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Measuring the MBTI … and coming up short

Authors:
*David J. Pittenger is assistant professor and Chair of the Department of Psychology at
Marietta College. He has written extensively in his field, and has received a Teaching Excellence
Award, Early Career from Division Two of the American Psychological Association.
Dr. Pittenger earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Georgia, his M.S. from Texas
A&M University, and his B.A. from the College of Wooster.
Measuring the MBTI...
And Coming Up Short
by David J. Pittenger*
Some research has shown that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
test doesn't really measure what it purports to measure. The author,
too, has his reservations as to its reliability and validity.
Imagine a test that would allow you to predict the type of career for which a person is best suited For example,
Mary comes to you for career counseling. She presents you with her education and work history, and an outline of
her career objectives. Specifically, she says that she would like to find an entry-level position where she can help
people, and is interested in a career in the social services.
You then administer a personality inventory. The scores suggest to you that Mary is a logical person who is
achievement oriented, quick to identify flaws in others, and values truth over tact in herself and others. Based on
these observations, you conclude that Mary may not be well suited for work that requires empathy for others' feelings
and tolerance for ambiguity. Instead, you suggest to Mary that her strong points are tile ability to focus her attention
upon objective information and to make rational decisions. You then advise Mary to consider alternative careers that
match her education, abilities, values, and personality.
Many claim that such a test is available with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).1 Recently, Paul D. Tieger
and Barbara Barron-Tieger described how the MBTI can be used by career counselors to help clients find jobs for
which they are best suited and with which they will be most satisfied.2 Indeed, they claim that understanding a
person's type is one of the most important factors to consider when helping that person make career decisions. The
Tiegers also provide a brief summary of the MBTI test and review how it can be used in job counseling.
The MBTI is a very popular test of personality. Each year millions of copies of the test are administered in the
workplace, schools, churches, community groups, management workshops, and counseling centers. Many people
see the MBTI as an invaluable tool that helps them understand their own behavior as well as the behavior of others.
In spite of the popularity of the MBTI, there are many problems with its use. There is a large body of research that
suggests that the claims made about the MBTI cannot be supported. In other words, although the MBTI appears
to measure something, many psychologists are not convinced that any significant conclusions can be based on the
test. In this article I will review the basic research that questions the validity of the MBTI.
A Brief History of the MBTI
The MBTI was developed by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katherine Briggs. Katherine Briggs became
interested in type theory after reading Carl Jung's book, Psychological Type. Isabel Briggs Myers shared her mother's
interest in type theory and began to create the MBTI in the early l940s as a test to be used for personnel selection.3
Myers believed that different occupations favored different personality orientations, and that Jung's theory provided
a theoretical link between personality and job performance.
In 1957, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) began to distribute the MBTI for research purposes. ETS spent
considerable time and resources in deciding whether the MBTI should have been adopted as a part of its vast library
of proprietary tests. After an unfavorable internal review of the test, ETS chose not to pursue the further
development and ended its relationship with Myers.4 In 1975, Consulting Psychologists Press acquired the right to
sell the MBTI. Since then, the test has been successfully marketed to an extremely wide audience.
The test is now available to licensed counselors and psychologists, to college instructors and personnel who have
had graduate training in the theory of testing, and to individuals who have completed short courses on the
administration and interpretation of the MBTI. There are currently many professional organizations that support the
study of type. The Journal of Psychological Type is a scholarly periodical that publishes original research and reviews
of research on type theory. There are also several professional organizations for individuals who use the MBTI as
a part of their work. The Center for Applications of Psychological Type provides training on the administration and
interpretation of the test, offers scoring services, and maintains a data base of MBTI profiles. The Association of
Psychological Type (APT) represents the interests of professionals who use the MBTI. The APT also provides
workshops that quality non-psychologists to purchase and administer the MBTI in nonclinical settings.
A Brief Theory of Type
The primary feature of the theory behind the MBTI is that each person's personality fits into only one of 16 types.
These categories are based on four features of personality, each consisting of two opposite preferences. According
to the theory, all people have an innate preference that determines how they will behave in all situations. The four
dimensions are:5
Extroversion (E) vs Introversion (I). This dimension reflects the perceptual orientation of the individual. Extroverts
are said to react to immediate and objective conditions in the environment. Introverts, however, look inward to their
internal and subjective reactions to their environment.
