The MBTI and the Big Five: Different roads to Rome?

It would be hard to find two temperament instruments that developed in more starkly different ways.  The Five Factor Model or Big Five was an accepted scientific enterprise from the very beginning, while the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator might best be described (at least by its critics) as developed by a sweet but non-professional little homemaker in her spare moments.  And yet–now that the worst of the dust has settled–the two instruments can be seen to have  some remarkable areas of agreement.

The Big Five was an professional, science-based project from the very beginning.  Its five factors, Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism (which sums to OCEAN), unless you want to go with the alternative order of Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness and Openness, (which sums to CANOE) echoed an earlier five factors that previous researchers had found.  These five were Surgency, Agreeableness, Dependability, Emotional Stability and Culture. Surgency is roughly equivalent to Extraversion, with perhaps more emphasis on being dominant and aggressive.  Agreeableness is self-evident, and dependability transfers as Conscientiousness.  Emotional Stability is simply the cheerier end of Neuroticism.  Thus in 1961 the researchers behind this group of terms came up with five factors that were very similar to those that later became the Big Five.  They derived them by reanalyzing data from many previous studies which had used varying numbers of factors.

So, were the Big Five guys just lucky copycats?  Not really.The sixties and seventies saw another mini-dark age for personality and temperament.  The winning view for those decades was that personality/temperament really could not be pinned down, and no test of personality could predict behavior.  In some sense it probably paralleled the great movements of that period toward greater freedom in all areas of life.  That is, don’t fence me in with a personality test.

In essence the earlier work was abandoned for most of twenty years.  At the end of this period psychologist Lewis Goldberg essentially started over, building his work on the “lexical hypothesis”–the idea that all human traits can be found somewhere in the terms we use to describe one another.  With his colleagues, he meticulously gathered all such terms,  believing that the essential descriptive terms in our vocabulary are the things you would want to know about a stranger  you met on a common path.  These terms were grouped and regrouped both to eliminate overlaping terms and to isolate distinctively different factors.  This was pursued through factor analytic techniques–the best statistical technique of the time.  The factors that emerged clustered best into a group of five, and as noted above, were remarkably similar to earlier work.

This great accomplishment did not escape criticism, but there was a sense that the testing world was ready to embrace one major model for personality and temperament research, and for personnel testing, much as American business was relieved to have Windows and the PC as a sharable standard.  Is it the best?  Is it the only?  Probably not, but good enough for us for now!  Certainly it was an accomplishment that had the proper pedigree–both in terms of the researcher’s credentials, and their scientifically accepted approaches to truth.

The history of the MBTI, by comparison, has been touched by Jungian mysticism and a mother-daughter fascination with individual differences.  It began in very quiet circumstances in an upper-middle class family that was much involved in academic life.  Isabel Briggs Myers was  heart and soul of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but the story begins with her mother, Katharine Briggs.  As an adult she was fascinated with that basic question–why are people, even in the same family, so different from one another.  She began reading biographies as a way of exploring this issue, and eventually developed her own “little four” categories–Thoughtful, Spontaneous, Executive, and Social.  As she was thinking this through, psychoanalyist Carl Jung’s book, Psychological Types, came out in English and she saw in this a heartening confirmation for her own ideas, and a vast expansion beyond them.  There is no evidence that she was aware of early trait theories and testing efforts in America..  Assuming that is true, this had to be an amazing new experience.  A few years later she published two articles in the New Republic, both on Jung’s type theory.  Daughter Isabel went on many years later to publish two mystery novels, suggesting that this was a multi-talented pair.

Katharine, meanwhile, was married to Lyman Briggs, who was a physicist by training, but employed for many years by the National Bureau of Standards.  Lyman Briggs College, at Michigan State is named in his honor.  Thus, Isabel grew up with both her mother’s fascination with type, and her father’s firm scientific views.  Katharine had been home schooled and Isabel was also mostly home schooled.  At 16 she enrolled in Swarthmore College, and graduated at the head of her class in 1919.  Clearly high-level abilities were running through the family genes.

