The Mother/Daughter Team Behind America’s Most Popular Personality Test

Posted on April 17, 2020 by Martin Oaks under Community, Hello world, Resources
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Americans today have a better than even chance of following in their parents’ occupational footsteps. Certain professions like farming, medicine, and law are frequently multi-generational.  Social scientists refer to this phenomenon as hereditary career choice.

Some of these choices are notable: Judy Garland-Liza Minnelli, Blythe Danner-Gwyneth Paltrow, and various combinations of the families Kennedy, Adams, Cuomo, and Bush, among others.

One of the more off-the-radar, but very significant, examples of hereditary occupational connections is Katharine Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers.

Never heard of them? You may not have, but you may have answered their questions.

This pair created the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, by far the most popular personality test in use around the world. More than two million MBTI’s are administered each year. Clients include Fortune 500 companies, top universities, prestigious law firms and even the CIA.

Translated into 30 languages, it is estimated that 60 million indicators have been administered.

Personality testing is a multi-billion dollar industry and MBTI, in all its permutations, generates a revenue — just a guess, the public doesn’t know for certain — of $20 plus million per year.

It can be found online. Various tests which are similar to the Briggs are free, but the official version is available for $49.95. Depending on the amount of service a customer desires, costs can run higher.

Calling itself the “world’s most trusted personality assessment,” MBTI’s website states that “understanding your type can help you appreciate your own strengths, gifts and potential developmental needs and …help you understand and appreciate how other people may differ from you.”

In brief, the current iteration of the MBTI is a multiple choice test that is derived from Carl Jung’s types: introversion and extraversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling, judging and perceiving. There’s one dominate preference in each of those four axes, a total of 16 possible personality combinations.

So, if you are introverted, sensing, thinking and judging (ISTJ), you are quiet, systematic, factual, organized and efficient.

The test takes a half an hour to administer. There are no wrong answers and in the end, your dominate preferences define your personality. It is not advertised as a measure of mental health.

The genesis of the indicator can be traced to Isabel Briggs’ birth in 1899.  Katharine, then 22, set up a “laboratory” to observe and direct her baby’s behavior –it was an attempt to cultivate in Isabel the traits of obedience and curiosity. This led Katharine to author her first questionnaire which measured the two traits; she sent the questionnaires to mothers who were friends and neighbors whose children became her first subjects.

As the years passed, Katharine continued to dabble in amateur psychology projects of her own devising (neither Katharine nor Isabel had any formal training in the field). In 1923, she was introduced to Psychological Types, by Carl Jung, a book that transformed her world and her work.

Katharine became obsessed with the Swiss psychoanalyst: he introduced terms like “collective unconscious” and “synchronicity,” but most important to Katharine were his theories about introverts, extraverts, thinkers and feelers as personality types. She wrote Jung letters and, improbably, the two corresponded — they finally met in 1936 in New York, one of the landmark days in Katharine’s life.

Isabel took up her mother’s work during World War II, putting the final touches on what she called “Form A” of what developed, through many revisions, into the MBTI. Jung went to his grave not knowing that his name would be forever linked to the test.

Similarly, when Katharine passed away in 1968, she had no clue that the test would become Big Business.

Isabel soldiered on, many times having little to hang on to except her belief in the value of the work: teaming up with University of Florida psychologist, Mary McCaulley, she was able to place the test for distribution with the California-based Consulting Psychologists Press in 1975.

It has flourished beyond the dreams of either Katharine or Isabel.

But is it accurate, is it a valid instrument?

In her detailed study of the MBTI, The Personality Brokers, Merve Emre says: “For some time, it has been a well-known fact that the type indicator is not scientifically valid; that the theory behind it has no basis in clinical psychology; and that it is the flagship product of a lucrative global corporation…”

It has also been pointed out that Jung’s types were based on his clinical observation, not on rigorous empirical studies.

The Myers Briggs organization vehemently disagrees.

But, in the conclusion of her book, Emre notes: “despite all the challenges to its validity and reliability… the indicator continued to operate as a powerful technology of the self even in its twenty-first century incarnation.”

Myers-Briggs exists because of the determination of a committed mother-daughter team. Whether it is a flawed instrument or not, the MBTI is too entrenched in our culture to be discarded. And it’s a fun test to take.


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