The story of how Myers-Briggs happened

OK, enough with the complaining!

I do occasionally find things to read in my various newspapers and magazines that I actually enjoy. And while I find myself clicking through the stories on NPR One rather quickly and impatiently these days, I occasionally run into something I can dig there as well.

Like this…

I was flipping through the aforementioned NPR app while walking, and found something fun. Longtime readers know about my interest in the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator. I’ve written about it often enough. And of course, I know a lot of smart expert types look down on it. But I like it, possibly for some of the reasons they hate it. More about that in a moment.

Anyway, I ran across this three-part podcast about how the MBTI came to be, and I was immediately hooked. Really. Go listen to the first few minutes, and see if you don’t find it intriguing, even if you thought it was an excruciatingly stupid topic before.

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, early 1900s

Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, early 1900s

One of the first things you learn about the test is that it wasn’t whipped up in a psych lab by a couple of nerdy colleagues in white coats named Myers and Briggs. No, it’s named for the eccentric, uncredentialed woman who developed the test, over the protests of experts, based on the theories of her own equally-if-not-more eccentric mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. The mom, born in 1875, was unusually well-educated and only had one child who survived infancy — and then dedicated herself to discovering innovative ways to raised the perfect child. The daughter was named Isabel, and she married a man named Myers. She developed the personality-type inventory — based on her mother’s ideas about types — as a way of figuring out why she and her husband were so wildly different and incompatible. It saved her marriage, and gave rise to possibly the most widely-used personality test in the world — which she named for her mom and herself.

Why is the test so popular? Well, one thing you learn is that the system tells everybody, from INTPs like me to our irritating opposites, the ESFJs, that we’re all fine. None of our personality quirks are problematic. We just all have different strengths. The test offers us ways to understand each other and work together better, with an appreciation of the differences that helps us not throw lethal objects at each other. Everybody feels affirmed by what they learn. (I suspect this is sort of related to why LGBTQ people like to go to “Pride parades.” Everyone feels affirmed, and we all like that, right?)

That’s how it was offered to all of us editors at The State in the early 90s. We had a newsroom managers’ retreat — and back then, there were more editors with managerial responsibility than there are employees today at the whole newspaper. Anyway, an HR person out of Knight Ridder headquarters in Miami tested us all, and then released the results about everybody to the whole group.

People who look down on the MBTI tend to think it runs on the Barnum effect. Sort of like fortune cookies in a Chinese restaurant. It tells you something vague and nonjudgmental that is allegedly about you, and no matter what it says, you tend to nod and cry, “So true! How did they know?”

Well, I did feel the test pegged me, particularly on the first two categories, because I am about as introverted and as intuitive as people get. (On the other two, I’m closer to the middle.) But personally, I feel like I learned a great deal about my co-workers as well, and while it didn’t revolutionize the way we worked together, it helped explain some things. For instance, there were certain people who I knew I tended to irritate, sometimes a lot. And I wondered about it. It turns out they were all S types, who tended to think we intuitive types were, for instance, just making stuff up and trying to foist it on them without justification. I couldn’t change the way they were or the way I was, but at least I could better understand the cause of the friction. And maybe I could explain my conclusions more patiently — show more respect, for instance, for steps 2, 3, and 4 in making my wild leaps from 1 to 5. That is, if wanted to. (We extreme introverts are known for not caring very much about other people’s opinions of us, yet another irritating thing about us — especially when combined with the intuition thing.)


Oops — just realized I posted this at some point when I meant to save it as a draft. Oh, well. I was almost done. I wrote all of the above yesterday when I had only heard the first two installments, and today I heard the third. Anyway, I recommend it. It’s a good listen. Give it a try…

54 thoughts on “The story of how Myers-Briggs happened

  1. Bob Amundson

    Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who’s written about the shortcomings of the Myers-Briggs says, “There’s just no evidence behind it,. The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage.”

