The Personality Brokers

Excerpted with permission from Chapter Fourteen: One in a Million of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and Personality Testing.

Some people start to live only when they die; others stay unrecognized, their labors lost to time. In the case of Isabel Briggs Myers, both posthumous states held true. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator became the most popular personality inventory in the world; Isabel’s names—maiden and married, forever conjoined—were shorthand for the whole strange business of personality testing. But only the smallest fraction of those who encountered the indicator knew anything about Isabel, Katharine, or the origins of type. If asked about the indicator’s provenance, most people would have assumed that Myers and Briggs were the last names of two collaborating psychologists—two men, naturally—who had built their long, lucrative careers within the same institutions that had supported Henry Murray, Donald MacKinnon, Edward N. Hay, Henry Chauncey, and Harrison Gough. It was as if Isabel herself and her various personae—daughter, housewife, mother, writer, creator, entrepreneur—needed to die so that her creation could live.

Imagine the million people who, according to John Black, had learned about type by 1980. A million was a large, happy number, of course, but it was also an abstraction, free from any sense of consequence. Where did they encounter the indicator? What did learning one’s type do for each one of these million people? No doubt it did different, incommensurable things from person to person. (“You are not one of sixteen. You are one in a million,” declared CAPT in a 1990 marketing campaign.) But one could apprehend in ten, twenty, a hundred separate accounts of learning one’s type the emergence of certain undeniable patterns: the first rush of self-discovery, the cheerful lull of self-acceptance, the comfort of solidarity. You may have been one in a million, but part of the appeal of type was imagining that there were others out there like you: people whose lives had arced toward type at different moments but who had all come away from it with understanding and affirmation.

Imagine, then, a child— a bright, impressionable little boy or girl enrolled in an affluent school district in Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, the kind of school where parents who have learned the language of type from self-improvement seminars or wellness retreats are eager to bequeath it to their offspring. Reporting from the auditorium of Irvine’s Greentree Elementary in June 1982, the Los Angeles Times observed the youngest participants in the Social Thinking and Reasoning (STAR) program, an MBTI-based educational experiment funded by an $800,000 grant from the Department of Education. Nine-and ten-year-olds wearing sequined sock puppets on one hand and holding cue cards in the other nervously shifted from high-top to high-top, as their puppets ventriloquized statements like

“I’m an introvert. I need to be alone to recharge my batteries. It’s important for people to know introverts like other people.”

“I’m an NT. We NTs have a great desire to accumulate knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes I may appear cold. But I don’t like to show my feelings. It makes me feel not in control.”

“I’m an NF. We’re idealistic. We like meaningful relationships.”

Now imagine that child three or four years later, after she has discarded her hand puppet and forgotten her lines. She is in a middle school home economics class, although no one calls it that in 1985, preferring more up-to-date titles like “Work and Family Studies” or “Family and Consumer Sciences.” Her teacher distributes an MBTI questionnaire and answer sheet, and she tells students that knowing one’s type will help them navigate difficult discussions around drug use and premarital sex—the students giggle and groan—and, in a less prurient vein, dating, marriage, work relationships, and parenthood. The test is “designed to meet the needs of the kids today [and] to help them to get ready to have strong families in the future,” one middle school teacher from Fairfax, Virginia, explains to a reporter from the Washington Post. Knowing the positive and negative attributes of each type helps construct a thoroughly “modern view” of the family as a complex behavioral-economic unit; “both parents work and are trying to balance careers and personal lives” in different and often incompatible ways. Some kids rely on after-school specials or Seventeen magazine to hone their basic life skills. These kids lean on type to learn how to be healthy and wholesome.

