It’s not my intention to give full information or an extensive discussion on every theory. This website is intended to be a starting point and the main difference with other websites is the visual representation of the theory, which I hope will help get to grips with the theory. There are also links it the bottom to get your further research started.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Model

Meyers and Briggs 1944

 

Introduction

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator or MBTI is a very well known and very widely used (some would say overused) tool for a variety of circumstances, not just career guidance. It was developed by a mother and daughter team and based on Jungian personality typology. It consists of a test which measures the individual against 4 categories of 2 criteria each, culminating in a personality typology of 16 indicated by 4 letters. Some will add a description to each of the 16 types as indicated in the illustration below, which reminds us of the different types in John Holland’s theory.

Since it has been so widely used, a lot has been written about the MBTI, not all of it in praise as we shall see. The MBTI is one of the ‘self-report’ type indicators, as opposed to the ‘observation’ type indicators, which is seen as one of its weaknesses when used for recruitment as answers can be faked to fit the job description. When it is used for career development purposes the client has less vested interest in ‘lying’ but care still needs to be taken with client bias – for instance if the client has a strong occupational preference they may answer questions to fit in with that preference, rather than with what they really think is the correct answer.

 

Where has this come from?

I don’t want to give you a full account of typology theories (or in some cases ‘theories’ such as in the case of phrenology) but Jung needs to be mentioned since this is what the MBTI is based on. Carl Jung stated that individuals perceive the world through any of 4 different psychological functions: sensing or sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition. Jungian typology was intended to be a compromise between Freudian theory and Adlerian theory and he was the first to introduce the concepts of introversion and extraversion, so important in the MBTI. He described Freudian theory as introverted and Adlerian theory as extraverted. Jung’s model wasn’t intended to be used to categorise people but to show the complexity of the human condition and the consequences this brings with it. It was Briggs and Briggs-Meyers who drew it into the field of personality matching.

Simplified, Jung based his theory on:

  • Extraversion and introversion with
  • Four modes of orientation, mentioned above: sensing or sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition.
  • Divided up in either rational (judging) or irrational (perceiving) functioning

The Jungian definition of introversion and extraversion can be a bit different from our modern understanding as well. Jung described both in the following way:

  • Extraversion: an attitude aimed towards the outside world – a person with dominant extraversion will recharge by being with other people and by being active – eg.: need to be active – reflection – need to be active
  • Introversion: an attitude towards the inner world – a person with dominant introversion will recharge through reflection and contemplation – eg.: need to be reflective – active – need to be reflective

On the four functions or orientations – (sensing or sensation, feeling, thinking and intuition) Jung states that all four will be used at different times, however…

  • there is one dominant function, which is either genetic or developed (nature or nurture) and which is used consciously 
  • The two adjacant ones in the illustration are auxilliary functions or orientations
  • The least developed or preferred function he calls the ‘inferior function‘ and this is used subconsciousy. This is the repressed function, in which you can see Freudian influence

So if your dominant function is Thinking, then your two auxilliary ones are Intuition and Sensation. Your inferior function, the opposite one to your dominant one, is Feeling. These are not fixed and you can develop your inferior function to become more active or dominant, which would automatically weaken your dominant function according to Jungian theory. This ‘switching’ takes time and effort and would go through developing either of the auxilliary functions first, with very strong emotional reactions as a possible consequence.

Even though MBTI is based on Jungian theory, there are clear differences. Jung also had the following to say about applying his theory in ‘personality tests’:

  • The model looks simple but in reality, the opposing functions active within one individual are often complicated and hard to make out and every individual is an exception to the rule. Only careful observation and weighing of the evidence permit classification, implying that any simple test, let alone one based on ‘self-declaration’, is likely to get this wrong.

Just like MBTI, there is an argument that there isn’t enough clear evidence or studies to support this theory.

 

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

From comparing the illustration below with that for the Jungian model above, you can hopefully see how Myers and Myers-Briggs have based their model on Jungian theory by adapting and integrating key elements of Jungian theory into their own model. They have taken on board introversion – extraversion and have integrated it with the other functions, making it combine into 16 different personalities. Myers-Briggs followed Jung’s assertion of a dominant and inferior type with two of the letters being auxilliary. They argued for a developmental model in which the dominant type would manifest itself early on in life with the other ones later on.

