The Pseudoscience of Personality Typing and its Eccentric Mother-Daughter Developers

Book review: The Personality Brokers, by Merve Emre (AmazonBook Depository)

Only the smallest fraction of those who encountered the indicator knew anything about Isabel, Katharine, or the origins of type. If asked about the indicator’s provenance, most people would have assumed that Myers and Briggs were the last names of two collaborating psychologists – two men, naturally…

Almost everyone’s familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality indicator, a personality type-categorizing test (though its creators and the industry around it eschew the word “test”). It’s been disseminated in so many different forms over the years, including its principles forming the basis for personality testing all the way down to the ubiquitous and ultra-specific, silly Buzzfeed ones.

But how much do you know about the indicator’s background? Enough to know that it wasn’t developed by trained, practicing psychologists, but rather a mother and daughter working with Jungian ideas and their own anecdotal theories?

Author and English professor Merve Emre writes a history and biography of the mother-daughter pair, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, and of their famous system, including its controversies. The two developed “typing” – categories of extrovert or introvert, thinking or feeling, sensing or intuiting, judging or perceiving – with the idea that knowing one’s type would benefit employees and employers in the workplace, especially the promise of types finding their niche. It’s still used by HR, companies, and universities today, despite its foundations on decidedly non-scientific grounds.

With the end of World War II and the explosion of the labor force…what was needed was a test for all the new men and women in the workplace that did not punish them for their perceived vulnerabilities but convinced them and their employers that they had none – only a set of interests and preferences that were better suited to some jobs over others.

The problem is that the indicator is bunk science. Much of the pair’s “research” is merely anecdotal, without scientific or tested psychological background. It began with Katharine’s baby “obedience-curiosity” training on Isabel, a decidedly unconventional punishment-reward method that garnered her a lot of attention, then the later introduction of Jungian principles, with which Katharine became obsessed. About Isabel’s later work on the foundations of the methodology, Emre writes: “Her type descriptions were based on a combination of her observations of her family and her instincts, a mixture of the ’empirical and the theoretical,’ she called it.” 

A bigger problem is that people have been fired over type analysis, something so fluid that the same person can achieve different results on different days. Isabel blamed this either on the person changing their answers purposely or else subconsciously altering their thinking as they adapted to their type. The “abstract, pseudoscientific language of type” makes this unsurprising.

Emre traces the indicator’s evolution, from its beginnings on Katharine’s index cards, jotting observations and forming her tenets of anecdotally-based personality theory while raising her daughter, to her obsession with Carl Jung (and I do mean obsession, including writing songs and homosexual erotica – this part is wildly hilarious and the kind of history you’re delighted to learn is true) to her daughter’s reshaping of typing into a marketable system for companies to use on employees.

Katharine and Isabel are both quirky characters, and not very sympathetic figures. Katharine define personality as “the qualities or capacities of thought that made a person recognizable as a human being and not an animal – a ‘brute,’ as she deemed the less civilized orders of men. ‘We teach a lie when we teach that all men are equal,’ she wrote. ‘The lower orders of men are far closer to the higher animals than to the higher orders of men, and we ought to recognize that fact.” Thus setting the stage for quite the likability problem, although that doesn’t detract from compelling reading.

This is often fascinating, one of those histories that has you wide-eyed in disbelief that its stories are true – that all this actually happened. Other sections had my interest waning. It’s the women’s peculiarities and absurdities which trickled into their work, coupled with their simultaneous embracing of traditional female roles while maintaining fervent, near-religious obsession with their invented psychological pseudoscience that’s most compelling. When the story strays too far from this, even about the various initial implementations of the indicator, it’s less absorbing although necessary.

I was completely in the dark about the controversy over the Myers-Briggs Indicator and anything to do with its inventors’ lives and backgrounds. Those were the best parts of the book – the often strange mother-daughter interactions and the details of their lives and often bizarre behavior. The juxtaposition of their embraced domestic roles with how much these women worked, and how passionately they devoted themselves to Jungian studies and turning their invention into a marketable product was surprising but revealed a lot about their era.

Katharine’s greatest hope for Isabel was that she would become a housewife, and Isabel showed a propensity for greater things – writing a contest-winning, bestselling novel, among other endeavors, and for all the indicator’s flaws she certainly had marketing skills and strikes me as reminiscent of today’s self-help gurus. But their ultimate success barometer remained tied to antiquated ideals. If anything, it shows how uncategorizable we all are instead of what the indicator might have you think.

To investigate the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the most popular personality inventory in the world, is to court a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.

Such an intriguing hook, but it doesn’t come up again after opening the book like this. Such a frustratingly unexplored angle and odd to include.

Despite Emre’s excellent establishment of context – a post-World War II America ripe for fine-tuning the swelling work force, thus making it clear that the indicator was very much a product of its time (and underscoring why it shouldn’t be allowed to hold much sway nowadays beyond as a self-help tool), the history of the test and its various implementations over the years ended up being the least interesting part of the book. It pales in comparison to the strange, paradoxical, and intriguing personalities that created it. 3/5

The Personality Brokers:
The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing
(What’s Your Type? in the UK)
by Merve Emre
published September 11, 2018 by Doubleday
Book Depository

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.


20 thoughts on “The Pseudoscience of Personality Typing and its Eccentric Mother-Daughter Developers

Add yours

  1. Whoa! I never knew these two were women!!! And they weren’t behavioral scientists or psychologists??!! I’m astonished because this was such an integral part of business team building for most of my career.