Although Isabel credited her marriage to Clarence Myers as another type eye opener (how could a wonderful man be so different from her and her own family?) her Type interests remained dormant through years of motherhood, to emerge full force when the  World War II shocked and horrified her.  Behind the family interest in type was always the idea that many of the conflicts between people result  from everyday differences in temperament that prevent mutual understanding.  If individual differences could be measured and explained, surely we could find a way to a more peaceful coexistence.  From here the story gains momentum.  Isabel was determined to master the art and science of test construction and statistical analysis, and for that she apprenticed herself to a man who was a personnel manager for a large local bank.  Meanwhile, at home, she was developing items and testing them on her teenage children, their friends, her friends, and virtually anyone who came by.

She progressed from this to testing students in local schools, and then, with a stroke of good luck and family influence she obtained permission to test both faculty and students at George Washington School of Medicine.  Over the years she tested over 5000 medical students and 10,000 nurses through this connection, constantly adding new items and eliminating ineffective older ones.  The meticulous science side of her personality is reflected in the fact that she followed the progress of all of these students, charting their dropouts, their high and low college achievements, and then years later, the medical specialties they had chosen, comparing these with their Type scores.  For its time, this was a massive databank.

In 1962 the Educational Testing Service published the first Type Indicator as a research instrument, and provided her with facilities for the first computer analysis of  her continuing results.  In 1975 the first Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was published for public use, and it was smooth sailing from there, leading to the global multimillion dollar organization of today.

Clearly then, the development processes for the Big Five and the MBTI were very different, as were the developers.  Was that all?  Not quite.  Although Isabel Myers certainly developed the individual items for the MBTI in a straightforward and empirical manner,  there is another major difference, in that the Big Five was entirely experimental, meaning that there was no underlying theory of personality pointing the way, and the MBTI was not.  Jung’s theories, which he had developed from a lifetime of encounters with friends and patients, clearly did steer the final development of the MBTI.

The Big Five would be called a trait theory.  It assumes that its factors represent traits that are found along a continuum, so that one person might be slightly Extraverted and another strongly Extraverted, and the difference would be important for the individual.  Jung, on the other hand saw Type as an either/or.  When the MBTI was developed it followed Jung’s thinking in this, giving as much importance to a small preference score as a large one.  Jung had also developed a fairly  complex system for deciding which of the four Type preferences would dominate in any given Type and which would be auxiliary (secondary).  This led to differences in the way that the four letter Types were described.

Given all that, it seems remarkable that the two systems have some substaintial similarities in outcome.  In 1989, Costa and McCrea published a study in which 468 subjects of all ages took both a published form of the Big Five (NEO-PI) and the MBTI. To make the forms comparable they used continuous scores for the MBTI rather than the sort of either/or, extravert or introvert, sensor or intuitive, etc. that is used to decide on preference choice in the MBTI.  This stripped away Jung’s added interpretations and measured simply Isabel Myers basic prefernce items and scores.  Doing this they found very high correlations between the Extravert scores on both instruments, a high correlation between Big Five Openness and MBTI Intuition, and lessor but substantial correlations between  Conscientiousness and Judging, and Agreeableness and Feeling.  Unlike the Big Five, the MBTI has no Neuroticism scale.  Where the Five Factor model has been described as answering the questions you might ask yourself on encountering a stranger, the MBTI might be described as answering the questions you might ask about accepted colleagues, friends, and family.

Isabel Myers–the very smart, passionate and determined homemaker, wife, mother, and autodidact, arrived at most of the same factors that were found by our most professional psychologist and psychometrists.  I am not sure that all roads lead to Rome, but these paths certainly converged.

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2 Responses to The MBTI and the Big Five: Different roads to Rome?

  1. You state that Neuroticism is not linked in MBTI, but there is. Jung developed Type looking for neuroses which people have an overly active dominant function which causes neuroses listed in the DSM. This page on ptypes.com shows it. It links MBTI to a neurotic and sane version, sort of speak. http://www.ptypes.com/correspondence.html just click on any neuroses behind the MBTI-type, go to the specific DSM explanation and skip to the Dimensional aspect, in which ALL neurosis-versions have HIGH neuroticism. (forgive my bad english, for being dutch AND low on concienstiousness as ENFP :) )

    • INTJ says:

      Hi Alexander,

      I didn’t mean to suggest that Jung had no theories about types and neuroses, but that the most commonly administered version of the MBTI (Form M) excludes questions from the scale that directly measure neurosis. It is my understanding that these are included in the Step III version. Whether there is also a connection between a given Type when the preferences are carried to the extreme (or as you put it–an overly active dominant function) is something I have thought about, quite often, but was not aware of Jung’s writings on this. Thanks for sharing your information.

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