A half decade later, the teenager who used her type knowledge to learn how she could just say no to drugs and alcohol and yes to the right man applies to college. When she is accepted, she learns that deans and counselors at many schools use the MBTI to match incoming students to their freshman-year roommates, hoping to “decrease odd couples” on campus. “Self-discovery is a significant part of the educational process,” declares Cindy Crowe, a counselor at the University of South Carolina’s Counseling Services Center. She warns students that the process can be “extremely difficult,” but the MBTI, which Cindy is grateful to have discovered one summer in the late 1980s, offers a “painless,” “easy,” “non-intimate,” and “psychologically patriotic” tool to size up one’s personality. The student can clarify her sense of self—good for choosing a major and, eventually, a job—and smooth out difficult relationships with roommates by answering questions as simple as “Do you prefer (a) small parties, or (b) large gatherings?” or “When the truth would not be polite, are you more likely to tell (a) a polite lie, or (b) the impolite truth?” Sister Susan Randolph, the housing director at the College of Saint Benedict, a small midwestern women’s college, claims that the MBTI has helped her assign 60 percent of students to their “ideal roommates”: students with whom they matched on three out of four of the indicator’s dimensions. “With the pressure a college student faces, dealing with an unacceptable roommate can be overwhelming,” she says. The counseling team at the University of Wisconsin has even more faith in the indicator than Sister Susan; they offer a monthlong summer course for roommates based on Myers- Briggs called “I’m Going My Way, and You’re Going Yours, How Can We Arrive Together?”

Four years later, the college freshman who embarked on her pain-less journey of self- discovery through type is, for all intents and pur-poses, an adult, eager to enter the white- collar workforce. She quickly learns that this is not her parents’ job market. “It’s a different world out there,” warns a 1991 article in the Chicago Tribune. People in America no longer make products; they are products and they “can and should be marketed just like soap, luxury cars, and facsimile machines,” one personality consultant tells the Wall Street Journal. Gen X job can-didates must show up to interviews looking sharp— the author rec-ommends suspenders and wire- rimmed glasses for men, blazers with shoulder pads for women— and brace themselves to take “the Myers- Briggs test, which determines your strengths and interests, what your style is and how you react in situations.” Type is one of the best mar-keting techniques for selling yourself. It gives you a four- letter brand instantly legible to the white, well- educated professionals working the kind of job she wants to get. “There are as many office types as Mr. Potato Head has personas. Do you understand yours?” asks the Times- Picayune. She must also anticipate that some people will not want to hire her based on her type. “Have you ever been so frustrated by some employees’ inability to make quick decisions on really simple issues that you put those wooly thinkers on a list of no- can- do types?” asks an ENTJ columnist, a technology entrepreneur, in the Wall Street Journal. The MBTI is the best way he knows of to avoid these annoy-ing hiring mistakes. “Insights provided by the MBTI are so extraordi-narily useful that the test should be routinely administered to adults as they enter the workforce,” he gushes. His sentiments are echoed by human relations teams in nearly every Fortune 100 company as well as CPP, recently the subject of some harsh criticism after studies by psychologists showed that people who take the test more than once, even just a few weeks apart, get classified as a different type more than 50 percent of the time. The MBTI’s test-retest validity is well below acceptable levels of statistical significance. “Four of the 16 Myers-Briggs types account for 80% of managers,” shoots back CPP executive Lorin Letendre, citing “extensive studies” conducted by CPP. “That’s extremely statistically significant.”

Yet disputes over statistical significance matter little to our job seeker when she enters her cubicle on the first day of work. She does not know that her office has been configured by Herman Miller, the world’s leading office furniture designer, with a computer program that uses a modified version of the MBTI to analyze the personality types of white-collar workers to help engineers, designers, and architects allocate office space, ergonomic furniture, and technology among them. “We have found that only 8 percent of workstations fit the personalities of workers using them,” proclaims John Berry, Herman Miller’s director of communications, though he does not specify how the company has managed to arrive at such a precise number. The company’s computer program administers a hundred-item questionnaire and identifies its subject as one of four personality types: the visionary (“one who looks at the big picture”), the catalyst (“a people person, a leader”), the stabilizer (“an efficient machine”), and the cooperator (“a friendly person”). It then assigns interchangeable furniture components to the worker’s office based on his preference for privacy versus socialization, concentration versus distraction. The ideal office of a visionary, a man who “could never have enough books and liked a window with an interesting office view,” has dark, elegant bookshelves, ample display space, and a corner work surface. The ideal office of a stabilizer is “cock-pit like”—neat, spare, silent.

