of this it would be perverse to claim that the brain doesn’t change functionally between generations. We know enough about neuroplasticity to recognize that now, and many theorists consider it the most likely reason why the human brain developed evident symbolic abilities so long after the modern macro structure of the brain arose (examples, Bill Calvin, Merlin Donald, and Terrence Deacon) and Jonah certainly is not perverse in that sense.

    However there is a lot of room for disagreement about exactly what changes and what doesn’t between generations (and even within one lifetime) and especially what the implications are for human functioning.

    I think most students of cognitive science would agree that as we use different tools in our daily life, we change the patterns of attention allocation and develop different metacognitive skills as part of that. Most of those would also agree that there are benefits to recent cultural changes, and also tradeoffs. I don’t think either Carr or Lehrer disagrees with that. Jonah specifically acknowledges that in his blog post.

    Jonah’s comments are actually about a fairly specific claim by Carr that using the web intrinsically makes us unable to focus sustained concentration. I tend to disagree with that (in agreement with Jonah), but my own feeling is that we have to retain certain habits and skills in order to retain that ability, and I agree with Carr that it is an important ability to retain, and with Lehrer that it is a satisfying one as well.

    • #17 by David Winter on 14 June 2010 - 21:36

      I don’t seem to have the attention span to read the whole thing! 🙂

  9. #18 by Todd I. Stark on 14 June 2010 - 22:10

    I don’t doubt you, but that’s probably a matter of habits and biases and my dull writing rather than the Internet frying your attention circuits. 🙂

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