I am a born executive. I am obsessed with efficiency and detached from my emotions. I share similarities with Margaret Thatcher and Harrison Ford. I am among 2% of the general population, and 1% of women.
People like us are highly motivated by personal growth, and occasionally ruthless in the pursuit. We make difficult partners and parents, but good landscape architects. We are ENTJs: extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging – also known as the executive type or, sometimes, “the Commander”.
This, over a decade ago, was my auspicious entry into the world of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Based on psychologist Carl Jung’s theories of personality, the assessment maintains that we are all born with a preference for extroversion or introversion, intuition or sensing, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.
The different permutations amount to 16 types of personality, each with innate strengths and “blind spots”. By understanding which one we are, so the theory goes, we might apply ourselves more effectively in our personal and professional lives.
As an insecure teenager, finding out my type online was like being handed an instruction manual
The business of “typing” people generates the Myers-Briggs Company a reported $20m annually from public and private institutions, militaries and universities, charities and sports teams who make use of it – not to mention 88 of the Fortune 100 companies. Away from the corporate world, the Myers-Briggs theory of personality has been embraced by enthusiasts as a hobby – even a way of life.
As an insecure teenager, finding out my type online was like being handed an instruction manual; ENTJ became as much part of my identity as my astrological sign. Even a decade later, I will still catch myself reaching for Myers-Briggs terms – talking about “thinkers versus feelers”, or having mostly “intuitive” friends.
About 50 million people have taken the MBTI since the 1960s; 2 million continue to do so every year. Why is the idea of there being just 16 types still so seductive?
“You’re an ENTJ, I’m an ENTJ – we will have lots in common, and lots to talk about,” says Merve Emre wryly.
When Emre first encountered the MBTI as a twentysomething recruit at a management consultancy, she was enthralled: “That idea of having a language of the inner self was totally revelatory for me.” She remembers approaching the facilitator of the session. “I just wanted to speak to her about what these words meant, and how it was that they carried so much insight, I thought, into who I was,” Emre says.
“You might appreciate this: she told me that the ENTJ types were the CEOs of the world.” She laughs. “About six months later, I quit to go to graduate school in English literature.”
In 2018 Emre, now an associate professor at Oxford University, wrote The Personality Brokers – an account of the strange and often troubling history of the MBTI. The assessment was developed in 1943 by a mother and daughter, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, to support recruitment to the workforce through the second world war.
Briggs’s pseudo-scientific interest in personality was tested in “baby training” the young Briggs Myers, then later found a focal point in Jung’s theories of “psychological types”. She received his 1921 book on the subject as both an intellectual and spiritual awakening, writing that she had embarked on “a quest for the Self” with Jung as not just her guide but her “personal god”. (They later became correspondents, though this belies the depth of Briggs’s erotically charged obsession with her “teacher”.)
Carl Jung, whose work inspired the Myers-Briggs test. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
Briggs Myers, meanwhile, grew from precocious child to prize-winning novelist. Her promising career was derailed when she wrote “a sort of miscegenation mystery”, says Emre, wherein characters committed suicide on learning that they had African American blood. Even in 1934, reviewers were repelled by the racism of the premise.
It reflects the troubling and at times dangerous ideology underpinning the impulse for “people sorting”. Emre quotes the social theorist Theodor Adorno’s critique of then nascent “typology” in 1950: “The desire to construct types was itself indicative of the potentially fascist character.” (He himself developed his own personality test, to determine potential fascists.)
Briggs Myers’s intentions, by contrast, were idealistic: she envisaged type as a way of achieving society-wide equilibrium, helping people to be efficient and at ease at work and home. In 1943, having abandoned her writerly aspirations, Briggs Myers was hired by the pioneering personnel consultant Edward N Hay. Desperate to contribute to the war effort, she drew from her mother’s study of Jung to devise her own “type indicator”, matching people to suitable jobs.
What Briggs Myers grasped, says Emre, was that the system would be more effective if it showed everyone to be good at something. “She intuited that it would yield higher productivity, and it would convince workers to bind themselves to their jobs freely and gladly.”
With just four letters, Briggs Myers created a simple, affirming framework in which we’d want to sort ourselves.
“I think that utopian impulse actually persists in most people’s turn to type: this desire not only to know yourself, but to be able to express yourself to people in a language that you share,” says Emre. “When we both said we’re ENTJs, we both immediately understood what that meant, and I’m sure we both also imagined that we had some sense of the other person – that’s an incredibly powerful fantasy.”
For Frank Winters, finding out his four letters was transformative. He came across the MBTI in 2019 while researching personal development online. “I was looking at ways to improve myself,” he tells me from his home in North Huntingdon, Pennsylvania.
The Myers-Briggs Company only allows certified practitioners to deliver its assessment tool, and for a fee. Online, however, imitations abound for free on websites such as 16Personalities.com (“why you do the things you do”) and Truity.com (“light up your life”).
Winters read up on type and took some questionnaires. By reflecting on where he landed on each of the four “preference pairs”, he whittled down the 16 possible types to one: ISFJ – “the Defender”.
