“I think science may lack the data the soul possesses.”
—Katharine Cook Briggs
“If men came like shoes, with the most vital data as to size and style marked outside the box, many a cramping misfit could be avoided.”
—Isabel Briggs Myers
In the last years of the nineteenth century, Katharine Cook Briggs did something remarkable with her living room. A Michigan-born, college-educated mother and homemaker, she was preternaturally energetic, full of ideas, and having a hard time finding an outlet for her learning. After losing two sons in infancy, she’d decided that she had found her calling, a place to put everything she had, and that place was her daughter, Isabel, born in 1897. Before Isabel’s first birthday, Briggs had patented what today would be called a “parenting style,” naming it “obedience curiosity training,” homing in on a place where, in the Victorian age, the mind of an educated woman could be useful to the world at large. In the burgeoning study of personality in that era, writes Merve Emre, author of the highly engrossing The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, many “theories were formulated not by men of science but women of childbearing age.” Briggs’s idea was to build a child’s character according to what she was then calling his or her “specialization,” meaning personality type. By the age of five, Isabel was reading The Pilgrim’s Progress aloud to neighbours. She was turning out to be such a success that Katharine Briggs began to write articles on her method in magazines such as Ladies’ Home Journal. Emboldened, she also started studiously analyzing people’s dreams, and taking in children for obedience-curiosity training, Emre’s account reveals. It was then that Briggs re-envisioned the uses of the living room of her comfortable suburban home, renaming the salon, fantastically, a “cosmic laboratory of baby training.”
One hundred and twenty years later, Briggs’s cosmic baby lab can be seen as ground zero for what can be called the industry of personality—an industry centred by, and to a certain extent hatched from, the product that Katharine and Isabel Briggs would collectively spend eighty years crafting, recrafting, pushing, massaging, massaging again, advocating, and defending. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a forced-choice survey now taken by more than two million people a year. The test, which could be considered part of contemporary pop culture, probably rings a bell even for readers who know nothing of its uses or the controversies surrounding its validity. Also very possible is that you yourself have taken it, seeing as it is regularly administered by everyone from school registrars and career counsellors to marriage therapists, life coaches, human resources directors, data scientists, and corporate headhunters. Correctional facilities use it. The U.S. military uses it. So does the CIA. Although it has been long revealed as scientifically quacky, there isn’t a Fortune 500 company or major American university that hasn’t at some point made a few people or just about everyone take the Myers-Briggs. According to the Financial Times, the business takes in US$20 million in annual revenue.
If there could be such thing as a charismatic test, a test which is itself charismatic, then this is it. The reach of the MBTI is actually much more impressive than its earnings, especially these days, when the countless knockoffs and descendants of the Myers-Briggs have spread rash-like across the internet, where knowing who you are can get lost in digital translation, and character dies a billion deaths per second by way of emoji. Online, individuality is both needed and craved, but not so much that things become complicated for one’s personal branding. A few years ago, companies such as Nike and Levi’s began shilling “custom” products. Here were your Air Force 1s, but you could make the sole black and the swoosh gold and the laces red and call it your own special creation. The MBTI appeals to the same desire to be different by way of sameness, categorizing all humanity into sixteen different types, all with their own four-letter code cast from the MBTI’s four either-or binaries, the test’s sacred yin-yangs: are you introvert or extrovert, sensing—meaning relying on your senses—or intuitive, thinking or feeling, judging or perceiving? (I took a contraband test and came out “INFJ,” reportedly just like Oprah, Adam Sandler, and, apparently, the Prophet Isaiah.)
In other words, if you are one of the approximately twenty percent of internet users currently making use of a dating app, you could call yourself a Scorpio or a Harry Potter fangirl or an ultimate Frisbee player, or somebody who likes fine Chinese teas and long autumn walks. Or you could just say you are an ENTJ or an ISFP, and open the floodgates to the other millions of people who have found a sense of place in the category, a uniqueness that is never lonely.
In reading Emre’s book I couldn’t help but remember and remember again a book I read a handful of years ago that seemed to change my life. At the time, there were a lot of books like it: TED Talk-born or TED Talk-destined non-fiction titles with a cleverly counterintuitive, quasi-scientific spin on an aspect of human experience more usually thought of as undesirable. There were books about the succor of loneliness, the wisdom of psychopathy, the boon of failure, the gift of boredom, and how a just-okay, quite-unexciting marriage might be the best kind of marriage. Amid this barrage of feel-good reversals came Susan Cain’s Quiet, three hundred-odd pages of pop psychology exploring the introverted personality type and the “power of introverts.” I opened it, expecting to be annoyed, and instead got a simultaneous upwelling of joy and horror when I discovered a category into which I fit, and which a lifetime of expensive shrinks and self-flagellation had never brought me to directly. It felt like the dumbest kind of epiphany, as most big personal epiphanies do. I suddenly had an explanation for why I’ve always spent ten times as long getting ready for life’s parties as actually being at life’s parties. The book’s position on the New York Times best-seller lists for three years suggests I was not the only one. Why did it feel so good, if not vindicating, to have that single word: introvert? Was it a self-diagnosis that explained the mystery symptoms? The comfort of a chorus of others like us, smoking alone outside all the world’s parties?
