Know thyself. This phrase is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which was built in the 4th century B.C. It’s most commonly attributed to Socrates (470–399 B.C.), who often referred to this Delphic aphorism in his teachings. Suffice it to say, this phrase has a long history.
Without knowing its origins, however, one might mistake it for the anthem of our own day. Our society is infused with self: self-discovery, self-help, selfies. Knowing thyself seems to be the root of our daily existence. Yet, for all our self-reflection, few of us would claim success in knowing the depths of our own hearts and souls. If anything, the quest has made us aware of all we don’t know, thereby intensifying our desire to unlock the mysteries within.
The desire to know ourselves is what prompts us, for example, to take those online pop-culture quizzes. We long to know which movie or TV character we most resemble or which Mamma Mia! character would be our BFF. Do you know which Hogwarts house you would be sorted into? Or which iconic ’90s music video you are? We click through the questions, despite doubting the scientific accuracy of the results—perhaps this is the missing knowledge that will finally give us a defining sense of self.
The Quest for the Perfect Personality
Interest in personality testing actually began long before these quizzes. There’s a history here too—not as far back as Socrates, of course, but one full of mystery nonetheless. One test in particular, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is the subject of a new book by Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University. Titled The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, the book traces the development of the Myers-Briggs test, assessing its impact on our culture and examining both the praise and criticism it has garnered.
Why all the fuss about a single personality quiz? As Emre explains, the Myers-Briggs is a lucrative $500 million industry and an influential field of study spanning “twenty-six countries and more than two dozen languages.” The reach of this particular test is unlike any other. Despite its prominent place in personality-profile history—or, perhaps, because of it—the Myers-Briggs receives plenty of scorn for how it was created and developed. And revealing that backstory is where Emre’s book shines.
The Personality Brokers takes us to the beginning, before Myers-Briggs was an assessment tool, and introduces us to its creators: Katherine Cook Briggs (1875–1968) and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers (1897–1980). Development began when Katherine sought to “conduct daily trials in living that would shape the outer and inner worlds of the people she loved best” by making “her home into a laboratory of personality research.” Katherine was a home scientist; her family, the experimental subjects. Over the course of Isabel’s childhood, Katherine took notes and tested theories in her quest to mold Isabel into the picture-perfect child. The results were positive and obvious to all.
Eventually, Katherine opened her home to neighbors and acquaintances who wanted to learn these successful parenting techniques for rearing their own children. Key to parenting success, according to Katherine, was understanding the child’s personality type; the questionnaire she developed was the precursor to the personality test now used by countless corporations, government entities, and universities.
Much transpired between that first home survey and today’s Myers-Briggs. The details unfold novel-like from one chapter to the next in The Personality Brokers. Besides the creators, we meet various influencers (Carl Jung, Edward Hay, Donald MacKinnon, Mary McCaulley, and others) and early adopters (like the US government, Educational Testing Service, and the University of California, Berkeley).
Emre takes readers along for the wild ride as the Myers-Briggs evolves from infancy to youth to maturity—no easy road. From the start, the test had as many fierce critics as champions. The main critique lodged against it was that the questions and results were pieced together over several decades by two people with no formal training in psychoanalysis. In addition, results were often inconsistent for test subjects over time. All things considered, it’s truly a marvel the Myers-Briggs survived its pilgrimage to become such a commonplace assessment tool.
A Diagnosis, not a Cure
The first time I took the Myers-Briggs, I was in my early 20s, and I was completely unaware of the history or the controversy. I approached the “test” with enthusiasm, carefully marking my answer sheet as I processed my responses to questions about my preferences for social situations, hobbies, work environment, and the like. The questions are “forced-choice,” so respondents select one of two answers—which means you are sometimes choosing an answer that is close enough but not exactly right. This bothered me, as I feared settling for an answer would skew the results. This too is a common critique of Myers-Briggs, one that Isabel Myers justified using the Jungian theory of “enantiodromia,” what Erme describes as “a ‘going over to the opposite’ in which one of the preferences a person did not express [in the first test] ascended to a ‘much more honored place’ in the psyche” by the second test. Myers believed the test assisted its subjects in self-discovery, revealing deeper truths with every pass.
The test provides subjects with a type (one of 16) based on results from four key categories:
Are you outwardly or inwardly focused? (Extraversion or Introversion)
How do you prefer to take in information? (Sensing or Intuition)
How do you prefer to make decisions? (Thinking or Feeling)
How do you prefer to live your outer life? (Judging or Perceiving)
My first results were more affirmation than surprise. While I was not shocked with my INFP type, what was surprising was how meaningful it was to read about my type and how INFPs function in the world. For example, I didn’t realize that making decisions in the moment was something common to Perceiving types but utterly stressful to Judging types. And it now made sense why my dreamy, overly detailed way of speaking (Intuitive type) didn’t click well with some people (Sensing types).
Socrates was right—understanding myself was key to better living. Being aware of specific ways people are wired has helped me show grace for others (and sometimes even for myself). It’s hard to love your neighbor as yourself when your neighbor acts in very different, often confusing or downright annoying ways. The 16 Myers-Briggs personality types have given us a place to start in relating well to others. In this sense, Emre is correct to observe that the Myers-Briggs has given us “a shared ethos of self-contemplation, an inward gaze that many people once looked to religious institutions and religious authorities to provide.”
It may be this shift that raises suspicions among so many people of faith. Should God’s people rely on tools developed outside of the faith to speak to our human condition? Is it possible for a tool designed by flawed humans to speak truth? Like all man-made constructs, there are flaws and blind spots in the Myers-Briggs. Some Christians believe personality profiling to be nearly evil and call true believers to shun such things. Others call for a tempered approach: Take what’s good, discard the rest, and beware how much power you give your type.
Such is the caution Alistair Roberts issues in an article at Mere Orthodoxy:
We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.
Learning our type, in essence, is equivalent to gazing into a mirror for the soul. The Myers-Briggs highlights patterns and tendencies, but it doesn’t have the power to help us correct the weak parts of who we are. It hands us a diagnosis, not a cure. Knowing yourself—knowing your type—isn’t enough, because the knowledge isn’t enough to set us free. We are still a people in need of a Savior, no matter which four letters the Myers-Briggs test assigns us.
Erin Straza is managing editor of Christ and Pop Culture and host of the Persuasion podcast. She is the author of Comfort Detox: Finding Freedom from Habits That Bind You (InterVarsity Press).