    Additionally, without getting too geeky, it has a validity problem; i.e., the same person taking the same test, but at different times, too often (statistically) has different results.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      But you see, the fact that you might come out differently at different times isn’t a drawback to me. Human characteristics are neither permanent nor absolute. (And personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see myself shift from P to J, and maybe even, depending on mood, from T to F — maybe.) But I’m pretty sure that I would never budge off of I or N. I’m just too extreme on both. And really, that result — and what MB had to say about it — was the thing that convinced me it had some validity in my case.

      Today I listened to the last installment of the podcast. It wasn’t as much fun as the first two, which were about telling the story of these two remarkable ladies. In the last installment, they thought they had to address the question of “What Is It Good For?” Which meant talking to people about reasons they hate or love the MBTI. (There don’t seem to be many people in the middle. One “expert” who acknowledged he could hardly say the name “Myers-Briggs” without screaming went on such a rant that when he was done, the interviewer made a joke on it, saying something like, Let’s wait a moment and make sure he’s got it out of his system…)

      And as I walked and listened to what critics were saying, I realized they had something in common: These are people who believe that psychology is actually a science, like chemistry or something. This tells me that, however many years they have studied, they still haven’t come to an understanding of what human beings are really like.

      You find that in a lot of specialized fields. People get so invested in something that they get really pedantic. I get upset at people using “impact” as a verb. These people get upset at personality indicators that meet certain “scientific” standards. We get silly.

      Oh, I should add that the defenders of MB — such as executives of the company that owns the rights to it — say that the critics are right when the test is used for inappropriate things — like deciding whether someone should get a job or not. But they’re good used in leadership development, to help leaders have a better way of thinking about people’s differences…

      1. Bob Amundson

        The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) is the gold standard. It is designed in such a way that it catches deception. Developed in 1943 (Minnesota – Amundson – where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average), it is both reliable and valid statistically.

        It would tell us all who (whom?) the REAL Brad Warthen is. I’ll share my results (guess what; I am normal in an unusual way – SHOCKING!) if you share yours.


        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I think I took the MMPI once. I don’t remember where or when or why, and I certainly don’t remember what the results were — assuming anyone told me. If I remembered, I’d share.

          But it reminds me of stories I have about personality testing from my newspaper career, especially the years with Knight Ridder. KR folks were BIG on personality tests. Maybe I’ll do that in a separate post, because I’ve GOTTA get some paying work done today…

        2. Bill

          DSM: A History of Psychiatry’s Bible
          Submitted by eea on Thu, 2021-08-26 4:00 PM
          The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association has been called “the most important book of the twentieth century.” While this evaluation is debatable, the history of the DSM is certainly one of the most interesting stories in recent times. When its first edition appeared in 1952, the manual was a slight, spiral-bound pamphlet that required just 32 pages to define all of its 106 diagnosis. The most recent edition, the DSM-5, was published in 2013; it is a massive 947-page tome that defines about 300 conditions in precise detail. The imposing nature of the extant DSM-5, however, disguises the intense uncertainty, factionalism, hostility, and political wrangling that has accompanied the development of each DSM since its third edition in 1980.

        3. Mark Stewart

          The MMPI-2 should definitely NOT be used to compare “normal” people. It was developed to evaluate pathological thinking – and as you mention, Bob, it also has a neat ability to identify those who try to lie, either to the test or to themselves. That is a unique ability, but beyond that use, it ought to be reserved for the single-digit percentage of the population that could be termed pathological.

          It’s use in divorce, child custody and other such “off-label” uses is a serious misuse of a valuable forensic analysis tool.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Well, most of the people who take the Myers-Briggs ARE abnormal. That is to say, the overwhelming majority are NOT INTPs, the poor souls…


            But seriously, folks…

            As I said before, I think that’s one of the things that makes people like the MBTI so much. Nobody’s abnormal, so everybody feels affirmed…

            1. Bob Amundson

              Of course you get it; the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–5) is a tool.

            2. Mark Stewart

              I’m not arguing that we don’t need a systematic, analytical way to identify (and effectively treat) what we call pathological behavior.

