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Criticism of the MBTI

The MBTI™ has attracted considerable criticism over the years, mainly from psychologists and Jungians. We list some of the most common below and in some cases give our response. However, we think it useful if we present clearly the nature of our approach to the MBTI:  we see it as potentially useful and insightful but nonetheless a decidedly imperfect instrument. Why?

We say at various points in these resources that we do not think that all individuals fit neatly into the 16 type descriptors. Nor do we think that everyone has clear preferences in each of the four scales. However, we think that some of the MBTI's limitations can be minimised by the following good use of the instrument:

  • Not treating MBTI scores as 'gospel' merely a starting point for discussion and part of the process to see if any of the type profiles are a reasonable fit for that person.
  • Continually stating that the MBTI does not predict skills. Rather it only suggests potential strengths and weaknesses. MBTI results should not be used to make decisions to hire or promote people or to discourage them from following any path of study or career.
  • Encouraging people to continually bear in mind that the primary purpose of the MBTI is to help people understand that we are all different. The MBTI is a useful starting point for understanding some of this difference. Without some description and explanation of rudimentary differences between people it is very common for individuals to think that everyone should be like them. This then can lead to conflict, criticism and lack of respect in relationships.

Human beings are incredibly complex and it is very difficult to explain and measure personality differences in ways that are robustly scientific.  Psychology's main, agreed way of presenting differences between people is the 'Big Five' personality factors' formulated by a range of independent researchers including McCrae and Costa.  The five factors identified are: Extraversion, Openness, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness and Neuroticism.  However, all this does is describe common differences without any underlying theory or explanation and in ways which can easily come up with critical labels for people. Those scoring low in the agreeable scale are presumably 'disagreeable' and those scoring low on 'openness' are closed. It is not difficult to see why the Big Five is not commonly used as a tool to educate people about personality differences.

In 2004 it was estimated that around 90 per cent Fortune 100 companies use the MBTI for leadership development or team building. Why would companies waste money on something they saw of no value? The fact that the MBTI has endured for so long also testifies to the fact that people find it a useful framework.

One of the enduring reasons for its popularity is its background and values. This was two women's attempt to improve self-knowledge and relationships (and therefore the world) through respect for difference.

Some  criticisms of the MBTI

Unscientific basis to the theory
Jung's theory of psychological type was not based on empirical, scientific studies but emanated from his observations and reflections. This does not mean that they are inaccurate, simply unproven. Jung's observations led him to distinguish between extraversion and introversion yet this is now a difference between people which is widely accepted in psychology. What's more brain imaging research by Debra Johnson et al, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, showed that introverts and extraverts had different brain activity. They write: 'The findings of the study lend support to the notion that introversion is associated with increased activity in frontal lobe regions. Moreover, the study suggests that individual differences in introversion and extraversion are related to differences in a fronto-striato-thalamic circuit.'

Misuse of Jung's ideas
Isabel Briggs Myers explains in Gifts Differing how she built on Jung's theories. However, some argue that there is a huge difference between Jung's ideas on type and preference and Myers'. If you are interested, a good summary of what this means is outlined in Dr Anna Maria Garden's paper: 'Unresolved Issues with The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator'. One issue is whether Jung thought everyone could be classed as an introvert or an extravert, for example, or whether he thought that many people had no distinct preference.

Forer effects
Some critics say that tests and profiles such as the MBTI are particularly susceptible to the 'Forer effect' whereby an individual accepts feedback on his/her personality when it fact it has no specific relevance to the individual.

It is called the Forer effect as Bertram Forer, a psychologist, administered a so-called personality test to his students, ignored their results and then gave everyone the same bland profile which they thought had been specially prepared for them. Forer carried out this experiment in the 1940s and other research with students has replicated these findings.

Most explanations of the Forer effect suggest human gullibility and the desire to accept statements about the self particularly if they are positive and show us in a good light.

Forer's original research used information plucked from the astrology column in a newspaper. It was incredibly general and could easily apply to anyone. However, MBTI profiles  are much more specific and they are certainly not all the same.  Even a cursory inspection of some of the 16 types included in this section shows that there are large variations in the personalities described.

Undoubtedly if someone is unfortunate enough to go through an MBTI assessment which simply gives them a profile at the end, presented as their true personality, without asking them to engage in the process of discovery, they may be tempted to simply accept the profile as them. But this seems unlikely given that research shows that only 75 per cent of those who complete the instrument and are given feedback actually accept their result. (95 % confirm 3 of the 4 preferences.)

What's more my experience (Carol Craig) of working with this instrument in Scotland leads me to be sceptical of the Forer effect as related to the MBTI. Many people here are sceptical of questionnaires and psychology in general. They don't just automatically accept the type they came out on the indicator.

The research on the Forer effect has mainly been conducted on psychology students. This means they are a group of mainly young people who believe in psychological instruments. Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that they are likely to accept the results of a psychological test particularly if the result has been prepared for them specially by their tutor. This is not real life. The other group who may be particularly prone to the Forer Effect (no doubt as a result of cognitive dissonance) are HR professionals. Psychological instruments are their stock in trade and this is why so many of them are likely to accept results unquestioningly.

Reliability
This refers to how consistent a test is in its ability to measure what it claims to measure. For example, if people take the test again do they get the same result? Some studies have shown that the MBTI as an instrument compares favourably with other types of assessments. (First here: Second here)  Professor Rowan Bayne, a British academic psychologist claims the MBTI has 'respectable reliability".  Others seriously question its reliability and validity.

Even those who dispute the concept of type (more of this below) argue that it is measuring something significant.  For example, McCrae and Costa show that  all four of the MBTI scales (e-I, s-n, t-f, j-p) correlate with four of the big five personality traits. (Extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness.)

However, the MBTI claims to measure something more than personality traits. It claims to measure dichotomous preferences. Thus, for example it is designed to show if you are an introvert or an extravert. This is consistent with the idea that people fall into distinct types. Given this claim we would expect to see two normal distributions (bell curves) for introverts and extraverts (bimodality). But this is not the case. Instead the population falls in a conventional distribution with most clustering in the middle of the introvert-extravert scale. Some researchers argue that this may be due to the limitations of the indicator rather than the theory.

Falsifiability
The MBTI's accuracy is dependent on a person's honest reporting. Some personality measures attempt to deal with exaggerated or socially desirable responses. Others are constructed in such a way that it is difficult to fake a result. But the MBTI is a very transparent instrument – for many of the questions if is farily obvious what the questions are designed to assess. This means that if individuals fear that they may lose out (in promotion or a job appointment, for example) they may be tempted to lie.  This is one of the reasons why the MBTI should never be used for job selection. It is also why the nature of the experience in completing the MBTI and receiving feedback is of critical importance.

Lack of peer review

Over the years a great deal of research  has been carried out on type differences but most of this has been published by journals aimed at the type community. Few articles have been written for journals which use peer review - the academic gold standard. This has weakened the type community's ability to claim that their is good research behind the instrument.

 
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