The profile articulated Winters’s need for routine, his sensitivity to criticism, his tendency to seem aloof in unfamiliar settings. “It opened up my eyes,” he says. “I realised: ‘This is who I am.’”
From there, he was able to better understand how his mind worked. “I need to do something repeatedly before I feel comfortable, and I’ve always been that way,” he says. “Now, when I am trying something new and I don’t get it right away – I know that’s OK.”
With just four letters, Briggs Myers created a simple, affirming framework in which we’d want to sort ourselves
Learning to work with our preferences, not against them, is central to the MBTI’s promise “to turn insights into action”. By understanding how we like to operate and others might differ, it claims, we create a stable foundation for lasting change.
The thrill of facilitating these breakthroughs was what led Maggie Oglesby to become a certified MBTI practitioner two years ago. She now runs her own consultancy, supporting team-building through type, in Pennsylvania.
Over her 20-year professional career, Oglesby says she has “seen nothing else that builds awareness like the Myers-Briggs – nothing.” Colleagues recount feelings of frustration or resentment melting away, while managers describe “a dark cloud lifting” from over their teams.
“It’s absolutely remarkable, and almost addicting to me, to see these a-ha moments,” Oglesby says. “You see two people who don’t get along – suddenly, they understand each other.”
There is often an accompanying boost for business. “How many businesses have you walked into, and you’ve felt the tension between the employees? You kinda itch to get out of there, right? … Four hours, that’s all I need – and your team will never be the same.”
To an extent, Oglesby agrees, the communication, empathy and individual awareness that she seeks to foster are simply hallmarks of good management. But the intervention of the MBTI “instrument” doesn’t just prompt people to express their preferences – it validates them. “There is a certain amount of respect, versus someone just saying, ‘I really don’t like to be interrupted,’” she says.
Oglesby herself grew up in a household that deemed children should be seen and not heard, leading her to suppress her innate preference for extroversion and emotion. Being told that she was “overly sensitive” had a lasting impact on her self-esteem; learning about her type, ENFJ, helped.
Now, if a colleague shoots down her idea in a meeting, Oglesby understands that their preference might just be for thinking, not feeling. “Nobody’s right or wrong – it just is,” she says.
“Once you come to that understanding, the way I did, suddenly I’m not hurt as easily, I’m not as frustrated, I don’t take things as personally any more. Even in my marriage – if we’d had the Myers-Briggs early on, it would have saved so much grief.”
The Myers-Briggs Company strongly cautions against using type to predict romantic compatibility; Oglesby declines to answer such questions as beyond her expertise. “If you understand any person’s differences, and they understand yours, almost any relationship can work, whether you’re using the Myers-Briggs or not,” she says.
But it is nonetheless true, Oglesby goes on, that her husband is ISTJ – in type terms, almost her exact opposite – and that their early days as a couple were marred by “so many little misunderstandings”.
“If you manage to stay married, you figure these things out the hard way over time,” she says. “But the Myers-Briggs helps you figure out so many things ahead of time – the easy way, if you will.”
John Hackston, head of thought leadership at the Myers-Briggs Company, remembers hearing from someone who had just learned his type: “If I’d known about this years ago, I wouldn’t be divorced.”
More than “astrology for businessmen”, as the MBTI is often ironically dismissed, I suggest to Hackston that it could be considered therapy-lite: a relatively simple and non-threatening lens through which to reflect on our and others’ behaviour.
He agrees. “The type model is a very straightforward way of saying ‘I’m here, and you’re there – so what does that say about the relationship between us?’”
People describe having lightbulb moments, says Hackston: “They say things like, ‘‘Now I understand why I don’t get on with that person’; ‘So that’s why I do that under stress’.”
Yet what the MTBI’s mainstream impact belies is that most psychologists believe it to be deeply flawed – if not meaningless.
With neither Jung, nor Briggs and Briggs Myers testing their theories against controlled experiments or data, it has no basis in clinical psychology. It parses people through false binaries, when most of us fall somewhere along a spectrum; and it produces inconsistent and inaccurate results.
The MBTI is considered dubious even compared with other personality tests. The Big Five, for instance, grades five traits along a spectrum and has been shown to effectively predict behavior. Yet, despite being considered “far and away more scientifically valid”, the Big Five comes nowhere close to the MBTI in terms of interest or impact.
The Myers-Briggs Company strenuously defends its reliability and validity – but within a particular scope. “There is a lot of criticism out there,” says Hackston. “We would say that almost all of it is flawed.” Mostly, he says, it betrays a misconception of what the MBTI is, and how it should be used – “like criticising a tractor for not being a sports car”.
Type does not provide a complete picture of personality, says Hackston, with age, upbringing and culture all influential. “It’s not an excuse, and it’s not a label either. What it is is a springboard for people to start thinking about who they are – and who other people are, as well.”
Above all, the MBTI is not intended to predict behavior or job performance, says Hackston: we can all act against our innate preferences, just as it is possible for us to function with our non-dominant hand. As such, the Myers-Briggs Company forbids use of its questionnaire for recruitment or selection – though Hackston admits it is dependent on whistleblowers to report it.“Like any powerful tool, it can be misused,” he says. “We do our best to ensure that it’s not … but once people find out about type, it’s very tempting to construe the whole world in those terms.”