In her book Emre turns over a related set of queries, asking what the rise of the MBTI, and its buttressing ideas of type binaries and solid personality profiles, says about our society. On one hand, the Myers-Briggs can be seen as a shortcut to self-understanding, on the other a tool for herd control. Ours is an era where the intelligentsia seems set on debunking standardized tests and suspicious of the idea of IQ. It is also an era enamoured with personality over that dustier nugget, character. Institutionally, individually, we seem addicted to the idea of diagnosing ourselves. But when a man on a message board describes himself as “an inveterate INTJ,” when a tech company human resources director puts out a job posting that states “hoping many ENs will apply,” when someone joins an ESFP group on Meetup.com, are we looking at a shorthand of societal success or failure?
If a single big bang moment for the MBTI needed to be teased out, it could very well be when Katharine Briggs discovered the work of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, in the 1920s. Briggs became a rabid fan, Emre writes, regularly sending long letters to Jung, and on several occasions receiving somewhat clipped responses from Zurich in return. Jung’s book, Psychological Types, introduced many of the type pairs—“extravert” and “introvert” (words Jung coined), intuitive and sensing, and thinking and feeling—that Katharine would put to work in her own questionnaires, which she’d begun crafting at her kitchen table, ideas she tested in articles published in The New Republic, some of which included DIY instructions for understanding your own personality.
Emre is a gifted storyteller and a clever wordsmith, and this hundred-and-twenty-year history of the Myers-Briggs—a test so many have taken, likely assuming it was created by two male pencil-heads, maybe midcentury psychiatrists or psychometrists, perhaps one Dr. Myers and one Mr. Briggs—is a generous playing field for a scholar with her unusual literary gifts, a weird and wonderful cultural yarn that’s been hiding just out of plain sight for years.
As Emre tells it, Katharine Briggs was actually working at the crossroads of a few important cultural flows. The 1930s and ’40s were when tests like the SAT and the first major American IQ tests began being published. There was also an uptick in formal personality tests (with heavy-duty names like the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, the Thurstone Personality Schedule, and the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory), often used to identify “neurotic or otherwise abnormal” personalities in the workplace or in institutional settings.
This was also a seminal era for self-help. In 1936, former farm boy and travelling salesman Dale Carnegie wrote the genre-defining best-seller How to Win Friends and Influence People. Emre writes:
Now books with commanding titles like Wake Up and Live! (1936), Think and Grow Rich (1937) and How Never to Be Tired (1944)…hooked readers with the explicit promise that attending to the self could be useful—that it could make you richer and happier, more attractive, more productive, and more popular, but only if you were willing to change who you were.
Briggs’s genius was to apply some of the inspirational yes-you-can-ism of the burgeoning industry of self-help to the pointdexter stuff of personality assessment, softening the edges of the personality test so that it could not just point out the negative, but bring every type to their best self and destiny. It was a generous, even maternal idea. That Briggs also wrote a homoerotically charged novella about Jung called The Man from Zurich (unpublished; editors were appalled) and many terrible poems about her hero, like this one, called “Hail Dr. Jung!” and set to a tune from “Song of the Vagabond,” only makes me admire her more (and also her biographer, who had enough funny bone to print the thing in full):
Signs and symbols reading
Jung gives proof exceeding
He knows all humanity
Understands old Adam,
Not to mention Madam,
Wise old owl, so wise is he
Upward, upward, consciousness will come.
Upward, upward, from primal scum.
Is our destination
Hoch, Heil, Hail to Dr. Jung!
