Spoiler alert: Psych pros think there are much better ways to measure your personality. Here’s why the Myers-Briggs test falls short.
You may not have heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), but there’s a good chance you took this personality test in college or at your workplace. It’s given by organizations in 115 countries—including 88 percent of Fortune 500 companies, at least according to the Myers-Briggs Company.
Why is big business so bullish on this personality test? Because it helps with team-building and training. Plus, employees who better understand one another’s temperaments collaborate and communicate better. University career centers use it to give students insight into potential career paths. And sometimes people take it on their own to discover what makes them tick. Some people even list a Myers-Briggs type on their dating profile, in hopes they can make a better love match.
But while it’s popular among businesses, schools, government agencies, and relationship seekers, many academics think it’s cute and fun but not very reliable. “I do not think it can even be considered a personality test,” says Robin MacFarlane, PhD, a clinical psychologist in New York City. “It can be used as a tool to get people to think about themselves in different ways that they’ve not yet considered before: ‘Hey, I might be a little bit analytical after all!’ The problem comes about when people believe that the test results offer meaning beyond just food for thought.” Here is what you should know about the MBTI, according to several experts.
The theory behind the Myers-Briggs test
The mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers came up with the MBTI in the 1940s. They based the test on Carl Jung’s theories of personality types—that people were extroverts or introverts, say, or more or less analytically minded—aiming to made his work more understandable and accessible to people. Their goal: classify people according to personality types as a way to explain seemingly random human behaviour. If you know your type, you’re able to understand yourself and those around you a lot better. So if you know you’re an extrovert, you can learn your strengths and use them.
The Myers-Briggs test
Usually, you take the test through an MBTI-certified official, either online or in real life. There are free versions of MBTI-like tests, but the real thing will cost you (or your workplace).
You’ll answer 90 questions that cover four main areas:
- Whether you focus inward or outward (introvert vs. extrovert)
- How you pick up information (sensing vs. intuiting)
- How you make decisions (thinking vs. feeling)
- How you organize the world around you (judging vs. perceiving)
What the Myers-Briggs letters mean
Based on your answers, you’re assigned a four-letter block that combines the letters E (extrovert) or I (introvert), N (intuition) or S (senses), F (feeling) or T (thinking), J (judging) or P (perceiving) for a total of 16 different personality types. For instance, an ESFP is an extroverted people-person who learns by relying on their five senses; makes value-based, compassionate decisions; and is seen as adaptable and open to learning new things.
An INTJ, on the other hand, is an introvert who recharges best when alone; learns by recognizing patterns and thinking through problems; lists pros and cons when trying to decide things (and relies on Spock-like logic); and organizes their environment by making to-do lists and ticking off items in an orderly, planned way.
MBTI isn’t based on hard science
Experts are leery of the test’s origins. Like Sigmund Freud, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung was one of the pioneers of psychology and theories of personality. “Carl Jung was an influential psychiatrist, but these were not empirical, research-based theories,” says Thomas Plante, PhD, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. And Myers and Briggs weren’t trained in test development either. “This was before a more empirically based scientific approach to personality and personality testing was available, so it’s based on a faulty model that’s never been adequately validated,” he says.
Also, many psychologists avoid sticking to one particular theory of personality when administering tests. “When I’m structuring something, I look at the domains of emotional, social, and cognitive functioning,” says Carly Claney, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle who has done many personality assessments. That can be helpful for getting a snapshot for how a person behaves or when arriving at a diagnosis. It can also provide answers for why you keep repeating behaviours that you don’t want to repeat or why you act in a particular way with other people.
(Related: Why You Should Reframe Your Goals)
MBTI isn’t that reliable
Many psychologists say reliability in testing is key: Are you going to get the same results each time you take it? “People change. So, sure, you can take any assessment one time, and then in a year, the measure may be different,” says Claney. “But I think with Myers-Briggs, the same person trying to get the same answer might not do that. The reliability is shot in that way.”
Plante agrees. “If you complete the questionnaire today, and then you complete it three or four weeks from now, you can get quite different results,” he says, adding that research indicates that may be true half the time people take the test. “And so that is really a question of reliability.”
College students may be the exception, according to researchers from the University of Oklahoma. After looking at the evidence, they concluded the test might produce more reliable results for this particular group.
It’s simplistic compared with other tests
Plante likens science-based personality tests to “psychological X-rays.” The ones used by many psychologists, like the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory or the 16pf, measure not only personality but what experts call psychological functioning—whether you have depression, anxiety, Type A behaviour, or low self-esteem. These tests have more than 100 questions in seemingly random order, so you don’t know how your answers will fit together until you see the results.
Plante is an expert at testing seminary students on behalf of religious organizations like the Catholic and Episcopalian churches. “This isn’t used to determine whether somebody shouldn’t be a cleric but rather to see if there’s any particular risk factors that people need to know about,” he says. If he’s using the 16pf, he’s looking for a certain kind of personality profile. “A good example is whether you’re more deferential to authority or whether you tend to be more independently minded,” he says. “Well, this matters in, let’s say, a Catholic or Episcopal or Orthodox church because you have a vow of obedience to your local bishop.”
(Related: The Science and Benefits of Feeling Happy)
The MBTI probably can’t stand up in court
For roughly $ 50, you can take the Myers-Briggs test online (if you’re over 16). The personality tests that licensed psychologists give you aren’t generally available to the public, says MacFarlane, who was a supervisor for psychological assessment at Columbia University’s clinical psychology program. “Empirically valid personality tests have accumulated decades of evidence supporting their reliability and validity through studies that are published in peer-reviewed journals,” she says.
Tests with data backed by research meet the “Daubert standard,” which means they can be admitted in a court as evidence. The MBTI couldn’t. The difference between science-backed tests and the MBTI is the “quality of the research, the kinds of theory that was behind the development of those tests, the test construction methods, and the nuance,” says Plante. “That’s one of the reasons why I often say that the Myers-Briggs is like an over-the-counter medicine, whereas these tests are like prescription medicine.”
Take results with a grain of salt
So are these experts saying you shouldn’t take the MBTI at all? No, but just don’t put too much weight on the results. People can “think about it in the context of what they already know about themselves,” MacFarlane says. “But they should not be worried if that result seems negative to them, and they also should never allow anyone in authority to make judgments about them based on this test result.”
Where to go for testing
If you want to know how your personality and temperament are affecting your choices in life, talk to a therapist or counsellor. “Most of the time, what they need is not personality testing per se but just someone with whom they can talk things over,” MacFarlane says.
Already in therapy? Then maybe your therapist can do a test or refer you to a licensed and specially trained psychologist who can, says Claney. “People who specialize in psychological testing are the ones who can do an assessment like this, who can really tailor it to what the questions are—either that the client or that the therapist has—and then produce an interpretation that I hope would be really useful for the therapy, either because you clarify the diagnostic picture or you are recommending a particular type of treatment,” she says. For instance, if testing found you have borderline personality disorder, your therapist could refer you to a DBT program. The bottom line: Have some fun with your four-block result, but if you want to get serious, go to the pros.