              I’m just saying that the medical model (which is the path the DSM follows) has run its course in mental health. The problem is that the issues faced in the field are not simply biology-based, they are also deeply experiential. Mental health is also richly complex, some call this the “co-morbidity” problem in the current approach. Parsing out one, controlling variable has proven to be both impossible and not efficacious.

              Personally, my guess is that the field is going to need to find a way to lay out (accurately and informatively) something more akin to an organic chemistry model; where a collection of different modules are connected and their mutual inter-operations are described. This would be multi-dimensional modeling, though yet something very different from the DSM-IV’s multi-axial depictions.

              Since the field itself is so fractured now, and the historical approach successes so tenuous, it seems likely, to me anyway, that any DSM-6 which is not just a publishing exercise will need to be a revolutionary re-imagining of the field. So it might be a while…

              1. Bob Amundson

                Which medical model? There are so many; our current model is clearly reactive, and IMHO, should be proactive. That takes science, predictive analysis. We have a Covid vaccine thanks to DARPA, agile, modeling, and human centric design. I certainly will not argue the MMPI is perfect, but it is an absolutely necessary “tool” to help sort our who is, or is not, an IMMEDIATE THREAT to themselves or others. And that is such a very high standard; rightfully so IMHO.

                Bill made the point this is about pathology; I agree to use it otherwise is a VERY SLIPPERY SLOPE.

          2. Bob Amundson

            I agree 100%; that’s why I mentioned privacy concerns regarding the MMPI. It works; MB not so much.

      2. James Edward Cross

        Um … but psychology is “the **science** of mind and behavior.” You might not agree with it, but all of the dictionary definition that I have looked at for psychology include it being a science. Those critics are making a valid point. It points out why the replicability crisis in the sciences, but especially in the social sciences, is so important. Some variation is expected but I think what Mr. Amundson is talking about is a wide variability in tests taken within a short period of time.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Yes, I realize it is called a “science.” I’m arguing with the validity of that label.

          It causes people to do a rather silly thing: Try to speak of human behavior as though it were something like physics or chemistry.

          It isn’t…

          You either have to avoid that label, or stretch the meaning of the word until it means something different. And if you stretch it that way, the meaning of “science” is lost.

          So instead of doing that, people who want to call it “science” try to pretend as though human behavior is as simple and quantifiable, say, as as the relationship between a circle’s diameter and its circumference. Which it is not. So it leads to people misunderstanding the nature of psychology.

          People ain’t pi…

        2. Bob Amundson

          Nailed it James; not all the time, but too often STATISTICALLY the same person takes the test twice within too short a period of time with inconsistent results.

          I AM concerned about Research Psychology – I understand the good, the bad and the ugly (approximately 67% bad or ugly). So much we thought was truth CANNOT BE REPLICATED – now go back and read the first paragraph. Validity and reliability.

      3. Carol Smith

        I can’t believe I missed this and that we are complete opposites. I am an ESFJ and get quite tired of myself to be truthful. The ENNEAGRAM has proven more helpful in navigating who I am and why I do the things I do. I am a TWO wing ONE, if you are interested.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author


          That’s a new one on me.

          As for getting tired of yourself, that must be because you’re an extravert. We extreme introverts never get tired of ourselves. Other people get tired of US, but hey, that’s their problem… 🙂

          Honestly, I don’t take this stuff too seriously (another thing that separates me from the experts who criticize it) — I just enjoy it. I like systems that describe the world, and people, in interesting ways that connect well with reality, and this is a particularly fun one.

          A few years ago, I wrote about that Pew system for categorizing people politically, and I had a lot of fun with that. I love anything that gets people away from the stupid left-right thing, a ridiculous attempt to make the universe into something binary, which alone should tell people how bogus it is.

          I mean this Pew system, not this later one, which I found didn’t work that well.

          The first test, the one I liked, put me in something Pew called the Faith and Family Left. I didn’t like the “left” part (and wouldn’t have liked “right” any better), but was OK with the “faith and family” designation. Pew described the category this way:

          The Faith and Family Left combine strong support for activist government with conservative attitudes on many social issues. They are very racially diverse – this is the only typology group that is “majority-minority.” The Faith and Family Left generally favor increased government aid for the poor even if it adds to the deficit and believe that government should do more to solve national problems. Most oppose same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana and most say religion and family are at the center of their lives.