Sensing (S) vs Intuition (N). People with a sensing preference rely on that which can be perceived and are considered
to be oriented toward that which is real. People with an intuitive preference rely more on their nonobjective and
unconscious perceptual processes.
Thinking (T) vs Feeling (F). A preference for thinking indicates the use of logic and rational processes to make
deductions and decide upon action. Feeling represents a preference to make decisions that are based on subjective
processes that include emotional reactions to events.
Judgment (J) vs Perception (P). The judgrnent-perception preferences were invented by Briggs and Myers to indicate
if rational or irrational judgments are dominant when a person is interacting with the environment. The judgmental
person uses a combination of thinking and feelings when making decision, whereas the perception person uses the
sensing and intuition processes.
Because the MBTI is a theory of types, a person can have only one preference. Although it is possible for people to
develop the complimentary style (an introvert, for example, could learn to be more extroverted when speaking in
groups) the primary preference will always dominate the person's personality. A person's MBTI score determines
his or her type, a label based on his or her dominate preference for each of the four dimensions. Since there are two
preferences within each dimension, there are 16 potential personality types.
Each personality type is said to be different from the others. That is, an ESTJ is a different person than an ISTJ.
Many books and other printed materials about the MBTI provide descriptions of each type. Tieger and Baron-
Tieger's article provides examples of these summaries as they are applied to career planning.
Assessment of the MBTI
Given this short introduction to the MBTI and its theory, we can ask a very basic question: Does the MBTI measure
what it claims to measure? To answer this question we must examine the basic issues concerning the foundations of
any psychological test: its statistical structure, its reliability, and its validity.
Statistical Structure
Because the MBTI is a typology, we would expect that its scores would be distributed bimodally and not be normally
distributed. Let me give an analogy. If you randomly selected 500 people between the ages 18 and 25, measured their
heights, and then drew a graph of the results, you would probably have a normal or bell-shaped distribution. Most
people would have a height close to the mean, say 5'8". Of course, some people would be very short, and others
would be very tall, but these extreme scores would be rare. Now, imagine what would happen if you divided your
sample by sex. When you redraw the data you should get a bimodal distribution. Women, on average, are shorter
than men; but within each sex there will be a normal distribution of heights. The same thing should happen for the
MBTI.
We would expect that since people are either introverts or extroverts, the test results should yield two different
curves. One curve would represent all the introverts, the other, all the extroverts. True, some people may be more
extroverted than others, but we would expect that all the extroverts would be different from all the introverts. What
we should find is that there are two normal curves representing the two preferences, and that there is little or no
overlap of the curves.
The data indicate that there is no evidence of bimodal distributions for the MBTI.6 Instead, most people score
between the two extremes. This means that although one person may score as an E, his or her test results may be
very similar to those of another person's, who scores as an I.
Reliability
Reliability refers to the consistency in measurement of a test. Tests that are highly reliable are preferred because we
can be sure that we will get the same result each time we measure the same thing. If the test is not reliable, we do
not know if the changes in the score are due to changes in the person we are measuring or to some type of error in
the testing process.
It is important that the MBTI be reliable for many reasons. As Tieger and Barron-Tieger note in their article, "The
Type to which you are born will be the one you take to your grave." In other words, once an INTJ, always an INTJ.
Therefore, we would expect the reliability of the MBTI to be extremely high and that people's type will not change.
The primary method for testing reliability is to give the test to a person on two occasions. This procedure is known
as “test-retest reliability." Typically, the test-retest interval can range from several weeks to more than a year.
Because type is said to be a constant characteristic, we would expect that people's personality would not change over
time. Several studies, however, show that even when the test-retest interval is short (e.g., 5 weeks), as many as 50
percent of the people will be classified into a different type.7
The reliability data of the MBTI bring into question the stability of the test. How is it possible that there can be a
change in personality, across a short interval, when such a change should not occur? The reliability data also bring
into question whether there are meaningful differences across the preference categories.
Standard Error of Measurement. This testing concept is really a statistic that psychologists use to decide when the
difference between two test scores is meaningful and when the difference is trivial. For example, two people could
take the same test. One receives a score of 100, the other a score of 105. The standard error measurement helps us
decide whether that 5-point difference represents a substantial difference between the two people or if the difference
reflects simply an error in measurement.
