The personality test that conned the world

8 September 2018 9:00 AM

An unusual relationship: Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel

The other day in the Guardian’s Blind Date column, two participants, or victims, finished off an account of their frightful encounter by dismissing any chance of a future relationship: ‘I’m sure two ENFPs might wear each other out.’ The acronym is perhaps not familiar to everyone, but that, coming from a couple of young people steeped in human resources gibberish, would have been the point. The woman involved was showing off her Myers-Briggs personality type.

Myers-Briggs is an American analysis of personality first used in the 1940s, which gained huge success in the 1950s. It was a decade in which, as Merve Emre poetically says, ‘the stench of political paranoia was accented by cheap gasoline and apple pie’. The test asks its applicants a number of questions about their general preferences in life. ‘Do you (a) very much enjoy stopping at soda fountains; or (b) usually prefer to use your money for other things?’was one rather culturally specific inquiry. The answers to the questions allow the analyst to plot the subject along one of four axes: Introvert or Extravert (the irregular spelling indicates a supposedly technical meaning); Sensing (using basic information) or Intuition (interpreting); Thinking (logic and consistency) or Feeling (relating to people and particular circumstances); Judging (making decisions) or Perceiving (staying open to new options). The combinations of these eight possibilities create a total of 16 character types into which, in theory, the whole human race falls.

Of course, by now, it is merely a parlour game; I just did it and was pleased to discover that I’m an ENTP. Human civilisation has, from time to time, entertained itself by sorting human beings into separate innate character types. Much of the pleasure of this seems to come from analysing external indicators which individuals will be quite unaware of. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus wrote a set of characters which have been periodically imitated ever since, letting us know that a boor will wear a cloak that is too short, and then sit down in it.

From time to time some means of interpreting character from externals will seize the popular mood. The Swiss writer Kaspar Lavater in the 18th century sought to categorise characters by their facial peculiarities, a belief that you still find here and there. A character in an Elizabeth Taylor novel states very firmly that a fold of flesh under the eyes indicates sensuality; and who among us has never been tempted to think of a face as saintly, criminal or miserly? In the 19th century, a mania for reading characters from their handwriting emerged. It’s not that any of these are exactly wrong, any more than it’s wrong for a novelist to read character from home décor or from a choice of clothes. But they are incomplete in various degrees, and liable to err in individual cases to a spectacular extent.


They were a mother and daughter, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. The story behind the Briggs-Myers tests proves an interesting one, and is told with considerable relish, vim and some savage comedy by Emre. Her previous book is Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, which puts her on the right side of all sorts of arguments. Setting out on her research, she was assured by the university that holds the Myers papers that permission would never be granted. ‘The staff is very invested in protecting Isabel’s image,’ she was warned. Niall Ferguson only had to undertake a handwriting analysis before he was allowed to write the biography of the graphological obsessive Siegmund Warburg. Emre had to go on a $2,000 Myers-Briggs accreditation session. The experience, I suspect, contributed to the fizz of the final product.

Katharine Briggs was an intelligent woman, over-invested in her daughter’s scholastic achievements; Isabel was a very recognisable American type, the over-achiever who passes every exam with flying colours and starts spouting total nonsense once there are no further lecture notes to take. The unusual tone of their relationship is captured by Katharine writing to her new son-in-law (a communist) on their wedding day, urging him to make love to Isabel that very evening ‘on the overnight train they would take from Washington DC to Memphis, Tennessee’. With Isabel’s education, ‘once the hope of the world’, now ‘an old, dead project’, Katharine sank into aimless depression. What turned up was Carl Jung’s notoriously insane book Psychological Types, with exactly the alternative possibilities that were going to underlie the test.

In the richly entertaining story that follows, it’s worth remembering that neither Katharine nor Isabel had the slightest psychiatric training, and hardly any interest in empirical truth. Even Jung was alarmed when Katharine abducted a disturbed 15-year-old girl and started ‘treating’ her. Isabel’s qualifications consisted in having written two terrible thrillers, the second of which, Give Me Death, is about a large white American family, members of which start committing suicide after their wedding night, having discovered they have ‘Negro blood’. Katharine started up a study group with some ladies of the neighbourhood, cataloguing their dreams on index cards (‘Phallus’, ‘Eczema’, ‘Nakedness’, ‘Garage’).

Their genius, if that is the word, was to realise that Jung’s character alternatives could be successfully sold to American business enterprises, to allow them to filter out unsuitable applicants in the job market. The Myers-Briggs categories have been a pillar of half-witted human resources executives’ presentations ever since, who I suppose have to justify their existence somehow through the magic of PowerPoint.

Systematic analysis of personality types is always funny in retrospect. Both Briggs and Myers emerge as slick saleswomen for themselves. ‘Although [Isabel]’s career as a writer of mystery novels had ended with little fanfare after Give Me Death, she told Edward N. Hay that one mystery had continued to preoccupy her: the problem of the intelligent division of labour.’ The Myers-Briggs categories continued to run amok through American society for decades. The Home Life Insurance Company in New York used it both to choose among job applicants and to calculate whether a life insurance customer should pay a larger premium on his insurance, since certain types were supposed to exhibit risk-taking behaviour.

A small industry rose up explaining how you could game the questionnaire. Isabel, convinced that it was impossible to fake a response, went on to encourage its use to found the American system of examination for further education, the SATs. By now, a whole raft of money-making instruments of personality assessment tests had risen up: ‘Harrison Gough’s California Psychological Inventory…Sylvan Tomkin’s Picture Assessment Test…which Tomkins later disavowed as pure nonsense; and the Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey.’ Isabel was hanging round, bossing the drones of the Educational Testing Service, who habitually referred to her as ‘that horrible woman’. By the 1960s, she was living on a self-invented mixture of mashed-up Hershey bars dissolved in milk and brewer’s yeast.

Her test lives on, though it has been discredited by academic research and empirical analysis. Years ago, Theodor Adorno argued in The Authoritarian Personality that the search for unchangeable personality types was precisely what made Fascism possible. The idea that we are more what we are born as than what we attempt, however incompletely, to turn ourselves into, is one that any thinking person will reject. This is a very funny book, and properly angry about the stupidity of the entire exercise.