Book Club: The Personality Brokers -The Strange History of the Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing
The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre
When Jen offered to write a book review on Personality Brokers, I was instantly intrigued. I’ve always been interested in Myers-Briggs tests and the different personalities as I find them to be much more accurate and in-depth than zodiac personalities. For the record, I’m an INTP and Jen is an INTJ. There’s a reason why we’re friends.
An unprecedented history of a personality test devised in the 1940s by a mother and daughter, both homemakers, that has achieved cult-like status and is used in today's most distinguished boardrooms, classrooms, and beyond.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most popular personality test in the world. It has been harnessed by Fortune 100 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military. Its language - of extraversion vs. introversion, thinking vs. feeling - has inspired online dating platforms and BuzzFeed quizzes alike. And yet despite the test's widespread adoption, experts in the field of psychometric testing, a $500 million industry, struggle to account for its success - no less to validate its results. How did the Myers-Briggs test insinuate itself into our jobs, our relationships, our Internet, our lives?
First conceived in the 1920s by the mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of aspiring novelists and devoted homemakers, the Myers-Briggs was designed to bring the gospel of Carl Jung to the masses. But it would take on a life of its own, reaching from the smoke-filled boardrooms of mid-century New York to Berkeley, California, where it was honed against some of the twentieth century's greatest creative minds. It would travel across the world to London, Zurich, Cape Town, Melbourne, and Tokyo; to elementary schools, nunneries, wellness retreats, and the closed-door corporate training sessions of today.
Drawing from original reporting and never-before-published documents, The Personality Brokers examines nothing less than the definition of the self - our attempts to grasp, categorize, and quantify our personalities. Surprising and absorbing, the book, like the test at its heart, considers the timeless question: What makes you you?
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In “Personality Brokers,” Merve Emre takes the reader down the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), its creators, and it’s contemporaries. I think Emre does this very thoughtfully and with lots of insight. I initially heard of this book on NRP’s All Things Considered and was surprised to learn every preconceived notion I had about this test was wrong.
The MBTI is a personality test developed by the Katherine Briggs and later refined by her daughter Isabelle Myers, and which uses Carl Jung's theories to grouped people into 16 personality types based four basic traits, on which someone call fall on scale between two traits like extrovert (abbreviated as E) or introvert (abbreviated as I). Other traits are intuitive (abbreviated as N) or feeling (abbreviated as F), thinking (abbreviated as T) or sensing (abbreviated as S), and lastly perceiving (P) or judging (J). One would take the MBTI test, giving a plethora of yes or no questions, and based on the answers it can be determined where you fall on each of the scales and will then diagnose your personality.
Emre begins this book with intrigue as she researched Katherine and Isabelle’s findings, their personal letters and journals, and general histories. Emre’s research takes her to the archives of the Educational Testing Service (ETS, which is a company may remember as the company that offers the SAT and the ACT tests needed for college entrance exams) at Princeton. The ETS was the first official publication of the test and also continued to hold many of Katherine and Isabelle’s letters and methodology. However, they were very hesitant to lend this content to Emre as she’d recently published the article some not so positive article inline, through her entire visit, she was hounded and watched like hawk by the staff.
Emre tells the story of the MBTI by beginning in Michigan in the late 1890s with Katherine Briggs, who was, objectively, a very impressive woman. Katherine was the daughter of a very religious family and her father was an evolutionary biologist - and these contrasting traits would the key catalyst for what Katherine would consider her divine mission to help people understand their personalities later in her life. Katherine went to college at 14 years old and graduated first her class, then married the Lyman Briggs. When her husband became a scientist, Katherine made it her goal to apply as much rigor as she could to her life of the building and maintaining their home. They had two kids together, Isabel and Albert, and Albert died very suddenly before he could be baptized. As a very religious woman Katherine was devastated and began to experience a crisis of faith, but as Emre put it, “under the shadow of death, she recalled the Darwinian education…she wondered if she could apply the same [scientific] techniques on the problem of human life.” Katherine concluded personal salvation could be found cultivating your personality.