There are two factors that influence the standard error of measurement: the standard deviation and the test-retest
reliability of the test. If the standard deviation of the test is small and the reliability is high, it is possible that small
differences among scores can represent significant differences among the items measured, which, in this case, are
individuals' personalities. If, however, the standard deviation is large and the reliability is low, then large differences
among scores must be found before we can assume that there are meaningful differences among the individuals.
The standard error of measure for each of the four dimensions is fairly large.8 Unfortunately, the MBTI method of
scoring obscures this important distinction. It classifies people into a rigid dichotomy. Thus, two people could have
raw scores that are close to one another but that define different classifications. This occurs because there are cutoff
points that divide the dimensions. When the score is above the cutoff, one classification is given; if the score is below
the cutoff, the opposite classification is given. Although some users of the MBTI try to interpret how close the score
is to the cutoff, this practice is inconsistent with the theory of the MBTI. For example, Carskadon argues that the
raw scores are overused and contends that "it is probably better to use dichotomous classification."
In summary, the differences between the two-letter categories are not as sharp and clear cut as it would appear.
Because the MBTI uses an absolute classification scheme for people, it is possible for people with relatively similar
scores to labeled with much different personalities.
Validity
As the degree to which a test measures what it is supposed to measure, validity is a difficult property to evaluate in
a test. Consider tests of intelligence. Many people are skeptical of the results of these tests. Some people are
concerned that the tests measure only "book learning" and do not test "common sense." Other people feel that
intelligence tests have cultural, racial, and gender biases. Therefore, to conclude that a test is a valid measure of
intelligence, it must be shown that the test measures intelligence independent of the testee's education, culture, race,
and sex.
There are many ways to evaluate the validity of the MBTI test. I will examine two important pieces of evidence.
First, we can determine if the four dimensions described in the MBTI theory really exist. This is accomplished by
using a statistical procedure known as "factor analysis." Secondly, we can determine whether knowing a person’s
MBTI type really allows us to predict how that person will perform under different circumstances. The importance
of this question of validity is obvious. It must be shown that there is a consistent and meaningful relation between
MBTI results and success in career placement.
Factor Analysis. The factor analysis is a type of statistic procedure that consists of making an analysis of the
correlations among the questions in the test. If the MBTI theory is correct, three results should come from the factor
analysis. First, the results should show that there are four clusters, or factors, of questions. Each of the questions
within a factor will be highly correlated with the other questions in the factor. Moreover, the questions within the
factor should be related to the MBTI dimension that is measured. For example, a question like "I like to be the life
of a party" should be in the factor related to extroversion-introversion.
Secondly, we would expect each factor to be independent of the other factors, inasmuch as the MBTI theory states
that each of the four preference dimensions stands alone. That is, questions within one factor should not correlate
with questions in the other factors. If two factors are correlated, it means they are probably measuring the same thing.
Finally, we would expect that the factors would account for most of the differences among individuals. Here is an
example that will illustrate this point. A test consisting of many unrelated questions would produce no consistent
pattern in the differences among the people tested, and we would say that there is a large amount of measurement
error. If, however, the questions are highly related, there should be consistent patterns that can be accounted for by
the test, and the measurement error would be relatively small.
Research on the factor analysis of the MBTI has not produced convincing results. In one study, based on the results
of l,29l college aged students, six different factors were found.10 In addition, the study authors found a high level of
measurement error. Specifically, 83 percent of the differences among the students could not be accounted for by the
MBTI. The results led the authors to the conclude that the factors found in the statistical analysis were inconsistent
with the MBTI theory. In other studies, researchers found that the JP and the SN scales are correlated with one
another.11 In sum, the statistical analysis of the test does not support the theory used to describe the MBTI.
Relation Between MBTI Type and Occupation. Many people have examined the relation between type and
occupation by examining the proportions of type within each profession. For example, one might observe that many
elementary teachers are ESTJs and conclude that ESTJs prefer to be elementary school teachers or to work in a
related occupation. Although it sounds appealing, such a conclusion runs into many fundamental problems.
First, we need to examine the normative data to judge the relation between type and profession. For example, the
proportion of ESTJs in the teaching profession is the same as the proportion of ESTJs in the general population, or
12 percent. This similarity suggest that there is nothing special about the type of person who becomes an elementary
school teacher.
