“The Myers-Briggs should never have been invented,” Wharton psychologist Adam Grant says, dismissive, in a conversation with Sheryl Sandberg. “It’s about halfway between a horoscope and a heart monitor.”
Make no mistake, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is pseudoscience. There’s a bit of scientific basis to the types, inspired by Carl Jung’s work, but with some glaring problems. The dichotomous poles of the test pull its takers into either Introversion or Extraversion, Intuition or Sensing, Thinking or Feeling, Judging or Perceiving – without recognizing that almost no one falls exclusively into one or the other category. Plus, categories like Thinking and Feeling aren’t opposites. There’s scientific evidence that they’re correlated, not opposed.
And yet, despite Adam Grant’s protestations, and no matter that psychology as a discipline thumbs its nose at the MBTI, millions of people use the test every year. Why?
The stars might hold the answers. Astrology, too, has its legions of devoted fans who have been told unceasingly that their means of knowing themselves is nonsense. In his essay, “My Favorite Bullshit Pseudoscience,” writer Sasha Chapin considers the value of finding meaning even in a horoscope he knows to be unscientific and untrue. “Any provisional understanding of what’s going on in your head is comforting—even if that understanding is a fiction,” he writes.
This comfort comes from a sense of being known, from being connected to and determined by forces bigger than ourselves. There is a moment when the online test results come back, when the twenty minutes spent determining whether this characteristic describes you “well” or “very well” finally add up to a four-letter result. You are an INFJ. Those letters, regardless of their actual truth value, offer the chance to be something comprehensible. A version of the same understanding wells in Sasha when he visits an astrologer named Ariana.
“At one point in our session, Ariana said, ‘Okay, Sasha, now I’m just going to tell you what your personality is.’ Isn’t that what we all want? To be a whole person in someone else’s eyes—to be a clear, complete picture, even for a moment?”
“Frameworks like MBTI offer a way to confirm our suspicions about the kind of person we imagine ourselves to be, and therefore lessen the pressure of each small decision.”
Walking the tightrope between having your entire self predetermined and having to make continuous daily decisions that determine who you are – this balance will never be easy. Frameworks like MBTI offer a way to confirm our suspicions about the kind of person we imagine ourselves to be, and therefore lessen the pressure of each small decision. “I’m an ESFP,” I can say, ignoring my mother’s advice about needing to establish career goals, “of course I’m a bad long-term planner.” If all our actions simply prove a destined personality – rather than each little choice to procrastinate making us into procrastinators – then why worry too much about them?
In fact, using external frameworks as a way to shape one’s own behavior is surprisingly effective. Author Nir Eyal, who studies habit formation, uses the example of a vegetarian trying to decide what to eat.
“A vegetarian doesn’t say, ‘Should I have the steak or not?’ It’s part of their identity. It’s a rule about who they are. If you can set those kind of rules and make them who you are — you are the kind of person who never does that ever — then it’s no longer a choice and you don’t have to enter this debate around whether you should do that behavior.”
Telling myself I’m an introvert may not be totally accurate, but it can certainly provide a handy way to explain whether or not I’m the kind of person who wants to go out partying on a Tuesday night. Even if the MBTI does nothing but provide comfort and a slight alleviation of existential angst, for many people, that’s enough.
For all its problems, the MBTI offers a language by which we may be known to ourselves. Even if that language is nothing more than a nice story, we are narrative creatures.