The Real Story Behind The Myers-Briggs Test

Myers Briggs Test Assembly Line

During World War Two, many women were entering the workforce for the first time, and would only be aided by a test that might help them gauge their professional preferences a bit better. Source: Cleveland History

Regarded as somewhere between “a horoscope and a heart monitor” by one journalist, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the most frequently taken personality tests in the world. Even though it has become somewhat laughable in recent years, 89 Fortune 100 companies use the test to gauge their employees’ strengths and weaknesses, which implies that it has managed to retain at least a shadow of its original purpose.

The Myers-Briggs test has become something of a pop culture phenom, which is a shame because it was actually developed with a very specific purpose. As World War II plucked many men from US soil and dropped them on the front lines, women worldwide were flung into the workforce, many of them for the first time. These wives and mothers lacked the practical and self-knowledge necessary to assess what they could do to help the war effort in the absence of so many young men.

Myers Briggs Test Working Woman

Source: Wikimedia

We think of Rosie the Riveter; images of beautiful young women whose beaus and husbands are fighting in the war, working in factories and wearing pants for the first time in their lives. This had, of course, a major cultural impact: women were outside the home, visibly so, and many of them discovered that they knew very little about working on an assembly line — not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional sense. Outside of relating to the nuclear family, which they had been well-raised to wrangle, their self-knowledge of interpersonal skills outside the home was limited.

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Source: Giphy

An author by the name of Katharine Cook Briggs read up on her Jungian psychology and, essentially, came up with the typology test as a way to help women entering the workforce understand what kind of work they would be best suited for. What Briggs managed to do was take the complex web of Jung’s theories and assemble them into a relatively simple and easily comprehensible tool. A woman’s score on the MBTI gave her insights into how she experienced the external world as well as her own internal environment. It addressed her reaction to conflict, her morals and intrinsic motivations and helped guide her towards work that she would not only be likely to excel in, but that she might also enjoy and feel fulfilled by.

Briggs’ daughter, Isabel Myers, was also an author and the two of them fine-tuned the test and began presenting it academically to psychologists. The problem was, while both women were highly educated and well-read, neither of them had any psychoanalytic training, and therefore the test was seen to lack validity.

Myers Briggs Test Creators

The creators of the Myers-Briggs test. Source: Pro Inspiro

When they realized they couldn’t sell it to psychologists, they instead ventured into the corporate sector — and began advertising it not so much as a psychological test, but more of an aptitude test that businesses could use with potential employees — most specifically, women entering the workforce for the first time. By the 1960s, the MBTI took on a more generalized use and since more people had access to it, statistics began to be collected about the relative occurrence of various types in the general population.

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Source: Giphy

In all, there are sixteen MBTI personality types. Each one is a combination of eight different possible dominant functions: extraversion — introversion, sensing—intuition, thinking—feeling, and judging—perception. None of the types are better than any of the others, nor does the test measure aptitude — the indicator measures preference. For example, if someone is an I type rather than an E type, it doesn’t necessarily mean they possess no extraverted qualities, or that they aren’t capable of extraversion in certain situations — but that, when given a choice, they are more likely to align themselves with a state of introversion. The MBTI is, in many ways, a way to explore one’s preference for experiencing the world: and a person’s ideal is not always the reality.

Abby Norman
Abby Norman
Abby Norman is a writer based in New England. She's currently writing a memoir for Nation Books. Her work has been featured on The Rumpus, The Independent, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Hippocampus Magazine, The Atlantic, The Mary Sue, and Quartz.
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