Another problem stems from jobs that are dominated by men or women. Nursing is a good example. If we compare
the distribution of type for nurses against managers, there appears to be a different pattern of type. We could
conclude that certain types are more likely to enter nursing while other types are more likely to become managers.
There is, however, an alternative interpretation. Nursing has been and remains a profession dominated by women.
There is a high correlation (r = .91) be tween the percentages of types for all women and people in nursing. The
correlation between all men and people in nursing is, by contrast, small (r= .21). In a male dominated profession such
as management, there is a high correlation between types in management positions and men in general (r=.92), but
a smaller correlation for women (r = 60).12 If it is true that certain types are attracted to certain professions, then
these correlations should be much smaller. Instead, these data suggest that the proportion of MBTI types within each
occupation is equivalent to that within a random sample of the population.
Finally, there is no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation. That
is, there is nothing to show that ESFPs are better or worse salespeople than INTJs are. Nor is there any data to
suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types, or that they stay longer
in one occupation than do others.
In summary, it appears that the MBTI does not conform to many of the basic standards expected of psychological
tests. Many very specific predictions about the MBTI have not been confirmed or have been proved wrong. There
is no obvious evidence that there are 16 unique categories in which all people can be placed. There is no evidence
that scores generated by the MBTI reflect the stable and unchanging personality traits that are claimed to be
measured. Finally, there is no evidence that the MBTI measures anything of value.
Conclusions
In a recent review of the MBTI, commissioned by the Army Research Institute, it was concluded that the instrument
should not be used for career planning counseling.13 The Institute's analysis of the available research showed no
evidence for the utility of the test. Indeed, with respect to career planning they note that "the types may simply be
an example of stereotypes." I agree.
The MBTI reminds us of the olvious truth that all people are not alike, but then claims that every person can be fit
neatly into one of 16 boxes. I believe that MBTI attempts to force the complexities of human personality into an
artificial and limiting classification scheme. The focus on the "typing" of people reduces the attention paid to the
unique qualities and potential of each individual.
Many readers may be surprised by my interpretation and objections to such a popular test. It has been my experience
that this reaction stems from how they view the MBTI. In many cases, the popularity of the instrument is interpreted
as an indication of its accuracy and utility, which then leads to wider use and less inclination to question the
foundations of the test. As a consequence, the MBTI has become a popular instrument for reasons unrelated to its
reliability and validity.
The publishers do a very good job of promoting the test and providing support for its users. The MBTI also has
much intuitive appeal. The descriptions of each type are generally flattering and sufficiently vague so that most people
will accept the statements as true of themselves. If you tell people that they are "innovative thinkers and good
problem solvers, and good at understanding and motivating people, but may have trouble following through on
details of a project," they will believe that the statement is an accurate description of themselves regardless of the
truth of the statement. This phenomenon is known as the "Barnum Effect," named in honor of the great entertainer.14
Because of its apparent simplicity, the MBTI may be misused unintentionally by some people. A manager, for
example, may come to believe that only certain personality types are appropriate for specific jobs. After learning
about type, such a manager may conclude that only ISTJs make good accountants whereas the best people for the
sales force will be the ESFJs.15 Thus, the type label may bias a manager's decisions on hiring, firing, evaluating, and
promoting. Similarly, employees may use type labels inappropriately. Thus, one might feel that "She's an INFP, so
I will never be able to work with her on an assignment," or that "I'm an ESTP and don't do well when it comes to
details."
It has been my intention here to raise questions about the fundamental concepts that underlie the MBTI, and to
caution against undue reliance upon its use without fully investigating the accuracy of its test results. There is
considerable more research available than I have cited that supports my allegations. My hope is that career counselors
and recruiters who use or plan to use the MBTI will review this research and take a long look at the value of using
personality type labels in their work.
Endnotes
(l) The Myers-Briggs Type lndicator and MBTI are Registered Trademarks of Consulting Psychologists Press.
(2) Tieger, Paul, D. and Barbara Barron-Tieger. “Personality Typing: A First Step to a Satisfying Career.” Journal
of Career Planning & Employment, Vol. 53, No. 2 (January 1993), pp. 50-56.
