What Do You Know About Myers-Briggs? Is It “Scientific”?

My daughter is a science communicator with a background in neuroscience and psychology. She is also a questioning, quite sceptical person by nature (she is lovely as well, of course), so whenever I mention any business “theory”, particularly one that has a pseudo-scientific element, she is quick to ask the key questions.

How was that theory or idea developed? How has it been tested or “proven”? Are the findings, results or outcomes replicable? Did the people behind the idea have any vested or conflicts of interest?

She is for instance always interested in any business-related “psychological testing” that is proposed.  And when we talked recruitment, and the tools used in that process, she pointed out the interesting history of the Myers-Briggs test that is used extensively to check out candidates “personality”.

This Guardian article, from Dean Burnett, is a few years old but it is worth reading. It looks at Myers-Briggs (MBTI), and points out that it wasn’t developed by psychologists. The professional community has never seen it as a proper scientific test.

And it has a number of drawbacks “but the most obvious flaw is that the MBTI seems to rely exclusively on binary choices. For example, in the category of extrovert v introvert, you're either one or the other; there is no middle ground”.

There is little room for being in the middle, or indeed showing different aspects of personality in different situations or at different times. That variable approach is, after all, how most of us actually behave in real life I suspect. But, as the author says, some people and organisations place huge emphasis on the test.

In some people and organisations, it is worrying to see how “deeply entrenched and rigid this faith in the MBTI really is. Training in the MBTI and its variations is typical for those in Human Resources etc. and can be quite expensive. The MBTI as an industry apparently makes $20 million a year. When you've spent so much time and money on learning something, of course you're going to have a faith in it, even to the point of cognitive dissonance”.

Now that doesn’t mean these tools have no value. But we should be aware of the shortcomings of such psychological tests, use them with care, and not place total reliance on them to choose or indeed reject candidates.

PS    For any readers in the Cambridge (England) area in late March, you can see my daughter performing at the Cambridge Science Festival ...



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Voices (2)

  1. Daniel Bromley:

    Myers Briggs reminds me of a Derren Brown magic trick where he writes detailed letters to a random group of people who sit their amazed at the incredible insights that he knows about them, their personalities and life.

    The punchline of the trick was that everyone has the same letter (word for word).

    I think it was to demonstrate techniques around cold reading and how people latch onto these quite generic descriptions of what people like to think about themselves.

  2. bitter and twisted:

    Myers Briggs is pseudoscientific garbage.

    But even if it wasn’t, what use is it in recruitment?

    The overwhelmingly majority of jobs are suitable for all sorts of personality ‘types’.

    Are you really going to recruit this junior buyer because they were more/less intro/extraverted than the other candidate? (If you are: please clear your desk and leave the building)

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