In defence of the MBTI
In her critique of the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) (‘New voices: Helpful categorisation or limiting label?’, July 2015), Caitlin Cherry describes herself as an INFP (she also questions the value of this description) who, despite preferring Feeling, ‘sometimes’ likes ‘conflict and debate’. Well, I too am an INFP who sometimes enjoys a debate and I’d like to offer some brief counter-arguments and elaborations.
First, I think Cherry misunderstands the central concept in MBTI theory of preference. Preference can be defined as ‘feeling most natural and comfortable with a particular way of behaving and experiencing’. For example, although people who prefer Feeling tend to enjoy debates less than those who prefer Thinking and may therefore generally debate less often and with less comfort and sense of fulfilment when they do, we nevertheless, according to MBTI theory, can do it – hence my emphasis in the first paragraph on the word ‘sometimes’. In other words, we each develop our non-preferences too but they are not, in normal development, as well-developed as our preferences nor, in MBTI theory, would this be desirable.
A possibility here is to help someone rank order both their preferences and their non-preferences in terms of development. An INFP for example, again given normal development, could be an NPIFSTJE or numerous other permutations. This level of description would be helpful for some people and the crisper, more manageable INFP level for others. A strength of the longer variation is that it explicitly recognises that the non-preferences are part of each personality too, as illustrated well in Cherry’s analyses. It would also mean creating many more descriptions, and of course more still if further pairs of preferences were added to the standard four pairs. Anxiety, reframed as preference for Worried versus Calm, is a main contender (Bayne, 2013).
Second, Cherry states that the MBTI has a ‘questionable scientific base’, which in context I take to mean that the evidence for its validity is ‘weak’ or ‘fundamentally flawed’. Many psychologists and textbooks make the same misjudgement. The simplest counter-argument is that the main measure associated with a rival theory of personality (Big Five theory) correlates highly with the MBTI, that the evidence for the validity of one of these theories therefore generally supports both, and that Big Five theory is currently the best researched and most widely accepted theory of the traits/preferences level of personality.
Third, I found Cherry Caitlin’s vivid illustrations of the effects, both positive and harmful, of MBTI and MBTI-like personality test results, and of the related inaccurate descriptions of some of them, particularly powerful. I imagine that we’d agree that competent feedback is vital to enhance the positive effects and reduce the harmful ones and that competence includes the following: stating and meaning that it is the person whose results they are who decides on their accuracy; emphasising that the results are a step towards understanding part of their individuality; and suggesting other approaches to increasing self-awareness and self-respect, such as strengths, projects, values and life stories, which may complement the results or for the particular person be more helpful than them. I also think test results can be treated as too authoritative and that exercises and discussion can work well without them (Bayne, 2013).
Emeritus Professor of Psychology and Counselling
University of East London
Bayne, R. (2013). The counsellor’s guide to personality. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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