(3) For a complete history of the development of the MBTI, see Saunders, F. W. Katherine and Isabel: Mother’s
Light, Daughter’s Journey. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1991.
(4) Stricker, L. J. And J. Ross. A Description and Evaluation of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Research Bulletin
#RB-62-6). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service, 1962.
(5) A more complet account of the theory behind the MBTI can be found in: Myers, I. B. and M. H. McCaulley.
Manual: A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Palo Alto, CA: Consulting
Psychologists Press, 1985. And: Myers, I. B. Gifts Differing. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, 1980.
(6) See Stricker and Ross (1962). Also: Stricker, L. J. & J. Ross. “An Assessment of Some Structural Properties of
the Jungian personality Typology.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol. 68 (1964), pp. 62-71.
(7) Howes, R. J. and T. G. Carskadon. “Test-Retest Reliabilities of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a Function
of Mood Changes.” Research in Psychological Type, Vol. 2, No. 1 (1979), pp. 67-72.
(8) Based on a short interval (5-week) test-retest reliability of 0.82 and a standard deviation for the E1 scale of 25
(Howes & Carskadon, 1979), The standard error of measurement is approximately 10.6 = 25 V 1.82Z points. This
means that raw scores with a 21-point difference are considered statistically significant.
(9) Carskadon, T. G. “Clinical and Counseling Aspects of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator: A Research Review.”
Research in Psychological Type, Vol. 2, No. 4 (1979a), pp. 2-31.
(10) Sipps, G. J., R. A. Alexander, and L. Friedt. “Item Analysis of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Educational
and Psychological Measurement, Vol. 45, No. 4 (1985), pp. 789-796.
(11) “McCrae, R. R. and P. T. Costa. “Reinterpreting the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator from the Perspective of the
Five-Factor Model of Personality.” Journal of Personality, Vol. 57, No. 1 (1989), pp. 12-40.
(12) These analyses are based on information in Myers and McCaulley.
(13) Druckman, D. and R. A. Bjork, Eds. In the Mind’s Eye: Enhancing Human Performance. Washington, DC:
National Academy Press, 1991.
(14) Dickson, D. H. and I. W. Kelly. “‘The Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature.”
Psychological Reports, Vol. 57, No. 2 (1985), pp. 367-382.
(15) Auerbach, E. “Not Your Type, But Right for the Job.” The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 1992, editorial,
p. 11.
Reprinted from the Fall 1993 issue of the Journal of Career Planning & Placement , with permission of the College
Placement Council, Inc., Copyright holder.
... Despite that the assessment instrument was developed based on Jung's theory, there has been criticism that the tool misinterprets the theory and is misapplied in its application (Pittenger, 1993). It was further noted that, although the MBTI is widely used in occupational-focused studies, Wheeler (2001) remarked on the limited use relative to accounting-related studies. ...
... The Myers Briggs Type Indicator relies upon a theory purporting that each person can be categorized into 16 personality types (Pittenger, 1993). The MBTI assumes individuals have a natural disposition of either being extroverted or introverted, sensing or intuitive, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving (McCaulley & Martin, 1995). ...
... The dichotomous nature has been identified as a possible weakness of the test. Pittenger (1993) and Salter et al. (1997) have questioned the reliability after analyzing the results, taken at different intervals, of the same person. However, other research has purported the test as valid or has suggested facets of the test as reliable (Setiawati, 2014;Tischler, 1994). ...
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... data-driven) background, but rather on qualitative measures such as observation and introspection. The other common criticism is the binary nature of the questionnaire as it is known that the majority of people usually lies somewhere in the middle of the scales (Pittenger, 1993). ...
... This creates a possibility for filtering out those instances written by people who exhibit similar amount of signals from both polarities. As it is known that many people have characteristics of both polarities across MBTI dimensions (Pittenger, 1993), such filtering of training datasets might lead to better performances of automatic systems for MBTI detection from texts by removing noise. Plank and Hovy (2015) were the first to explore the use of Twitter data for obtaining a large-scale dataset for open-vocabulary automatic detection of MBTI personality traits. ...
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Not Your Type, But Right for the Job
  • E Auerbach
Auerbach, E. "Not Your Type, But Right for the Job." The Wall Street Journal, January 6, 1992, editorial, p. 11.