    What’s also fascinating is how my type (ENTJ) was so dead on to my management style and personality. I also found the typing a useful tool for better understanding the people I supervised. It actually helped.

    What does it say about science when two untrained people can develop something like this that impacts the business community so profoundly? I’m choosing to believe that the two women, despite their lack of formal training, became Jung scholars and their work was an extension of his theories.

    Truly great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you SO much! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review and I definitely think you should read the book since it played such a significant part in some of your career activities. I think you’d get a lot out of it. And that’s what really disturbed me about this whole thing – they had no psychological training, no unbiased or controlled data studies to back up their theories, it’s so arbitrary! And yes, was the same for me, I also had no idea they were women!!! The whole story of their work-life choices and the way they embodied traditional roles alongside their work is really fascinating.

      You’re absolutely right that their work was an extension of Jungian theories but I hesitate to say they were scholars…I guess in a loose sense of the word, you have to read it to really get the full impact of how they went about their work and studies. They definitely relied heavily on his principles and expanding those but it all just struck me as so unscientific and haphazard. It would be fine if this was all just self-help based with an instruction to take it with a grain of salt, because as you say it can be really helpful in some situations or for learning something about your own personality and management style. But knowing its foundations seems crucial to that and it’s almost like they’re closely guarded by the business typing has become, that was kind of the impression I got from the intrigue the author started to sow at the beginning but never really returned to.

      So interesting to hear your perspective having used it in your work life, I would love to hear your take on the book if you read it!!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s closely guarded because of the absence of scientific data and how this study was allowed to permeate business cultures in Fortune 50 companies (I was working for one that used it) and beyond. It was unique at the time and because the typing matched the testees (validated by them and those they worked with), I guess no one probed for more substantiation.

        I used the word scholar to describe them as specialist in their study of Jung because my brain cannot accept that they developed this study intuitively. They used unscientific and informal methods to prove their hypotheses outside of an academic environment and somehow crafted results that most everyone embraced.

        You can’t imagine how I’m reeling from your review because this was a very big deal in US business cultures for many years. We wore our typing proudly. Unbelievable.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I completely understand you! People lost jobs over this stuff, that just seems impossible considering where it came from and how it came about – the informality and lack of academic environment, as you say. Just unbelievable! You’ve got to read this and share your thoughts, you have such an interesting connection to it having been through the workplace application, I can’t imagine what it would be like to read about this having experienced it outside of the sillier applications it’s influenced.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Same, I’ve always been hesitant at how much you can really determine from this kind of testing and a little alarmed at how much importance is attributed to them in serious circumstances like the workplace. It’s really an interesting read, I hope you enjoy it and would love to read your take on it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I knew about the pseudoscience background of the MBTI test, but I didn’t know a book had been published about it. It sounds fascinating, and since I have to teach a leadership and teamworking module for my students this year, I might look this up. Thanks for the review!


  3. Ha! Ya, we just did this at our workplace a few months ago. And I raised the question\comment about it not being scientifically sound for judgment on one’s personality traits. Wish I knew about this book then. Awesome review 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! You must read it! Good for you for bringing it up and I’m amazed you knew about it, I was so blown away by everything here having no idea this was so scientifically unsound. I’m pretty much a lifelong freelancer so the kind of business/workplace culture where this comes into play are generally foreign to me. I would be so interested in hearing your opinion of the book 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I had to bring it up, I mean they’re basically judging you on your personality you know? I definitely have to give this a read, especially if incorporate it in our team building excercises again. I’ll have more knowledge too back up my claim hahahaha. Thank you for the awesome review on it.


  4. This is so interesting! I had no idea of the history behind this testing and the fact that they had no formal education or research really to back this up is shocking! Especially because people place such an importance on this, wow!
    Wonderful eye-opening review! Now I’m going to wonder if I’m really a ENFP

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Isn’t it an interesting story? They both actually had formal education but the research was lacking as you say, the principles they founded the indicator on weren’t tested or based on anything beyond Jungian ideas and their own observations of their families, basically. It’s so surprising to think that was enough to make the test so accepted! I guess it can still mean you’re the type you tested as, but my biggest takeaway was that personality type as framed by their test is something to use for your own personal self-help and not something to be applied and automatically accepted on wider levels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes I think I’d be a little angry if I was excluded from a job because of my personality type based on this test now, LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow. I had not the first clue about this. Fascinating. I took the test, individually, a very long time ago and played with it. I don’t remember what my first ‘tagging’ was but, I went back and changed my answers as I could have easily answered in different ways because of personal application & mood. Naturally, my ‘type’ changed. I shook my head and forgot all about it.

    Fast forward several years to a job I had working for the state of Texas. I had been there about three years when HR gave everyone the test. I came back as an INFP. Was that what I was, initially, years ago? Don’t remember. But, I still had the same thoughts about “well, you know, I could answer *this* question several ways…” They preface everything with a “answer with your first inclination” framework.

    I do vividly remember the head of HR looking at me with disbelief and exclaiming “OMG! You tested identical to our Land Commissioner!” whom, at the time, was Jerry Patterson. I was struck by the fact that he was a politician & I loathe politics. I continue to ignore the results. You can’t effectively pigeonhole people because the path of life itself changes us all…for better or worse.

    Thank you for posting this!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, I’m glad it was so interesting for you! With your background and experience with the test I think you’d get a lot out of the book. It’s just unbelievable stuff. And you proved the point exactly – the test, and personality itself, can be far more fluid than we’re trying to make it be. And it doesn’t have nearly the significance that’s been attributed to it.

      Fascinating story, thanks for sharing your experience with it!

      Liked by 1 person

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