You’ve Got Personality. But What Type?


THE MOST POPULAR personality assessment, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)—given more than 2.5 million times each year and used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies—has long been criticized for its purported usefulness in selecting a profession or career direction.

On the other hand, most people who take the MBTI and other such assessments come away with insights into their own behavior and sometimes even more into their relationships with others.  “Personality” is defined generally as “differences between people in the way they act and react in particular situations” and “reflect the settings of [their] motivational system,” which for each person is “tuned slightly differently to the world,” Art Markman writes on FastCompany.

There is “no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation,” according to Marshall University psychologist David Pittenger. “…nor is there any data to suggest that specific types are more satisfied within specific occupations than are other types.”

Because there is a learning curve for anyone trying to understand their Myers Briggs results, it is advised to take the test under the auspices of someone who has been certified, usually a psychologist or career counselor, and usually as part of a MBTI workshop or career-counselling package, with the test costing around $20.  The MBTI can also be taken online, minus extensive and personal explanations, for $49.95 plus tax.

Most complaints about the Myers Briggs center around each person being labeled one of 16 types —derived from their placement on four axes, for example, introvert/extrovert: in fact, most people’s MBTI scores fall around the middle of each axis rather than at the low and high ends.

The preponderance of borderline scores also gives the MBTI low “test-retest reliability:” If you retake the test after only five weeks, there’s a 50% chance you will fall into a different personality category than your previous result, British sociologist and philosopher Roman Krznaric writes in Fortune Magazine. Krznaric considers the MBTI as unreliable as phrenology.

Better regarded assessments provide weighted results that can be more reliable and more useful than the mutually exclusive categories of the MBTI.  Among career-focused assessments for which a free (often simplified) version is available online, the Holland Code Career Test is considered by many to be the most helpful.

Of its six “interest areas,” for example, D.C. resident M.W. scored “high” for “thinking careers” (involving research, analysis and solving problems) as well as for “helping careers” —considered her most relevant scores.  (Her other scores—the “low” for “building careers, “persuading careers” and “organizing careers,” and even the “moderate” for “creating careers”—were considered less relevant.)

The personality traits widely used by psychologists, and therefore most evidence-based as well as most well-respected by experts, are known as the “Big Five,” also the Five Factor Model (FFM).  For personality assessments, there is “an enormous amount of research indicating the impact of the five major personality factors on significant life outcomes,” according to Pennsylvania State University professor John Johnson.

The Big Five traits are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (OCEAN)—and most assessments, such as the “Big Five Personality Test,” rank scores on each so that those traits at extreme highs and lows are given the most importance.  The usefulness of the Big Five most often touted is that the traits predict outcomes, for example, openness predicting creativity.  (Click here to take one of these tests.).

On the Big Five test, for example, M.W.’s most relevant scores were Extroversion at 1 (“very low”) and Agreeableness at 96 (“very high”).  Next came Openness at 77 (“high”).  Very little weight was given to her other scores, both in the 30s, for “Conscientiousness (work ethic)” and “Natural reactions” (this test’s label for Neuroticism, while other tests call it “emotional stability”).  Another criticism of the MBTI is its failure to assess “bad” traits like neuroticism.

Johnson points out, however, that four of the traits in the widely accepted FFM are very similar to the “psychological tendencies measured by the MBTI.”

For DC-area resident S.H., an experienced lawyer in search of a second career, the most helpful career-related conclusion from a series of assessments was how highly she valued authenticity, followed by cooperation, helping and flexibility; and that she prefers working with data or words rather than people but is better working with people some of the time.  These results encouraged her to consider professions like mediator and to rule out those, like advertising and politics, that might involve veering from the truth.

But S.H.’s Myers Briggs type (ENTJ) has given her important insights into personal relationships—why some people get along easily while others struggle to do so.  For her, one workshop exercise that illuminated the usefulness of Myers Briggs types divided participants based on their type on the axis of N for intuition/S for sensing.

Each group was given an orange and a poster-sized paper on which to describe the orange. When S group members came up with descriptors like juicy, the group was unanimous in their need to discuss the accuracy, importance, etc., of each before recording it neatly on the paper.  The N group, on the other hand, agreed without discussion on a completely different approach: allowing each member to write or draw simultaneously all over the paper recording individual impressions of the orange —it can be used for juggling—acknowledging that each member’s responses to the orange were important to the final product.

Simply understanding these differences and how they might lead to disagreements can help relationships work more smoothly.

For many people, the most useful axis, measured on almost all assessments and useful for both career and personal insights, is that of introvert/extrovert.  Especially for those who discover for the first time that they are an introvert, the label provides understanding and, sometimes more important, acceptance of their physical and mental need for downtime away from other people to recharge—in contrast to extroverts who gain energy from interaction with others.

Although Myers Briggs suffers from both lack of evidence and retesting support, it is still popular.  Others with even less scientific backing are also popular.  The Primary Colors Personality Test, used by military bases, prisons, universities and other organizations, divides people into six color groupings according to behavior in different contexts, such as at home and at work.

And “16 personalities” is free for everyone, boasting its reliability is based on making the assessment “open to the community, making its tools and information accessible and accepting feedback from many sources”—somewhat like crowd-sourcing—and that it has been taken “nearly 100 million times.”

For anyone familiar with Myers Briggs, 16 Personalities can be confusing because it uses the same labels but gives them different definitions.  And it adds one more axis, Turbulent/Assertive, which in fact brings the number of possible outcomes to 32, not 16; also, the traits are not obviously opposites or even related to each other, but do appear suspiciously close to the Big Five variable of Neuroticism.

On the other hand, 16 Personalities weights its labels as do the most evidence-based assessments: Test takers falling near the middle on the introvert/extrovert scale, for example, are given their own label of “ambiverts” instead of being forced into one category or the other. For M.W., the only 16 Personalities trait given important weight is that based on her Introvert score of 81%—like her score of 1 on the Holland Test. Her borderline scores on other three axes make them less relevant.

On 16 Personalities, her additional score of 68% Turbulent comes up with the descriptors sensitivity (including sensitivity to stress), openness and perfectionist—while those scoring high on Assertive are more self-assured, even-tempered and stress-resistant.

After a certain number of personality assessments, however, the results begin to merge and even become murky.  On 16 Personalities, for example, extroverts are more likely to be “assertive”—and on the Big Five scales, assertiveness is one of the significant features of extroversion.   And, while combining results from different tests can be helpful, the best understanding of one’s personality often comes from an entirely different combination of inputs—from other people, especially experts, along with ongoing life experience both in the workplace and in personal relationships.

—Mary Carpenter
Mary Carpenter most recently wrote on brain differences between liberals and conservatives. Read more of her well-being posts on lots of different subjects here



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