          I joked, “So, Pew thinks I’m a black preacher or something.”

          But it wasn’t entirely a joke. In fact, it sort of predicted the way I’d be voting with the overwhelming majority in February 2020.

          As you know, I said from the start that the only person running for president who had any chance of having my enthusiastic support was Joe Biden. Well, the overwhelmingly black SC Democratic Primary electorate had the exact same idea. And I was pretty sure they did, which is why I was anxious to get through all those stupid preliminaries — Joe standing on debate stages with 20 or so unqualified contestants, then the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary — and get to South Carolina so that my fellow members of the Faith and Family Left could make Joe the nominee. Which is what had to happen, in order to save the country.

          And, God be thanked, that IS what happened.

          Anyway, I don’t think that Pew test or its categories were perfect, but it sure meant more to the future of the country and the world than MBTI…

    2. Mark Stewart

      No “science” may be as full of quackery as research psychology. The field still continues to believe that it can test human thinking and emotions for independent variables with both reliability and validity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      Systems thinking is the only way to view people; how they interact, grow and evolve. Consistency is no where to be found. I don’t particularly care for the Myers-Briggs approach, but at least it is based upon the idea of complex human interaction as the key to relational co-existence. And its non-pathologizing, another plus.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        You are dead right, Mark. “Relational co-existence,” indeed. No, it didn’t solve every problem I had dealing with my colleagues, but the process put a tiny bit of light on the interactions, which to me is an accomplishment. I still occasionally run into one of those “S” people, and to this day, whatever the subject at hand, I’m always careful what I say to him and how I say it. And I think it helps, at least a little.

        And you’re really, REALLY right with this:

        No “science” may be as full of quackery as research psychology. The field still continues to believe that it can test human thinking and emotions for independent variables with both reliability and validity. Nothing could be further from the truth….

        One of the problems is the eternal conflict between word people and number people (which the ladies probably should have included among their contrasting spectra). Science belongs to numbers people, and they see NO validity in anything that can’t be reduced to numbers. Fine. That’s their world; let them have it.

        But when you try to force human behavior and personality into that world, it doesn’t work.

        I’ve always thought Freud was on the right track with his literary allusions — the Oedipal Complex and so forth. Stories, similes, metaphors and analogy are far better tools for understanding human beings than numbers…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          An economist once showed me a study done by other economists trying to quantify (that ugly word!) supposed “bias” in journalism, assuming I’d be interested. Since I think the study’s authors were friends of his, I did my best to keep the top of my head from blowing off, but it really freaked me out.

          The study assigned values to the appearance of certain words reflecting certain points of view in news copy. This supposedly revealed a “bias” in the copy. You then could assign overall numbers to different journalists and publications that quantified their “bias.”

          Which is INSANE! You cover what’s going on! You use the words the people you are covering use, because you quote people accurately! If you’re unfortunate enough to be a working journalist after the emergence of Trumpism, your copy is going to contain idiotic non-words such as “covfefe,” and phrases such as “owning the libs.” That doesn’t indicate that you are a Trumpista!

          Yes, an analysis of words — words used in combination, in sentences, in paragraphs, in entire stories — can raise red flags. Even more so can other things — such as the sources a journalist chooses to speak to, or the stories an editor assigns, or the relative play given to those stories once completed — cause you to worry about someone’s views creeping into the coverage, especially as observed over time. But you can’t assign a number to it!

          We could talk about this problem all day…

          1. Bob Amundson

            Qualitative Analysis v Quantitively Analysis. You seem to believe there is a conflict between “science” and “the pen.” Smiling because my Editor Brad just caught me!

            I try to do both; as I attempt to figure out “is this correlational or is this causal.” Makes a BIG difference.