Speaking of heil. By the war years, the study of personality was thought to contain so much promise and power, it was put to work by the U.S. government against the Nazis. Emre takes us out of Katharine’s intellectual homestead of cosmic babies and Jungian dream analysis, and into the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the bureau precursor to the CIA. The OSS worked with Henry Murray, director of the Harvard Psychological Clinic and friend of Carl Jung, to create the 1943 report that would be titled “Analysis of the Personality of Adolph [sic] Hitler” for the Allied Command. The idea was to build a strategy of character assassination that would take down the man Murray noted as “awkward” and “effeminate,” “hollow-chested,” and with a “ladylike walk.” Murray pulled up everything he could find on Hitler, including, writes Emre, a propensity for “asking his sexual partners to squat over him and, on his command, let loose a strong stream of urine into his mouth and over his chest.” The report’s prescriptions of fake-news blasts or pushing Hitler toward some truly barmy forms of suicide (some involving dynamite) never came to pass. But lots of its language seems prescient today, especially when considering another “soft-bodied” world leader rumoured to incorporate urine in his sexual practice. As Murray wrote, “He is the incarnation of the crowd’s unspoken needs and cravings. And in this sense, he has been created, and to a large extent invented, by the people of Germany.”
By this time Katharine’s daughter, Isabel—now Isabel Myers—had taken a job at the Philadelphia “personality consultants” firm Edward N. Hay and Associates. She was forty-four, and at first offered her services for free, in order to learn the ropes of “testing and typing.” Hay was a kind of merchant of people sorting, providing clients like General Electric with a large array of tests they could purchase: “A Test for Stenographic Skill” for secretaries, “The Sales Situation Test” for salespeople, and for the higher ups, “The Executive Personality Evaluation.” Katharine was put to work validating the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale, a test that based its five personality types—the best being “normal worker”; the others ranged from “manic depressive” to “epileptic” (meaning an OCD type, according to Emre)—on a breathtakingly random range of source material: from Ludwig Binswanger’s writings on melancholia to Dostoevsky’s characterization of Raskolnikov, and Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. “While it was one of the most talked about personality inventories on the market,” writes Emre of the Humm-Wadsworth, “it was not, strictly speaking, valid in any sense of the word.” What might be called the test’s open-ended science made off-label uses possible. “In theory, the test was to be used to identify and help treat workers or job applicants who suffered from mental illnesses; in practice, employers used it to weed out suspected union sympathizers…or communist ideologues.”
Isabel’s mother was now in her seventies, and showing signs of dementia. But while at Edward N. Hay, Isabel turned Katharine’s files—decades of records—into something she felt could be of broader use to the working men of America, and increasingly, women (between 1940 and ’45, the female workforce jumped from 27 to 37 percent). Unlike the draconian Humm-Wadsworth, where the best any poor soul could hope for was “normal worker,” she envisioned “a test that generated only positive results…not a test but an ‘indicator’—a device that provided information about one’s personality free from judgement or opprobrium.”
In 1943, the first version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was copyrighted. Katharine Briggs went on breathless cross-country trips, convincing universities to let her administer it to entire departments. Distributed by Edward N. Hay, its cost was fifty cents per booklet and five cents per answer sheet. The first organization to buy it was none other than the OSS, followed within a few years by the National Bureau of Standards, Bell Telephone, General Electric, the Home Life Insurance Company, Standard Oil, and on it went, through corporate and institutional America, up until today, where a single test can cost forty dollars, and one needs to take a four-day, over US$2,000 certification course to administer it. Emre paints the course as a light kind of brainwashing: “a re-education” in a room full of “true believers” asked, outrageously, to chant the mantra “Type never changes! Type never changes!”
So pervasive is the MBTI—and the language of the MBTI; there are hundreds if not thousands of knockoff tests—that today its backlash has become almost as hard to ignore. That Katharine and Isabel Briggs were amateurs—not psychologists, or people in any way trained in testing—seems to be a main bone of contention in the steady stream of newspaper articles, YouTube videos, and websites one can find slamming it as complete bullshit. The MBTI is reliably bad at telling employers anything particularly stable about the people being tested—because apparently MBTI type does change, and test-takers are known to have different results even weeks apart. As Louis Menand wrote in a recent New Yorker essay in which he reviewed Emre’s book—not so favourably—the MBTI took off most exponentially not in midcentury—when the U.S. workforce had left the rural farm for the city office in a huge way, and placement needed to become more scientific—but closer to the 1980s, when job stability began breaking down, along with the gold-watch standard of job-for-life loyalty. With the work world becoming less reliable and more fluid, writes Menand, “an instrument for taking stock of one’s personal interests and abilities is appealing. The MBTI is a What Color Is Your Parachute? device.”
In other words, notwithstanding its massive use by HR departments, its popularity is best understood within the realm of self-help, self-care, and self-actualization—more Dale Carnegie (former salesman) and Tony Robbins (self-taught) and Following Your Bliss than the SAT, or, for that matter, stats. If the post-MBTI self-analysis quiz has reached both epidemic and weirdly baroque proportions on websites like BuzzFeed (where you can not only decide if you are intro- or extro-, but also what kind of Teletubby or breakfast cereal you would be, if you were a Teletubby or a box of cereal)—it’s because the MBTI was kind of made for the internet age, where the individual is flattened and remade as a human brand. Best to know, if you are a box of Special K (as I apparently am), what might be on your list of ingredients. It’s also nice to know that there are other Special K’s out there. Special K’s who are also special snowflakes, just like you.