Generally, the model is divided up into 4 dichotomies, represented in the illustration by the 4 different colours. Myers argued that the direction of choice is more important than the degree of the result. This means that two people of the same type can score very differently on the same type. For instance: to ISTJs can score very different scores on iNtuition. One can be at the extreme end of the scale while they other could just scrape into iNtuition rather than Sensing. If we follow Myers argument through, this would mean that people would tend to veer towards the extremes in the test (on or off for each of the 8 indicators).

I decided not to offer a full explanation of all the personality types here as there are literally hundreds of websites offering good information on this, some of which I will list in the ‘links’ section on this page. Instead I would like to concentrate on how the MBTI works in career guidance and offer a summary of the critique on the Myers-Briggs model.

 

MBTI in practice

As far as I know, Myers-Briggs didn’t intende their model to be primarily aimed at career guidance. It’s very easy to see how it could be used for that purpose however. You may also have encountered this during the process of applying for a job. These are two uses for this model with at first sight similar goals, but the model will have a very different effect in both cases. Both uses will conentrate on how suitable a person is for a specific job, or in the case of career guidance, career path or occupational choice. I would like to illustrate its use in career guidance by looking at the implications for both, using this as part of recruitement and as part of occupationa/career choice. I hope both of these will be useful to career professionals:

 

The MBTI in recruitment

This is the area where the MBTI in my experience has had most criticism, much of which is justified. However it can be important for career choice as job performance is one of the indicators that clients will enjoy a certain occupation.

Any sufficiently intelligent person will prepare for a job application by looking at what is required for the job, and by extention, what kind of person the employer is looking for. Someone who is then familiar enough with the MBTI, even by looking information on it up online, can then adapt their answers to the ones the employer may be looking for. This seriously undermines the effectiveness of this tool in the recruitment process and may ultimately lead on to recruiting the wrong person. In fact, an entire industry has sprung up to help people prepare for recruitment tests of all sorts. I’m not sure therefore that the ubiquitous use of the MBTI in recruitment is justified. It could put people who are very well suited for a specific job in contention with someone who is unsuited but well prepared.

The employer is at the receiving end if they recruit someone who isn’t suited, which may cost in real terms. On the other hand, employers may find it difficult to observe someone sufficiently to make a decision on their suitability for a post and the MBTI and other tools may offer an easy and quick solution.

There are arguments questioning the effectiveness of the match for specific jobs too, as we will see in the critique. Some research has found that there is a strong correlation between certain profiles and certain careers but others have found a normal distribution of personality profiles within one profession. My personal feeling is that there is a certain correlation but that it’s very dangerous to draw general conclusions on the basis of 16 personality categories. There is also the argument that in certain professions, having a mix of personality profiles can add to the business.

Using the MBTI for recruitment invariably implies that the candidate is told to sit the MBTI test, rather than being allowed to do this on a volunatry basis. Even if the employer would say that taking the test is voluntary, most people would feel compelled to sit the test in case it works against them not to (and I guess in most cases it will do just that).

What is in it for the employer when using the MBTI is hopefully clear, but what is in it for the employee? At best it will strengthen their application but if the reliability of the MBTI isn’t high, as some suggest, then an excellent candidate with lots of skills and potential may lose out on a position that suits them to the bone and by implication, the employer will lose out in turn.

 

The MBTI in career guidance and counselling

If we reverse some of the arguments about the MBTI when used by employers around, then the same may apply in career guidance:

In short, the MBTI, like other similar tests offers a quick and easy way to come to some conclusion as to what could potentially be suitable for the client. You’ll notice my careful choice of words there…

The MBTI can be manipulated, since it’s based on self-reporting. Logically, this is at first sight less likely when it is used for career guidance as the client has nothing to gain by manipulating the result… maybe… I can think of instances where a client is very interested in a career option which s/he wants to see confirmed in the test for instance. Manipulation can also be done accidentally or unintentionally. This is an argument I would levy against all tests, including IQ tests and aptitude tests. If a client is distracted, not feeling well, can’t see the benefit or simply is not interested (something that needs to be clearly established before even suggesting any test), then this will affect the result. In the case of the MBTI, because of its binary nature, even a client feeling marginally different to how they feel normally can result in a different outcome and personality profile, and different suggestions.