          2. Bob Amundson

            OK I go wonky. In so many ways Social Scientists must measure qualitative data quantitatively. A great example of that attempt is surveys – they try to gage “something” by ranking, which does allow a quantitative analysis. Bill where are you? I need music, not statistics. BUT – scales, rhythms, key changes, music. Math helps me understand music.

              1. Bob Amundson

                Figured you’d get it. I’m laughing because a young Plant was sexy; the older Plant not so much. That happened to me too!

                “I believe it’s all a state of mind.” You better open you eyes. I don’t care, I really don’t care. I really don’t know …”

        2. Brad Warthen Post author

          The thing about publishing what people say accurately reminds me of a story about Katharine Graham’s dictum. I can’t seem to find it, but it went something like this: Newspapers don’t publish the truth. We publish lies, because we publish what people tell us….

      2. Bob Amundson

        “The field still continues to believe that it can test human thinking and emotions for independent variables with both reliability and validity. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

        Where is your data Mark? No data is perfect, but let’s at least attempt to measure it. You do that all the time. Yes, we MUST judge how useful the data is.

          1. Bob Amundson

            The statement in quotes has zero supporting data. It is CLEARLY an opinion at this point. Science demands data that support hypotheses. It’s called the Scientific Method.

            1. Mark Stewart

              How does one provide data to support a null result? I don’t follow. The fact of the matter is that not more than a handful of interpersonal assessment instruments have any supportable evidence – and none has reached a general professional consensus of value. Assessing people absent their context and connections is all well and good. But to me, this strikes as a quite limited exercise.

              This is a debate of ideas, it’s insight we are pondering. Anyway, my opinions are always rooted in factual analysis; it’s the rare day that I’m irrational. For instance, my paragraph above following the one you quoted clearly stated that systems theory was the “better” psychological model. The data does not refute this statememt.

              1. Bob Amundson

                I have biases; so do you, and these biases affect how each individual may react in a situation. The best way to avoid bias is to acknowledge bias. Mark, there is a HUGE academic field discussing these issues. I am getting a bit old and tired, but I am still trying to influence change. Science is not magic – it is a process.

          2. Bob Amundson

            You analyze data all the time; I trust you make financial decisions on data. Actually, it turns out Economics is perhaps the worst Social Science. What happened to the concept of human’s acting rationally economically? Gone – we now understand humans are full of bias and therefore do not act rationally. To overcome that, we must be aware of our biases. Hope this helps.

  2. James Edward Cross

    We are going through a reorganization and as part of that we all took an online talent assessment developed by Gallup called CliftonStrengths. It was developed by educational psychologist Donald O. Clifton who was interested in measuring, as he put it, “what was right with people versus what’s wrong with people”. The test categorizes the results into 34 strengths themes; the profile is supposed to be unique to the person taking the assessment. It will be interesting to see how the information is used.

    1. Bob Amundson

      This type of testing concerns me a GREAT DEAL! Too many biases, and where does personality testing cross the right to privacy line. Above my pay grade. Maybe Bryan will discuss after Labor Day.

  3. bud

    Sometimes you MUST rely on math. Global warming, peak oil and especially population growth are all examples where intuitive analysis fails.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Yes, and math must be kept for the things where it is helpful. Say, calculating how much asphalt you’ll need to build a road from Columbia to Florence.

      Of course, whether building another road from Columbia to Florence is a good idea or not takes you beyond math. It’s politics, which necessarily uses math, but uses a lot of other tools as well.

      It’s funny — I’ve noticed before on the blog that I’ve given people the impression that I’m bad at math or something. I’m not. I’m no Descartes or John Nash, but based on testing (quantifiability!), I’m probably in the top percentile or two of mathematical ability and understanding. And as with most people, my math SAT score was considerably higher than my verbal.

      The thing is, I understand it well enough to see its limitations, and I respect it enough to argue that math shouldn’t be disrespected or abused by trying to apply it to things to which it is ill-suited.

      Which is what I’m trying to say here so often. But I get misunderstood. Maybe I would explain better if my verbal SAT score had been as high as my math… 🙂

      1. Bob Amundson

        Your craft became writing, not science, and you will always have that bias. I have the gift of being creative, but in a “scientific” way; It is called “situational awareness.” My short time in Naval Aviation is such a big part of that.

