Personality Testing

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Personality Testing is a $400 Million Industry

In the September 20, 2004 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell analyzes the shortcomings of popular personality tests like The Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory and the Thematic Apperception Test.  Personality testing is a $400 million a year industry, thanks largely to corporations who want a window into employees' strengths and weaknesses. But what can the tests really tell us?  The basic answer: "It depends."

Human beings have long looked for signs of order in the unruly variety of our own natures.  Today, this need for coherence is met largely by theories about personality--as measured, usually, by personality tests.  All these personality assessments serve the same deeply felt needs:

  • They subdue the blooming, buzzing hive of differences among people.
  • They allow predictions to be made and advice to be dispensed.
  • They permit swift judgments about strangers.
  • They authorize the assignment of individuals, ourselves included, to the comforting confines of a group.
  • They often justify social arrangements as they are, extending a reassuring sense of stability to some.
  • And, most important, they offer to explain why---why we are the way we are.

Perhaps, the most potent effect of personality testing is its most subtle.  For almost a hundred years it has provided a technology, a vocabulary, and a set of ideas for describing who we are, and many Americans have adopted these as our own. Personality questionnaires are used even more widely in the workplace: a 2003 survey shows that personality tests are now administered by 30 percent of American companies, from mom-and-pop operations to giants like Wal-Mart and General Motors.

Perhaps, no other personality test has achieved the cult status of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, an instrument created in the 1940s by a Pennsylvania housewife.  Fiercely proud of the test she called "my baby," Isabel Myers believed that it could bring about world peace--or, at least, make everyone a little nicer.  The Myers-Briggs, which assigns each test taker a personality type represented by four letters, is now given to 2.5 million people each year, and is used by 89 of the companies in the Fortune 100. Employed by businesses to "identify strengths" and "facilitate teamwork," the Myers-Briggs has also been embraced by a multitude of individuals who experience a revelation (what devotees call the "aha reaction") upon learning bout psychological type.  Their enthusiasm persists despite research showing that many test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again.  For more on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and other self-assessments, go

Human beings are complex creatures, and we need simple ways of grasping them to survive.  But how we simplify---which shortcuts we take, which approximations we accept---demands close inspection, especially since these approximations so often stand in for the real thing.

"The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves" tells the story of one very powerful and pervasive way of understanding ourselves: where it came from, why it flourished, and how, too often, it fails us.  Every personality test publisher and those professionals who use these instruments in their practice should buy and read this new book.

Two Letters to the Editor of The New Yorker regarding the Sept. 20, 2004 article on Popular Personality Tests

To the editors:

I am surprised and chagrined at the ill-informed presentation of personality tests in Malcolm Gladwell’s article (September 20).  Mr. Gladwell clearly has no expertise in this area and is in no position to pass judgment on the various tests he discusses, let alone on the accuracy of the views expressed in Annie Murphy Paul’s book, “Cult of Personality,” which he accepts without question. I am especially concerned about the major errors and misrepresentations regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the most widely used instrument for assessing normal, healthy personality differences.   As co-author of the third edition of the MBTI Manual (Myers, McCaulley, Quenk, & Hammer, 1998), and author of many other works on this instrument, I must correct at least a few of the many errors contained in the article.            </>

Both Gladwell and Ms. Paul fail to differentiate between gross misuses of the MBTI and its appropriate uses, perhaps because neither has bothered to seek readily available information.  Similarly, they misrepresent the MBTI’s history, purposes, test characteristics, and long standing as a personality assessment tool. They also fail to point out that, unlike the MMPI or the TAT, which are designed to identify pathology or unconscious psychological “complexes,” the MBTI identifies equally healthy, adaptive, but opposite ways of using our minds, the four pairs of opposites mentioned (but poorly defined) in Gladwell’s article.  Further, the MBTI elicits a person’s preference (not skill or ability) for one of each of these pairs of opposites.  For example, “Sensing” and “Intuition” are the opposite ways of perceiving (gathering information). As a person who prefers Intuition, I automatically look for patterns and meanings in most situations, rather than attending to facts, details, and concrete reality (a Sensing approach).  But my preference for Intuition in no way prevents me from using Sensing when the situation requires it, for example when preparing a financial statement or driving through traffic. I am most comfortable and energized when I can freely use my Intuition and I don’t especially enjoy doing most of the Sensing tasks that someone who prefers Sensing would relish—but I can and do use Sensing when necessary. Sensing and all the other less-preferred parts of my personality are available to me. In fact, type theory asserts that all eight parts of one’s personality type are necessary to adaptively conduct our lives.  We cannot function adaptively by using only four preferred parts.

