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Selam G. '18

Aug 23, 2017

A Person Studying Persons…

Posted in: Miscellaneous

This post began with my long-standing hatred of Myers-Briggs tests (especially as they appear in the Tumblr studyblr community). I had long ago lodged “MBTI” (the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) into a closet in my head for things I don’t pay attention to, until I recently talked to a few friends who all told me that over the summer they’d been going through periods of introspection, helped in part by taking a Myers-Briggs personality test. Knowing them to be brilliant, hard-working MIT students, I thought to reconsider my initial hatred of the MBTI. Could there be any merit to it?

I spent some time doing some thinking and was talking to my significant other, Javier W., who’s currently a researcher at an MIT lab. I learned through him that even there, where peer-reviewed research reigns supreme, grad students and researchers would casually share their Myers-Briggs types (though, he did stress that this was really just for fun).

Curious, I then took a Myers-Briggs test myself, researched the “science” behind it (tl;dr: there is none) and was inspired to take and research a few other tests besides.

 

Debunking Myers-Briggs

My result for taking the MBTI was “ESFJ”. I am apparently “The Consul” (according to 16personalities.com).

Here is an excerpt from a description of my “personality”, which I vehemently disagreed with:

In high school, ESFJs are the cheerleaders and the quarterbacks, setting the tone, taking the spotlight...later in life, ESFJs continue to enjoy supporting their friends and loved ones, organizing social gatherings and doing their best to make sure everyone is happy. Discussing scientific theories or debating European politics isn’t likely to capture ESFJs’ interest for too long. ESFJs are more concerned with fashion and their appearance, their social status and the standings of other people. Practical matters and gossip are their bread and butter...

Ask anyone I know, especially in high school, and this is probably the complete opposite of me as a person. First, no, I wasn’t popular in high school. I was mostly busy studying; I would make excuses to not hang out with people; I was a stereotypical nerd. Second, all I do every single day is discuss scientific theories, listen to the NPR Politics Podcast, and freak out over Brexit. The only grain of similarity I could get from this was that I definitely enjoy making others happy, whether through teaching, organizing events, or just listening to a friend on a hard day. I would say that, compared to most people I know, I’m more likely to go out of my way to perform these types of kindnesses. This is not necessarily all good, as it has also led to “unable to say no” sorts of situations, but I think I’ve gotten better at that.

Then, I researched the “theory” behind MBTI. Fellow blogger Erick P. ‘17 kindly sent me this youtube video, which just about sums it up:

 

 

In short, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was created by two women, Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs, based on personality theories by Carl Jung. Science in Jung’s time (the 1920’s) was not very rigorous or methodical, so Jung literally just made up his theories based on his own experience. Myers and Briggs, who created the MBTI based on his made-up theories, were just two writers, with zero psychology training. This article does a good job of digging further into the details of how faulty the actual methods are. So, the Myers-Briggs test is, in fact, not scientific at all.

Even disregarding its origins and looking at the test itself, Myers-Briggs is terrible for what it aims to really do. Primarily, it ignores that people can like or be more than one thing for most traits. Anyone can, in theory, like “fashion or their appearance”, and also like “discussing scientific theories or debating European politics”. I can be very social and still enjoy building stuff by myself in a lab all day. MBTI puts these qualities on a spectrum (such as “thinking vs. feeling”), when actually, they’re just completely independent variables. Furthermore, even if these traits were not independent, it’s incorrect to assume that someone who is 51% “thinking” is much more of a thinker than someone who is 49% “thinking” with such a short questionnaire. Most people are in the middle of the bell curve for most “traits”, and so most people are actually in-between, and quite versatile--even data collected from the test itself shows this.

 

BEWARE OF FAKE NEWS SCIENCE!

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a fun test, especially if it simply becomes a replacement for “so what’s your sign?” for neuroscientists, or provokes a little introspection. But the danger of MBTI is that it is, unfortunately, actually used in some professional contexts. There is a company that owns and monetizes this test and makes $20 million a year, in part by selling products that help HR departments manage people. I definitely would never want someone assigning my roles or deciding whether to hire me based on supposedly being an “ESFJ”. This is where the Myers-Briggs test gets dangerous in its influence, and why I felt the need to publicly debunk its “science”.

 

So then what?

If the Myers Briggs test is fake science and not a good personality test, then what can you use to self-evaluate, if anything? After a lot more puttering around the internet, I came to the conclusion that virtually all personality tests are far from perfect, and, more obviously, that there is still a missing bridge between neuroscience and psychology. The relationship between physical anatomy, environmental factors, and behavior is still very unknown and difficult to understand.

 

Five Factor Model

A more rigorously reviewed personality test, the “Big 5” personality test, is supposed to be better science, although it’s definitely far from perfect. This “five factor model” was developed by several independent sets of researchers. Since this is a more obscure test, I’ll explain the model.