        In the MMPI, I am unusual because of having both strong male and female characteristics. Thanks Grandma and Ma for the creative part of me, thanks Dad for teaching me the value of hard work – I am cis, but I have to admit, at times I wish I weren’t. Figure that one out!

        1. Bob Amundson

          And is this story real or not? I was just ON THE PHONE with my Amish General Contractor as this Dwarf (actually a rigger fixing wind turbines) that stays at my park (Misty Mountains Park – Over the Hills Where the Spirits Fly – And EVERY Spirit has a Story) drives up and asks me if I want to buy his RV for $15,000 – I told him I want his Harley, which is not for sale.

          1. Bob Amundson

            I just bought a used dwarf RV for $1,500. I did not clearly understand this dwarf the first time.

            The mobile economy – FINALLY TIME.

      2. bud

        Of course you’d use math to decide where to build a road. Politics does get involved by it shouldn’t. Which is why we’re widening US 1 all the way to Batesburg-Leesville when there is very little traffic while other much more pressing needs go wanting. So your example actually proves my point.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    MBTI ad copy

    Hey, y’all — check out the big ad that now appears atop my blog. Sneaky Google Adsense.

    … actually, I guess there’s nothing sneaky about it. More like, brazen Google Adsense…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, as I said… I found it useful in terms of giving me insights into differences between me and people I’d been working with for years.

      For instance, I’d always had a certain kind of problem working with certain people. And then I found out those people were all in the S column, while I was an extreme N, which is the opposite of S.

      So a lightbulb went off, and I learned something about better communicating with those folks.

      If it was a matter of “confirming prejudices,” that’s a pretty startling coincidence.

      Also as to these “prejudices”… I’m pretty sure I had never thought about being particularly intuitive before. So how could it have been a PREjudice?

      Anyway, the point is, when I found out I was extremely that, and read the description of what that meant, I suddenly understood why my S friends sometimes had a problem with me…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        But while I wasn’t really aware (to the best of my memory) of the “S to N” spectrum, I had always known I was introverted. I knew what that meant. So if you want to call THAT a prejudice, you’re on more solid ground.

        Of course, if you know me well and you read the MB description of that type, I suspect you’d say, “Yeah, that’s Brad.”

        Meanwhile, the other two types in my INTP designation are fuzzier. And sure enough, I’m closer to the midpoint on both the “F to T” and “J to P” spectra…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          All of that said, now I’ll do something that reflects the way I find these things to be fun… and argue your side of the point.

          Here’s evidence that it IS something related to “confirming prejudices” — not exactly that, but something related to that.

          Before I was told I was an INTP, I didn’t know what and INTP was, so I couldn’t yearn to be one.

          But once I DID learn about it, and read about the other things I could have been, I was very glad to be an INTP. I started to think of myself as an INTP, and congratulate myself on being one. I was particularly glad that I was such an extreme I and N, and felt regret that I was only slightly a T and a P.

          So while I may not have had a PREjudice toward it, maybe I had a POSTjudice (did I just make up a word?) in that direction, and I was being confirmed in THAT.

          But here’s where it gets really weird: How did the ladies who designed MBTI know that ol’ Brad Warthen would love to think of himself as an INTP? They couldn’t have. So there must be something in the test that identified my predilections. If it was designed to confirm my self-concept, it had to accurately discern what my self-concept was.

          And doesn’t that indicate something very perceptive about the test?

          Of course, you may argue that whatever it said I was, I would think that was cool. That’s sort of what the Barnum effect theory would hold.

          I can believe a lot of things, but I can’t believe that. I’m pretty sure that if it had said, for instance, that I’m an extravert and so forth, I’d have dismissed the whole test as pretty stupid. No, I think it’s fairly certain that it does a good job of one of two things: Either detecting accurately what I am like, or detecting just as accurately what I want to THINK I’m like. Either way, I’m rather impressed…

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