There are lots of MBTI tests online, but… Some are relatively good, but some are more like a horoscope than a test. It will be very tempting for anyone who doesn’t understand the MBTI, profiling, or what it is for, to use one of these and let the client leave without support. The client then could leave with possibly a result they don’t like, and with the thought that all career guidance or career support is rubbish, leaving them in a worse position than before. Worse still, they could be left with the impression that the test is the extent of what career guidance can offer. Or they believe the result outright and run with a career idea that is deeply unsuitable for them. This will again leave them in a worse position than before.

Linked to this point, I would argue that, used responsibly, even the worst test can leave a client undamaged in my opinion (by telling the client it’s not good and why!), even if the test doesn’t add anything. It is up to us to take responsibility in assessing whether a test is any good in the first place, how and when to use it and to support the client in putting the result in context so it can lead to a positive short or longer term result. This is the main reason why I want to use this page to delve a bit deeper into the MBTI in practice and the critique to the MBTI.

Open a browser and search for ‘career test’ and look through the results to see which ‘one liners’ organisations have come up with to describe their test. This is not just linked to the MBTI of course but to tests in general, often derivatives of the MBTI or Jungian theory such as the Buzz Quiz. I see descriptions saying things like: ‘What job should I do?’ (Prospects), ‘What job could you do?’ (Ucas), ‘Find out which careers suit you best’ (BBC) on websites which are otherwise excellent. They invariably make me shudder. The worst ones (I won’t tell you which!) can wrongly make a client feel this is the solution to their uncertainty and it will tell them what they should choose. In my view, this is outright dangerous in the wrong hands. This can be exactly the same with the ‘official’ MBTI if not careful, which I think is why the official version is strictly controlled by The Myers & Briggs Foundation, which brings with it an entirely different set of problems and issues.

The reliabily of the MBTI can be an issue but doesn’t have to be however. (this is not necessarily a comment about the official MBTI test through The Myers & Briggs Foundation – see the critique section). If the MBTI is used with care, as a tool rather than ‘an exam’ with ‘a result that’s directive’, then it can be a very good idea and then its reliability doesn’t have to matter as much. How I use tools like the MBTI and others like Kudos, Fasttomato, and the likes of Buzzquiz, is as a starting point, nothing more. To me, rather than offering a career a client should or could do, it offers a springboard from which to start the discussion on what is suitable or intersting, why it is suitable or interesting and to unpick the result in relation to what the client feels is the right thing to do. In other words, it is a shortcut in getting to a lot of information about the client by having a starting point in the result of the MBTI test. This is especially important if I know there are only so many appointments I can have with a client. Having said that, I only use personality tests (this and other ones) extremely sparingly.

Another occasion when a test like this could be useful is when we know a client likes doing things like this and they are not engaging with you, for whatever reason. The MBTI can offer a ‘talking point’ or a tool for discussion while they are doing the test and/or after the test. Especially in (some) schools we are often sent students for a ‘chat with the careers adviser’, often to motivate them to do better in school.

 

Critique

Below is some of mine and other people’s critique on the MBTI. If you look at the list of links at the bottom of this page, you can see that however prevalent the MBTI is, it has both strong supporters and a lot of people who question the value of the MBTI. Where do you stand?

1) One criticism of the MBTI model is that it only offers 16 possibilities, whereas in reality, there are an infinite number of different personalities. MBTI will enforce a choice between two choices. An analogy could be drawn to it using on/off switches between the two lists of categories making up the 16 personalities.

This compares very differently to the 5 Factor Model, which in my view as its own issues, but which doesn’t have the limitation of a small number of permutations. The 5 Factor model isn’t a ‘forced choice’ model and will allow an almost infinite number of combinations. The analogy to use could be that of sliders instead of on/off switches for each of the parameters.