According to the Big 5 or Five Factor Model, there are five aspects of personality that exist on a spectrum: Openness to experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The acronym “OCEAN” is often used for the five traits. These traits were derived based on factor analysis (a statistical method) of personality data--these 5 traits emerged out of the statistical analysis of that data.

I took the Big 5 test (I like this one, they’re all the same test but this web interface is more user-friendly) and my results were the following:

  • Openness- high (95%)
  • Conscientiousness - high (98%)
  • Extraverted - high (80%)
  • Agreeableness - high (100%)
  • Neuroticism - moderate (43%)

By the Big 5 model, I’m supposedly more open, more conscientiousness, more extroverted, and much more agreeable than most people. I’m about average in neuroticism--in other words, I don’t overreact but I’m also not particularly calm in times of stress, similar to most people.

This did feel like a more accurate description of myself, but at the same time, it’s also much more general. I personally find that appealing; I feel like the more mild guidance evokes real introspection. You have to think about how these “traits” map to your life and how you act, and even whether you should try to change some behaviors. I prefer that a lot more to other people (or pre-written descriptions) telling me about myself.

As for the science, there are still a lot of critiques on the Big 5 or five-factor model. One that is quite similar to issues with MBTI is again ignoring humans’ multifaceted nature, especially with regard to extraversion. Here is a more in-depth critique, which also discusses how Big 5 can be too shallow: by being a data-only approach, it can ignore other tested theories of human behavior. Big 5 provides some information, but it is definitely not the whole picture.

All of that said, the Big 5 test, unlike Myers-Briggs, is more open about being flawed and more transparent about its methods, as real science is supposed to be. It was also created from an actual statistical analysis of actual data, compared to Myers, Briggs, and Jung making stuff up. If anything, what I learned from the Big 5 test is that psychology is difficult, and as Chris Peterson said to me, “it’s a lot of people trying to create a useful model of a hard thing”.

 

The Zodiac

Since MBTI is comparable (in terms of accuracy) to horoscopes anyway, why not just look to horoscopes for guidance? If anything, horoscopes are actually less dangerous than the Myers-Briggs test--at least companies do not look to them for management guidance. And they’re more fun!

I have no idea how the heck they got two fish out of these dots connected with lines. Like what??

Western astrology is “based on a greek tradition, generally regarded as pseudoscientific and has consistently failed objective tests” (Wikipedia). Just like the Myers-Briggs test!

Here’s a random astrology site I used, I have no idea what the actual Hellenistic teachings are or whatever so its validity (is that word even applicable now) is definitely questionable.

In Western astrology I am a Pisces, which I found to actually describe me better than the
MBTI’s “ESFJ” description. From the site above, Pisces are “never judgemental and always forgiving”, and selfless, “always willing to help others, without hoping to get anything back.” I feel like this pretty accurately describes me, except for Pisces having “artistic talent”. I mean, I enjoy visually pleasing things, and good music, but I never found myself to be that artistic. And I would not describe myself as timid (though to be fair, I was as a child).

In Chinese astrology, I am the year of the rat. Which is super general, because it would imply that everyone else born between February 19th, 1996 and February 6th, 1997 is like me. Having gone through 12+ years of school with mostly these people, I could definitely disagree with that. As for the description itself, though, it’s kind of true too: ambitious and sociable. Even the stated health risks were kind of true, I have mild eczema and the Chinese zodiac said I would suffer from skin conditions!

 

The point of all this

Back to my friends, some people looking for some introspection and who found it via MBTI. Taking the test and considering the questions does, admittedly, force you to think about your daily behaviors, and I do think that being more introspective and taking time to understand yourself is great for personal development. The real issue with Myers-Briggs is how many people in positions of power regard it as “real science” when it is truly, literally about as accurate as a horoscope.

I’m currently at home and was talking to a family member about writing this blog post. To my disbelief and surprise, even they had to take a Myers-Briggs test at their workplace! With this more deeply personal anecdote, I felt more motivated than ever to post this publicly--in the hope that just a few more people will realize that this is not a test to be used in any sort of professional evaluation of others.

What I found while looking at more reputable personality tests and studies like Big 5 is that it’s hard to be a person studying personalities--psychology, sociology, anthropology, and many other fields that study behavior are much harder to quantify, and the results tend to be murkier.

Finally, I found that the issue with many of these “personality tests” is a human failure that I am intimately familiar with: the failure to accept that people can be more than one thing. I so strongly, instinctively resisted Myers-Briggs even before I knew more about it because I thought that if a ‘scientific’ personality test sounded like the people who ask me, “so, are you more Chinese or more Ethiopian?” it must be bullshit.

But this all should empower more than disappoint you! Go forth and be whatever you want. There’s no right answer, and while that’s less convenient, it means the possibilities are endless! As Dumbledore says, “it is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

And here is a fun, Hogwarts house-sorting personality test :)

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