But Emre doesn’t get too far inside this lighter, less demanding frame in The Personality Brokers. And as a result, she can come off as uncharitable toward her subjects and their life’s work, not least when she writes that the MBTI is “among the silliest, shallowest products of late capitalism.” The reader can only ask: Well, why then did you go and write a fantastic book about it? One that takes it so seriously? Menand suggests Emre felt somewhat jilted by the current custodians of the MBTI, who denied her access to the Myers-Briggs records. I’m not as sure. But this book does give the reader see-sawing, emotionally dizzying feeling, as if Emre could not decide whether she loved or hated her subjects for their gumption, their eccentricity, and, yes, their amateurism.
Amateurism is in many ways the most problematic theme in The Personality Brokers, and I actually think it’s a gender issue. Emre’s book has been a hit so far—feted and well-reviewed by both critics and readers—and much of the appeal is a pulling back of the curtain, as at the end of The Wizard of Oz. You thought it was two qualified Mister Doctors, didn’t you? Well, guess what? It was ladies at the kitchen table! The idea that a CIA agent or a top executive at a Fortune 500 company or a powerful university don could have their destiny in any way affected by two women who got many of their foundational ideas from personal readings of Jung and Reader’s Digest is unthinkable. Outrageous! We all thought this thing was real!
Back in the 1890s, when Katharine first began dabbling in the psychology of type, many scientists believed the Elephant Man’s mother was scared by an elephant when her son was in utero, and that’s why he came out that way. And, no, Katharine and Isabel didn’t go to university and learn what scientists learned. But yes, they crafted the MBTI by testing thousands and thousands of people across the span of eight decades, honing and redrafting their test again and again. Still, even Emre seems to ask where their Ivy League degrees are, sharing the anti-MBTI-ist’s tendency of finger wagging in the face of the Briggs’ success: Just who did these untrained ladies think they were?
This is a book that could fit unbelievably well in a feminist frame, and yet Emre chose not to lean in that way, claiming in her introduction that she had wanted to be more “disinterested.” She had been at points tempted, she writes, by the idea of writing a story of “feminist triumph,” but in the end, simply could not, because of her recurring frustrations with “the dubious and often exploitative social history of type.”
Of course, Emre is not wrong about the MBTI’s lack of dependable science. But maybe she is expecting too much of the Briggs women, by laying “the dubious social history of type” at their feet, not least with people like Jung and Hitler’s personality decoder, Murray, between the covers. And while Jung and Murray—neither of whom are exempt from their own forays into highly subjective floofiness—get largely even treatment, Emre seems to miss few opportunities the cut down Katharine and Isabel as absurd, irritating, harridan-like, or just plain nuts.
The tendency comes to a head in one of the book’s last chapters, entitled “That Horrible Woman,” in which the “desperate amateur” Isabel Myers, now in her mid-sixties and wearing a nylon dress and “awkward” shoes, and with her “breath fouled by a homemade energy drink she called ‘tiger’s milk’: brewer’s yeast blended with milk and sweetened by melted Hershey’s bars,” is in the employ of the Princeton-based Educational Testing Service (ETS), at one point the publisher of the SAT. The chapter title comes from what Myers was once called by one of her colleagues there. She is pretty much being laughed out of the room by the psychometricians and statisticians. “The staff looked her up and looked her down…After determining her age…and her various occupations…they could not bring themselves to even feign interest in her ideas.”
And yet for years, ETS, made up of so many heckling Organization Men—the ones who cruelly called her “the little old lady in tennis shoes”—distributed her product. I, personally, wanted to applaud that, and so much else. This is a story of two women keeping on anyway—what, to me, is a good part of feminist history on the whole. But I felt I was regularly being told by Emre not to clap too loudly, because any top statistician or psychologist in 2018 knows the Myers-Briggs is woo-woo stuff, and it’s embarrassing how serious about it Katharine and Isabel were, because at the end of the day, Katharine and Isabel were just dilettantes and at the same time obsessives and also—sorry to say—women.
So, this is a highly enjoyable book, and this is a book well worth sharing, but there’s a fly in its ointment. The issue with the Myers-Briggs is not that Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers believed in their test back through all those decades in the twentieth century, it’s that the rest of the world continues to now. And if the author of this book has a gripe, it should be with us, not them.