It was after this that Katherine began experimenting on her second child Isabel in 1901 with something she dubbed as baby training, the goal of which was to help Isabel become a civilized adult, learn the necessary submission to authority, and the discipline of ambition. Soon people in the neighborhood began to leave their children with Katherine who would then give the parents a yes or no questionnaire that the parent would use to answer if their child was calm or easily upset, or if he slept in his own bed or his parent's bed. This was the first version of what would end up becoming the MBTI.
Not only was Katherine baby training, she also wrote columns in journals about her theories and seemed to be surprisingly well published for a woman at the time. Katherine wrote for "American Magazine," "Ladies Home Journal," "Woman's Home Companion," and "The Outlook." She used her findings to cultivate her daughter into a child that read "Pilgrim's Promise" at age of five, spoke German, French, and Latin, played the piano, had a knack for stenography and metal making, and published six short stories for her school’s magazine by the age of sixteen. In Katherine's mind, Isabel would be the perfect homemaker. She even published a checklist on how one might "transform any child into an obedient and curious one."
Later, after Isabel goes to Swarthmore College, Katherine feels lost as she's devoted her life to Isabel's personality. Having been successful in creating a daughter who was smart and on the fast-track towards marriage, Isabel married Clarence Gate Myers, nicknamed Chief, in 1918 and graduated as Isabel Myers. Having been wholly successful, Katherine felt she lost her purpose in life and fell into a deep depression until 1923 when she discovered the work of behavioral psychologist Carl Jung, whose book "Psychological Types" so inspired her she set her own notes and drafts for a book on own theories on fire.
Jung provided Katherine with a concise vocabulary for everything she'd found in her baby training. Katherine believed that her new calling in life was to transform Jung's dense meditations on the soul into something simple to define personality to convince skeptics and help people cultivate their personalities by knowing their psychological types. Katherine then spent years analyzing everything Jung had written. Katherine even began to worship him as her personal god and stated that Jung's "Psychological Types" had become her bible.
Katherine used Jung's theories to develop what she published her article "Meet Yourself: How to use the Personality Paint Box" in the New Republic in December 1926. She instructed the reader to read index cards with Jung's types written across them and if a reader recognized traits the type description they were supposed to move the cards to the top of the table, which would help them define which cumulative types would best define themselves. The Personality Painter Box helps Katherine gain the courage to write to Jung to ask what he meant by “intuitive or feeling” and she's shocked when he actually writes back. Katherine's obsession with Jung was so intense she even began writing erotic fiction featuring herself and Jung (which to me brings to mind Tina Belcher from Bob's Burger and her erotic friend-fiction).
Meanwhile, in 1928, Isabel felt the life of housewife and mother was not enough for her. She enters a mystery novel contest with a novel called "Murder Yet to Come," and won the prize of $7,500 dollars cash. Isabel became a bit of celebrity and everyone was happy for her except Kathrine, who thought the novel lacked literary genius. Later in 1943, after her children had gone to college, Isabel began to work for Edward Hays, Philadelphia's first personality consultant. Her job was to validate various personality tests while she began to work on her own type indicator. Isabel later named her Indicator the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in 1960, with her mother's name first followed by herself.
Isabel began by revising her mother's type theories with the goal to simplify it into a questionnaire in order to help people find the best jobs of their personalities. She adapted the language of type and stated the decision to not sort people into abnormal and normal workers or good and bad workers - people were just simply better suited for one profession or another. Isabel hadn't held the same affinity for Jung as her mother did, but did find his theories to be a useful tool for "People Sorting." Interestingly, Katherine was not a fan of Isabel transforming her theories into the questionnaire, as she wanted her daughter to focus on life as a mother and wife, but Isabel continued regardless. In July 1943 Hays agreed to help her sell it and set her prices at 50 cents for an answer sheet, profile cards, and the 72-page booklet called "Type as the Index to Personality." Soon her clients retained through Hay included GE, Standard Oil, and Bell Telephone. In the winter of 1943, the team of wartime psychologists from Harvard Psychological Clinic sought Isabel's expertise to assign spies to the missions best suited to their personalities.