Nor do the MBTI’s empirical failings faze her if she decides, after several years of industry experience, to go to law school and become a corporate lawyer or a litigator. In 1993, the American Bar Association administers the indicator to more than three thousand lawyers to learn how different types dealt with coworkers and clients. According to Larry Richards, the former trial lawyer turned management consultant who runs the study, one of every two lawyers identifies as a thinking and judging type, “aggressive, vocal, time-driven and one who [likes to] cut to the chase,” Richards summarizes. Richards left the profession some years ago when he took the MBTI and discovered that he was a feeling and perceiving type; he longed for adventure and spontaneity, not long nights at the office “battling deadlines, forced to be orderly.” He has seen “feelers” like himself “get into trouble” in big law firms, where 77 percent of lawyers are thinkers, he notes. In his sample, military lawyers score highest on the thinking scale, followed by specialists in labor, patent, tax, real estate, and divorce law. The only clear feelers are woman lawyers who specialize in legal aid and public interest law, which Richards describes with pointed tact as “less conventional practice areas.” One lawyer, a defense attorney for executives of financial institutions, is relieved to learn that she has a “good amount of empathy, but not enough to interfere with the ruthless behavior you have to exhibit when dealing with the government.” Another woman going through a “minor midlife crisis” yearns for the test to tell her that she was never meant to be a lawyer so she can justify quitting her job. She is distressed to find out that her type makes her “a pretty good lawyer.” So she stays.

Think, once more, of the child from the beginning, who now has spent the last decade of her life as a lawyer in a cockpit-like office and wants to try something new. But what are the right things for her? How can she find out? Perhaps she lives in New York City and can enroll in “Using Your Personality Type to Find the Right Job,” a three-hour, sixty-five-dollar course at the New School, where attendees take the MBTI and receive a one-on-one counseling session. There, she might meet Susan, a Wall Street trader since the late 1970s, who discovers that she is an ESFJ— a “provider type,” she is told by the course leader—and that the cutthroat world of high finance is ill-suited to her personality type. She might share a cigarette with Gary, an aspiring novelist who, upon learning that he is a “highly rational,” “entrepreneurial” ENTJ, decides to return to his job as a management consultant; the “radical change” he wants for his life will have to wait. If she wants a deeper, more individually tailored analysis of her personality and her prospects than what Susan and Gary have experienced, she will have to pay more; the New School’s course is on the very low end of MBTI consulting services. Many personality consultancies now charge upwards of five thousand dollars per session to administer the test and help a client strategize how best to market herself to a new employer based on her type. The world of the MBTI in the 1990s is a far cry from Edward N. Hay’s office in 1943, but there is no way for her to know this, just as there is no way for her to know about the two women responsible for the direction her life has taken, the writers of her life story.

She markets herself and changes careers, working hard for the next twenty years or maybe more and rarely looking back. Upon retiring, she decides it is time to take care of herself, to get back in touch with who she is and what she wants of the years that remain. She knows she can find in almost any city, on almost any weekend, a church or synagogue or “spiritual life center” offering workshops on “living and loving” through the MBTI. She can participate in any number of luxurious, all-inclusive retreats or “personal development seminars,” sitting for the indicator in the morning and learning how to care properly for her aging hair, skin, nails, and wardrobe in the afternoon. (“Would you rather die than wear a gaudy Hawaiian shirt? You may be an ISTJ. Have you dropped out of school or spent time in jail? You may be an ISFP,” says the organizer of one such seminar. Another matches celebrity clients like Elle Macpherson and Kyra Sedgwick to exercise regimens that are “spiritually appropriate” for their MBTI type.) She can travel for these seminars, perhaps abroad to Florence (“Italy is an extraverted country,” claims a CAPT research report on national types) or Paris (“We may think of the French, uncivil to tourists, contentious in the legislature, and the home of Descartes, and declare ‘France is a nation of thinking types’ ”). Or she can sign up for an American “identity quest,” paying thousands of dollars to take the test in the deserts of New Mexico or the mountains of Colorado. She can drum and dance under the moonlight to “enhance her Sensing Self.” She can fashion a clay vessel in which to deposit her “New Found Self” and, possibly, her ashes when she dies, old and tired yet satisfied, after a lifetime of self-discovery.

From the Book:  

THE PERSONALITY BROKERS by Merve Emre

Copyright © 2018 by Merve Emre

Published by Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC

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