Gladwell, like many lay people and even professionals, also  erroneously assumes that the MBTI can or should be able to identify the type that are more or less successful at different kinds of jobs.  In fact, the MBTI only identifies types that are likely to be attracted to or avoid certain careers, work activities, ways of learning, and so on.  There is no evidence nor is any claim made that some types excel or do poorly at particular jobs.  Some types do predominate in certain careers (because people tend to seek situations that allow them to use their minds in preferred ways), but every one of the sixteen types can be found in most or all career and work settings. Different types may approach their work differently, however, and may have different sources of satisfaction.            </>

Rather than being concerned about whether he will come out to be the same type if he took the MBTI again (accurate data on the very acceptable reliability or consistency of the MBTI can be easily found in the 1998 MBTI Manual), Gladwell  should be legitimately concerned about whether his reported results (INTJ) accurately describe him or not.  Did he read a detailed type description of INTJ? Did a professional interpreter explain the MBTI to him and ask him to verify the accuracy of the results? Did he have access to type descriptions of all sixteen types to help him understand how he may be similar to or different from other people? Was he encouraged to identify the ways in which he may be uniquely different from other people who share his type? Unfortunately, many people who take the MBTI are given little or no information about it and little opportunity to judge whether their results are accurate, or how knowledge of their type might be of use to them.

Myers called her instrument an “Indicator” and not a “test” because she carefully constructed and validated it to indicate” one’s likely type. She knew that personality is too complex to expect any set of questions to be accurate for everyone all of the time!  Therefore, Myers insisted that MBTI results be given directly to the person answering the questions.  She trusted people’s knowledge of themselves in answering the questions and in judging the accuracy of the results. She developed the MBTI to enhance people’s lives, not limit their choices or stereotype them.  It is ironic that for many years Myers was reluctant to publish her instrument (she started developing it in the 1940’s) for fear it would be misused and harm people.  Gladwell’s and Paul’s misunderstandings of Jung, type theory, and the MBTI are the most recent confirmation of Myers’ fears.

Naomi L. Quenk, Ph.D.


Dear Sirs:

I was very disappointed to read Malcolm Gladwell's poorly researched article in your Sept. 20 issue.  As a user of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator since 1985 and a trainer for the Association for Psychological Type's MBTI Qualifying Program since 1994, I would like to straighten out some of his misunderstandings.

After accurately describing MBTI preferences as "psychological frames," Gladwell proceeds to discuss them as though they were either traits or measures of skill.

A preference is not equivalent to a trait such as aggressiveness; instead, preferences correlate with traits.  Traits are features one has in a certain degree, and it's appropriate to speak of someone having a large or small amount of a trait in their make-up.  A preference is an either/or category; given the choice, one prefers to approach life in a Judging (J) manner or a Perceiving (P) manner more of the time.  Having a preference for Perceiving is not the same as being spontaneous, but spontaneity is one of several ways in which a preference for Perceiving may manifest itself in behavior.  Nor do preferences determine behavior.  We can choose to exercise our preference or its opposite depending on what is called for by the situation.  However, using our preferred style tends to feel more natural, take less energy and concentration, and typically produces better results than using its opposite.

Having a preference is also different from having a skill or competency.  Preferring Intuition is not equivalent to using Intuition well.  Like a talent or a muscle, a preference must be exercised and developed before it can be used skillfully. The MBTI Manual (Myers, McCaulley, Quenk, & Hammer, 1998) specifically states, "It is inappropriate to use the MBTI for hiring, promotion or selection.  Results on the Indicator simply do not give information that will be helpful in these functions." (p. 360)  It is unfortunate that some companies and consultants misunderstand this important point and consequently misuse the MBTI.

Gladwell complains that MBTI questions appear trivial, and he labels the instrument "a parlor game," suggesting that his own invented-on-a-phone-call questionnaire is just as valid.  He neglects to mention that the MBTI items have undergone rigorous testing to produce an instrument with levels of reliability and validity considered good to excellent in the field of psychological tests.  He also fails to understand that, because we do adapt our behavior to the situation, our natural style shows up most reliably in everyday circumstances where there is little or no pressure to perform in a specific manner, e.g. how we choose to spend an evening. 

Finally, Gladwell makes the assumption that all personality testing is (and should be) done for the benefit of the person or organization doing the testing.  This is 180 degrees from the intended use of the MBTI.  The Indicator was designed to benefit the person taking it, as a tool to help one identify which of the 16 types fits best.  Appropriate use of the instrument includes not just an explanation of one's results, but also an opportunity to verify their accuracy, read descriptions of the different types, ask questions.  The individual is considered the final authority on his or her type; this is not a "test 'em and tell 'em" assessment.

Even though the MBTI fails to sort out a "commando type," it does provide some valuable information about the psychological frames a person uses in taking in information, making decisions, and interacting with the world.  This knowledge is helpful in any setting where people want to improve their interactions with others, and also for helping individuals to find their own best path.  Not only do organizations use the Indicator for team building and management development, it is a standard tool in career development and is also useful in education, psychological counseling, leadership training, and any setting that promotes personal growth.

Sincerely yours,
Karen Keefer

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