To a large extent, the company’s intentions are irrelevant: only the tool is trademarked, not the underlying theory. This was a critical oversight by Briggs Myers, says Hackston: “Unfortunately, we have no control over the type discourse.”
On the internet, the MBTI found fertile territory to disperse. PersonalityCafe.com, a forum billed as “the place to discover yourself”, has amassed more than 10m posts since 2008. Today the conversation continues on Facebook, Reddit and increasingly TikTok, where the #mbti hashtag has amassed 1.5bn views, most within the past year.
Type has become a shared language with which to make sense of just about everything. Recently, the MBTI Coffeehouse group on Facebook debated what plant each personality type would be. “INFP is hedge bindweed,” came one response. “Beautiful, if allowed to bloom, but unwelcome in most gardens.”
The appeal of this congenial navel-gazing is obvious. More than any other interest (except perhaps astrology, also newly relevant on social media), discussion of personality is a way of connecting with other people, while being primarily concerned with ourselves. In this way it mirrors the social web, geared to conflate community with identity.
David Ryan Polgar, a tech ethicist and founder of the non-profit organisation All Tech Is Human, says that over 30 years we have come to regard the internet as all-knowing; a “potential source of truth through crowdsourced wisdom”. The same applies to the MBTI, he says: “It stands to reason that it would be attractive for those looking for a clean, simple narrative around our complex, messy, modern-day existence.”
But if the MBTI equips us with a shorthand for making sense of our lives, the internet can trap us within it.
Scratch the surface of your type on Google, and algorithms will serve up specious advice on everything from how to lose weight “as an ENTJ”, to what film to watch. (We will readily lose ourselves in Jaws’ heroic quest – but struggle with the absence of relatable characters in Saw.)
It highlights type’s essential contradictions: as much as it can be used to increase empathy for others, it can equally entrench us in our differences. In seeking reassurance that we are not alone, we may also want confirmation that we are exceptional, or even lose sight of ourselves.
“Honestly, I’m considering leaving it all behind,” a since-deleted user posted on r/MBTI five years ago. The forum, they wrote, was full of peopleinsisting on their superiority over others, or justifying their faults.
“MBTI. Cognitive functions. Typology. They fuck with your brain and your perception of other people … as if you’re a machine and not a human being.” With palpable disgust, the author concluded: “It’s like watching strangers arguing about who you really are.”
It is no surprise to Emre that Briggs Myers’s indicator, devised with earnest intent, wound up here: hollowed out by mass culture, a label to display in your dating app profile or apply to the characters of Game of Thrones.
The MBTI, she says, “is an exercise in self-making: asking yourself not just ‘who I am’, but ‘what kind of person do I want to represent myself as’” – just as how we exist on social media. Both support the creation of “a kind of saleable self” that helps large corporations make money.
Indeed, the MBTI seeded the idea of work serving as our identity in the 1940s, long before the contemporary “hustle culture” made it explicit.
Today, though the Myers-Briggs Company forbids unethical use of its assessment, its underlying logic of “people sorting” has been absorbed by the growing use of data in human resources. As exposed in the recent HBO Max Documentary Persona (of which Emre is an executive producer), sophisticated psychometric testing is used to streamline hiring processes and filter candidates.
Most unsuccessful applicants do not even know that they have “failed” – allowing these “people analytics” to serve as a side door to discriminatory hiring practices, such as screening for mental illness.
Briggs Myers would be horrified. For her and her mother, and many who later came to their invention, type was always about so much more than job satisfaction or productivity, says Emre: it represented a “kind of liberation from these rigid identities of wife and mother” through the creation of new and different ones.
People often defend personality tests with the ardor usually reserved for discussions of faith, she says; as such, questions of scientific validity are somewhat irrelevant.
“It’s almost impossible not to be critical of them as a mechanism of exploitation. On the other hand, people gravitate to them because they offer something that is missing in their lives, and in their ways of thinking about who they are, and what they want. I think that’s important.”
I have never taken the authentic, paid-for assessment, and I am now curious to see what “official” results I will get. So with Hackston’s guidance, I dive in.
I click my way through the online questionnaire, choosing between either-or questions and pairs of adjectives (“convincing” or “touching”, “hearty” or “quiet”).
Over nearly an hour of this, words start to lose meaning and I feel increasingly tightly wound. Finally, my estimated type is revealed: not ENTJ, the CEO type, an identity in which I have invested hours and held over years – but the more pragmatic ESTJ: sensing versus intuitive, more down-to-earth than blue-sky thinker.
Despite myself, I feel alarmed. But Hackston says the results suggests that how I process information, whether I stick to the facts or seek the deeper meaning, is less important than my preference for extroverted thinking.
Ultimately, he says, the MBTI is not a test with a right or wrong answer: “It’s a process for you to find out for yourself, what type fits you best.” What you do with that information, he says, “is entirely up to you – but it’s yours”.