Merve Emre is is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. In her latest book, The Personality Brokers, she creates a critical portrait of the Myers-Briggs Indicator, a personality test conceived and developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers Briggs, an unconventional mother daughter team with no formal training in psychology.
“Better than a horoscope…less reliable than a heart monitor.” That’s how organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes the Myer’s Briggs indicator. Yet, the majority of Fortune 100 companies, and major universities along with the federal government use this people-sorter to assign students and employees to one of 16 discrete types.
In a discussion with friends about the test’s creators, we decided that those who hadn’t taken the Myers Briggs would give it a shot. And those who had would take it again, for good measure. The founders and keepers of the Myers Briggs Indicator insist that type doesn’t change, not over time, not over circumstance. As a person who has taken it multiple times over the last few decades, I could attest to that. Could.
But this most recent exercise revealed that within the last year, my personality type had made a significant shift. I have always sensed that these kinds of tests feed our egos in a way that steadies our faith in them. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of bewilderment that accompanied these test results. It was like waking up to a different eye color. Then I became intrigued. How did this happen? In what ways am I different? And more importantly, why am I so fascinated with myself?
Katherine knew that we all seek an answer to the fundamental question, “What makes me, me?” Her first sincere attempts to understand personality began in 1897 with a set of experiments she designed to turn her daughter into a genius. She conducted behavioral drills with Isabel in their living room, the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” And Isabel impressed the neighborhood mothers when she began speaking full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 was accepted to Swarthmore College.
Then In 1923, Katherine discovered a schematic for sorting personalities. She read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in which Jung theorized that every person was primarily extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling. The work captured Katherine’s attention for several years, not only helping her to not only understand herself but inspiring her to seek a broader application for the betterment of society.
It was Isabel who would go on to adapt Jung’s schematic and craft the Myers-Briggs Indicator to help employers identify the traits of their employees. She pitched hard, making use of family connections, and successfully selling the test during a time when employers wanted increasingly specialized and productive workers. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Myers-Brigs Indicator attracted interest from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey and from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, who administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Normal Mailer and other prominent writers and artists.
By 1980, the year Isabel died, it is estimated that over one million other people had taken it. By 2012, sales of personality tests were bringing in about $20 million a year, and Myers-Briggs had become a household name. Emre’s cultural history deftly reveals the a-typical nature of its creators. They were affluent autodidacts, homemakers, published writers and zealous crusaders for self-actualization. They shaped the personality-assessment industry with an indicator that has become an icon. But how would they type?
Originally published October 18, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Adult News & reviews
Library news, info about upcoming events, reviews of books and films, and a look at the topics that affect us as a library.