Emre goes on to explain how the Indicator began to grow, especially during the Cold War, when the idea that how one enjoyed their job might be an indicator of socialism. Isabel found the popularity of the MBTI growing and she even wrote to Jung herself like her mother did, inclosing her indicator and Jung had been pretty supportive. As the popularity of the test grew, she began to gather more data about the people and their types.
In the1960 Isabel began to work as an ETS Consultant in a special department called Office for Special Tests which applied statistical methods to tests. Isabel's test grew even more popular as ETS had one of the first computers in the countries to score tests much faster. However many of those employed at ETS didn't like working with Isabel who by now was in her 60's and used mostly anecdotal proof for the types, which are difficult to program into a computer scoring system. Additionally, they didn’t respect her lack of credentials. Things came to a boiling point when Larry Stickler, who worked with Isabel for between 1960 and 1961 on refining the test, published a point by point system by which the MBTI could be dismantled and destroyed any claims the test had at empirical validity. Isabel continued to work for ETS until 1963 when she finished her manual.
After Katherine died in 1968, Isabel partnered with Mary Hawley McCaulley, a psychologist at the University of Florida, and found what they called the Typology Laboratory. Mary's patients tended to be young women or pregnant couples and in analyzing the data from over a decade in the mid-'70s, they were able to determine which types were most likely to marry to some and which were more compatible. Their partnership created one of the best centers for marriage counseling in the state. Later Isabel and Mary would found the Center of the Applications of Psychological Testing Type, Concerned with the Constructive Use of Differences (CAPT).
On December 31st, 1975 ETS stopped severing ties with Isabel the same week she was diagnosed with a year or two left to live due to progressive cancer. After regaining control and publishing her test from ETS, Mary and Isabel’s friends and family encouraged Isabel to sell partner with the test publication company Consultation Psychologists Press (CPP). In 1980, Isabel passed away from cancer and the treatments. Following this, the MBTI became the most popular personality test of the work and its legacy surpassed its creators and its rollercoaster of history.
In the NPR interview that inspired me to read this book, Emre is asked what Katherine and Isabel would think of the explosion of personality testing on sites like BuzzFeed and the popularity of the types. Emre says that she thinks Katherine would be disappointed and likely would have felt like these tests are a parody of what her original theories and how unregulated the indicator is used to calculate. I am inclined to agree with Emre as she mentions in her book that Katherine thought knowing yourself was the how one would reach salvation.
I enjoyed how Emre wrote this book. It was filled with lots of personality and despite Emre's bias against the test, I found her writing to be very objective and factual. I didn't find much judgment on Katherine or Isabel and when Emre did include her opinion in certain parts of the book, I found her to be very frank about her own reservations.
In thinking back to high school when I first took the MBTI, I have an incredibly vivid memory watching everyone put their tics in boxes that began with "ES" and "EN" and I began to feel really bad that I was the only one who was INTJ, but when I put my tic up on the board and hoped that I didn't somehow reveal myself as a serial killer or something. I was one of only a few who was in the I's and even though there were other kids in my class who were I's, none were INT's. I just remember thinking everyone in my psychology class would know I was the outlier and therefore insane. However, my instructor began to explaining the test we took and what the language of type actually meant. When we got to the fact that only 2% of the public are INTJs and INTJ females only make up 0.8% of the population, it made more sense. INTJs are often known to be intellectual, principled, strategic, and bookworms; with common examples being Christopher Nolan and Elon Musk. I immediately felt a little bit special and have kind of worn being an INTJ like a badge, even putting it on a dating profile or two since then. When I've taken the test again in college or for various jobs I've always gone back to being INTJ.
After reading this book I have a new appreciation for the MBTI and its creators, but I no longer think the MBTI is a gold standard. I’ve learned the lesson that people are more complex that what can be defined down to four simple traits. I think it may do us an injustice to simplify employees, friends, and family members down to arbitrarily defined boxes. I appreciated Emre's insightful take on over a century history for this test and the compassion in how she wrote this story, despite her personal beliefs. I am glad to have read this book and think anyone's who interested or would like context for the MBTI or personality testing in general.