2) Related to this is a problem which is intrinsic to the MBTI. Myers argues that the direction of the result is more important than the degree to which the result applies, which implies a bimodal model (illustration A). However research suggests that distribution for each of the four dichotomies is normal (illustration B). This means that individuals could fall only slightly either way of the dividing line, with a different personality profile as a result. This may also explain why some individuals have a different outcome when tested at two different points in time, not too far apart. In other words, for most people it doesn’t take much to fall either way of the line. By implication, that may meant that if you test an individual at different times and they always have the same personality type, they may be more at the extremes of that dichotomy.

3) Another critique which I mentioned above is that this model is a self-reporting model, which leaves the door open to manipulation, false reporting (on purpose, subconsciously, through context or circumstance – eg.: mental ill health and other conditions). There is no inbuilt tool or otherwise to test the validity of any given answers.

4) This allows for certain biases towards certain answers, which may or may not be influenced by social environment or culture. People may be tempted to answer in ways that are more acceptable in their community, or in the case of a practitioner being present, that shows them off as more acceptable to the practitioner. This in spite of the assertian that there are no good or bad answers generally.

5) Some users have argued that the descriptions linked to the 16 different outcomes are vague, too general and ‘maleable’ to please the person taking the test and to always show them off in a positive light. 

6) As touched upon in point 3, many people report a different personality type when retested a couple of weeks, months or years later. This means the MBTI is less reliable. However, this doesn’t need to be an issue as I argued in the MBTI in practice section, if this is understood and taken into account.

7) Both the theories of Freud and Jung, including Jung’s typography have been discredited by the psychology establishment. Since the MBTI is built upon Jung’s theory, without the claim of being an improvement upon, but by being an application of Jungs theory, indirectly discredited by Jung himself, this seriously throws into doubt the validity of the MBTI by implication.

8) If most of the research to validate the MBTI as a valid and valuable tool with scientific/empirical underpinning and merit has alledgedly been performed by scientists on the payroll of the Myers & Briggs Foundation and published in its own journal, then this brings up serious questions.

9) Each of the 4 categories are presented as groups of opposite factors. There are arguments that the dichotomies MBTI is based on are not opposites in the true sense and that there are corrolations between them and that they can occur in the same person at the same time – they are not mutually exclusive. (see bell curve in the illustration above as well).

10) Limitinig the complex set of personality characteristics is always going to be reductionist. This is a failing all personality test suffer from, including Holland’s typology and the Big Five, however scientific people claim these are. Linked to item one in this list of 10, it shuts out lots of other traits worth discussing and to some extent it is in danger of shutting down the conversation about those and about factors that are not part of the typology or of the result.

Because of these criticisms as to its reliability, validity and underpinning, some argue that the MBTI is no more than pseudoscience. Others will go as far as to say that it is no better than reading your horoscope, which in my view is an exaggerrated reaction and a bit unfair, even if the critique above is justified. The reason I find it unfair is because there are uses for this that are safe and justifiable, like using it as a starting poing for discussion with a client.

My own experience with the MBTI is that in my case, it was very accurate and stable. My personality type and it’s description almost fits me to a t and the career suggestions are pretty interesting to me, even after a critical reading of the result and an exploration of possible biases I may have had to its reading or interpretation.

So, in spite of all the negative feedback and critique, it does work for some people. However… it is very difficult to judge who it works this well for and I would never make that assumption about the fit of the result for one of my clients, only for myself when I can cast a very critical eye on the result.

Where does your opinion fall? You may have noticed that a lot of the claims above are not referenced, so you would either need to take them for what they are – claims, or do some serious research to find sources for them and judge these on their reliability in turn. MBTI has such a wide set of both very strong and militant supporters and equally strong and militant adversaries that it’s sometimes difficult to find out who is right. Going deep into the evidence to find original sources, for this theory at least, would go far beyond what I can do on this website and in this introduction. I hope I’ve given you a starting point for some further research.

 

Useful links:

General links:

Sources of critique of the Myers-Briggs model:

Jung’s personality theory links: