Why Does Psychology Diss the MBTI?

Psychology, as a profession, is wary of the MBTI.  Its origin–the fact that Isabel Briggs et al. did not have  the background and training of academic psychology is no doubt a part of the professional skepticism about the MBTI.  However, as I noted in last week’s blog, there is remarkable agreement between many parts of this measure and the most accepted scale in the academic work–the Big Five or Five Factor Model.  By itself, that should have improved acceptance over time.

Unfortunately, agreement ends, however, when you move past the basic measurements and on to the interpretation of the MBTI.  Here we move from the workman-like construction of the individual items and the preference scales, to the interpretation of these.  And here we move from science to theory, and more specifically from theory in general to the theories of just one man–the psychoanalyst, Carl Jung.  I have often thought that the one thing that a graduate degree in psychology or a related field would have added to Isabel Myers quite excellent intelligence, would have been a broader sense of the many different ideas that were and are alive in the psychology world.

As it was, Myers and Briggs both bought into the Jungian model of personality and temperament without apparent dissent.  Jung believed (and fairly accurately) that the preferences and thus temperaments and types were innate.  He also believed, however, that inheritance would be all or none, yes or no.  Therefore, when the MBTI was developed, any score over the middle between preferences put you into that preference category.  Although the 1998 manual lists a number of reasons why an individual may report their preferences inaccurately (expectations of parents, siblings, friends, authorities that you behave in certain ways, or misunderstanding the terms in some of the questions, for example) it is nevertheless assumed that even one more answer toward one preference or the other is sufficient.  It is true that if the individual does not feel that a reported preference or a reported whole type is accurate, there are procedures for what is called “verifying type”.  In different ways these consist of having the person read preference and/or type descriptions, trying to see which is the better fit.  No doubt this is helpful, but it totally ignores the possibility that greater numbers of scores in one preference direction have meaning in themselves.

Today, most of us are used to the idea that very close scores on anything are unreliable.  Polls, for example, routinely report a margin of error, reflecting all the sorts of  random errors that do occur, from carelessness to misunderstanding of terms.  If candidate X has a rating of 47% versus a 49% rating for candidate Y, we may be told that there is no statistically significant difference and that the difference that exists is within the margin of error.  An either/or scale like Introversion or Extraversion should at least reflect this.  The MBTI does have what is called a “preference clarity index” setting criteria for Slight, Moderate, Clear and Very Clear preferences.  However, the manual (page 121) is emphatic that “Quantitative interpretation of MBTI results as an indication that a respondent has “more” or less of a preference is incorrect.  Such a practice is the most pervasive source of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the MBTI.”  Pretty strong words!  They go on to say that the preference clarity index is only useful to measure how “sure” the  person is about his/her preference.

In my mind, the development of the Step II MBTI contradicts this whole position.  I often wonder if there are internal differences in this whole area within the organization, or if  no one really sees a contradiction here.  In the Step II version each main preference area is divided into facets.  For example, Sensing/Intuition contains (in that order) Concrete/Abstract, Realistic/Imaginative, Practical/Conceptual, Experiential/Theoretical, and Traditional/Original facets.  It is possible to be out of preference on some facets and in preference on others.  Perhaps this is looking at it too simplistically, but it would seem that a very high score on your overall Step I preference would predict that you are in preference on most or all facets, and a low score would suggest that there might be some out of preference facets.  In an anecdotal way, this supports a major psychology argument–that not considering the quantity of the responses, throws away a great deal of information.  (Incidentally, it is of some interest that in the Step II facets they have established a mid-zone of +/- 1 as an area of no clear preference.

Lastly, either/or doesn’t make much sense given what we know of all other measures of human abilities and characteristics, or for that matter of what we know of the brain.  Intelligence is not an either/or, nor is anxiety, or depression or calmness or hyperactivity.  Brain chemistry will reveal differing levels of neural transmitters or brain-active hormones, but these too come in degrees.  Just looking at everyday experience there are people who are a little outgoing, a lot outgoing, or can’t sit still, can’t be quiet, out-of their-mind extraverted.  The same holds for introversion.

Jungian influence extends much further in the development of what are called “type dynamics”.  This is the MBTI organization’s pride and joy, and critical to a proper understanding of your raw preference scores.  What is established in analysis of type dynamics is (among Sensing/Intuition, and Thinking/Feeling) your dominant preference, auxiliary preference, tertiary or third preference and inferior preference.  The order of importance of your preferences is determined jointly by your E or I score and your J or P score.  Let us say you are an ENFJ.  You have a judging preference so you will extravert whatever you chose in the Thinking/Feeling (T/F category).  What does that mean?  Well it means that you will use that preference more in dealing with the outside world.  Since your E/I preference was E that means you will be active mostly with the outside world so your dominant preference will be Feeling.  If it had been if the E/I preference had been I, the dominant preference in this case would have been Intuition.   Determining auxiliary, tertiary and inferior functions takes us a few steps farther, but the general idea is that among S, N, F, T you will set up the dominant, auxiliary, tertiary and inferior preferences.  You will make maximum use of your dominant preference, on down to minimum use of your inferior preference.  It sounds pretty elegant and complex. Other fascinating complications are the actions of a shadow self–the inferior function that may erupt out of control, bringing strange and disturbing thoughts and feelings,  in a prolonged stressful situation.

But, type dynamics has this problem.  It was incorporated into the MBTI, I would guess, out of great respect and admiration for Jung.  Unlike Isabel Myers’ development of the individual items and of the preference scales, which was admirable and professional, this scheme is the product of faith.  No experimental research was done to substantiate it.  As early a 1965, a reviewer for the Sixth Mental Measurements Yearbook raised doubts about the validity of the type dynamics aspect of the MBTI.  In 1989, McCrea and Costa, the same researchers who reported positively on the relationship between MBTI scales and the Big Five, did a research study looking specifically at whether the reported stronger preference on the MBTI would be positively related to the dominant function as calculated by type dynamics.  What they found was no relationship between the strongest preference and the hypothesized dominant preference.  Isabel Myers had, herself, presumed that the strongest preference would turn out to be the dominant preference most of the time, but had found this to be true in only 5o% of cases at that time, suggesting that this was essentially random.

Much more recently, Reynierse and Harker reported on a relatively exhaustive series of six experimental studies looking for support  or non-support for type dynamics.  They concluded that “the results of this research and other research of ours….suggest that the dominant preference is simply the independently high-value preference, particularly when that preference stands out and is markedly higher than any other contributing preference.”  As the expression goes, this was music to my ears, as I have long believed that would be true.  In creating our own adult and child scales (www.parentingbytemperament.com) we designed the feedback to include the information on whether the preference was slight, clear, etc., and we counsel participants to focus attention on the stronger preferences.

I suspect Jung was simply wrong about some of his most passionate ideas, and would have something different to say if he were alive today and reading today’s literature.  Unfortunately a very large and powerful organization bought the farm on this long ago.  Change will come slowly and that is too bad, as the MBTI has a great deal to contribute.

Selected references

McCrae, Robert R & Costa, Paul T. Jr. (1989) Reinterpreting the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator from the perspective of the Five-Factor Model of personality.  Journal of Personality 57 1 17-40.

Myers, Isabel Briggs, McCaulley, Mary H, et al.  (1998)  MBTI Manual:  A Guide to the Development and Use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Palo Alto:  Consulting Psychologists Press

Reynierse, James H, & Harker, John B (2008) Preference multidimensionality and the fallacy of Type Dynamics:  Part 2 (Studies 4-6) Journal of Psychological Type 11 113-138.

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8 Responses to Why Does Psychology Diss the MBTI?

  1. Pingback: Utilizing Other Functions - Page 2

  2. Pingback: Der Fehler von Jung und MBTI – Ein Vorschlag für alternative Funktionen | TypenTest.de Blog

  3. INTJ says:

    Thanks for your recommendation on Portraits of type (just sent for it). I try to catch major reviews like that but completely missed that one.

    One thing that interests me about the MBTI people is that I suspect there are differences of opinion about type dynamics and rating preferences that are not seen in public, but are there. They publish the Bulletin, which is very clinical and traditional in its approach, but also publish the Journal of Psychological Type which freely publishes critical articles. Beyond that, they have completed their recent Step II version of the MBTI, which uses sub-facets within each preference area, and here they make a very clear point that you can have some facets that are “out of preference” even though your total score is for a specific preference. For example, an intuitive preference might have Abstract, Imaginative and Original on the Intuitive
    side, but show a slight preference for the Sensing facet of Practical, and a larger preference for Experiential (rather than Theoretical). That certainly seems to me to be an admission that the total number of responses for a preference have underlying meaning.

    I suspect it is partly being wedded to tradition that keeps the organization where it is, but it may also be a sales issue. In the Sorters that we designed and placed on our ParentingbyTemperament website, we take great pains in giving feedback to say that a score that is only a slight preference really suggests that you are pretty much in the middle, and with two or three of these you need to forget about establishing a type and just think about your stronger preferences. I think that is good advice–but I also suspect it isn’t very exciting and turns a lot of takers away from our book.

    • Lars says:

      I also recently read about the new (Step III?) Mbti version with subfacets. Since this contradicts the conception that you either fully have one preference or the other, i also think opinions on the inside of Mbti-development differ and what we see is some middle-way.

      The main reason is surely keeping up the tradition of Myers-Briggs original work and keeping good profit. On the other side i can’t see a reason why they shouldn’t make profit with a revised Mbti version which abolishes type dynamics and therefore becomes much easier to understand, recognizes research and becomes more scientifically accepted.
      Perhaps this has something to do with reluctance of admitting to be wrong, even if it could be sold as improvement and research outcome instead of failure.

      I too think this is good advice. After the years i also came to the conclusion that there are people for whom the types fit and people for whom they simply don’t fit, and it would be wrong to try to make them fit. Because, as you wrote, many have no clear preference in one or more areas. For them it is still helpful to learn about (their) preferences, but they can’t be sold the “type” thing if you acknowledge this.

      If Mbti acknowlegded this (along with research facts), they would have to change their whole system fundamentally, which is possible but risky. Never change a winning team or risk the cash-cow, even if its running in the wrong direction…

      • INTJ says:

        Thanks for your Type thoughts. There is actually a Step II and a Step III MBTI. The Step II is the one I mentioned, but Step III is still longer and includes a Neuroticism type scale. I haven’t seen that one, as they want you to have their training and certification before you can buy that one, regardless of your educational background.

        • Lars says:

          Interesting that they finally implemented Big Five neuroticism factor. This has in Germany already been done 10 years ago in the GPOP (Golden Profiler of Personality), which is essentially the same as Mbti (inluding type dynamics) + neuroticism factor (but is even less known than Mbti here).

          I now have read Rynierse follow up article “The Case Against Type Dynamics” of 2009, which sums up his arguments pretty good and leaves no room for reasonably arguments pro type dynamics. He has done some great work analyzing and deconstructing the whole type dynamics myth. I think he actually was kind to the type dynamics defenders, considering the many remarks from Quenk and Co. that type dynamics is the only real thing and those who oppose it just don’t understand type. Lets hope some people inside Mbti development take his work into account.

          I also like his theory of Preference Multidimensionality. It makes much sense and in comparsion to type dynamics its really dynamic (type dynamics are pretty static in fact, everyone is supposed to have a given set of functions). Treating all preferences equal so everyone has his own individual set of preferences creates many new possibilities. It also moves Mbti nearer to the factor approach of Big Five.

  4. Lars says:

    Absolutely agree. The type dynamics and Jungian preference functions are the biggest flaw of the Mbti. But the Mbti people are still dwelling on it and ignoring all research, be it in the area of Mbti or Big Five.
    The Jungian theory aspect of the Mbti is a pure matter of faith, and should have been abondoned long ago. Keirsey recognized this a long time ago (and introduced his temperament theory at the same time, which is nice to play around but also anything but scientifically valid).

    1999s Mbti Research Compendium “Portraits of Type” by Thorne and Gough might be of interest to you. In their evaluation of studies they also came to the conclusion that there is no support for the jungian function theory.

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