To investigate the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the most popular personality inventory in the world, is to court a kind of low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.
In the fall of 2015, I was seven months pregnant and rifling through the archives of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Many people are familiar with the ETS as the longtime publisher of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), but it was also the first publisher of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the first institution to try to determine its scientific validity in the 1960s. Some months before, I had written a controversial article on the origins of Myers-Briggs, and it seemed my reputation had preceded me. In anticipation of my arrival, the staff had removed a folder containing letters from ETS staff to Isabel Briggs Myers, creator of the type indicator. When I asked to see the letters, there was a bit of hushed talk and a brief consultation with a lawyer before the archivist told me that he would not share them with me because of the “sensitive information” they contained. Later that day, a young male ETS employee who, I would later learn, was tasked with surveilling me during my visit, posted the following message to his Twitter account: “Today I’m creeping on a pregnant lady as part of my job.” He seemed an ambivalent creeper or perhaps just an incompetent one. He proceeded to post a link to the article I had written and tagged me in his subsequent post. “Great article by the lady I had to creep on this morning,” he wrote.
If anything, this sort of occurrence has been more typical than not of my journey into the world of personality testing. In the years that I have spent writing this book, I have encountered secrets and lies and various strategies of bureaucratic obstruction, some more obvious and objectionable than others. It started early in 2013—the moment when I started researching the life and work of Isabel Briggs Myers, about whom very little was known, other than that she was born in 1897, died in 1980, and with the help of her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, created the type indicator sometime in between. After Isabel’s death, her son had donated her personal papers to the University of Florida, which was a five-minute drive from the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT): a nonprofit research center that Isabel had helped found just before she died but that now served as the guardian of the type indicator’s trade secrets and protector of its creator’s legacy. Although her papers were technically the property of the university—and thus should have been open to public use—they required permission from CAPT to access. I applied to CAPT for permission, and twice I was assured by the university librarian, a gentle and apologetic man, that I would never receive it. “The staff is very invested in protecting Isabel’s image,” he warned me. In the past, they had done whatever they needed to do to keep people from scrutinizing her life too closely. Why her image should need protection, I did not yet understand.
After nine months of waiting to hear back about the status of my application, I was asked by CAPT to prove my commitment to Myers-Briggs by undergoing a “re-education program”: a nearly two-thousand-dollar, four-day Myers-Briggs accreditation session that took place in the United Jewish Federation building on East Fifty-ninth Street in Manhattan. The accreditation session was led by a self-assured, fashionable woman in her fifties named Patricia, and she promised to teach me and my twenty-five fellow participants—Fortune 500 executives from the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, and China, high school and college guidance counselors, dating coaches, a Department of Defense administrator, an astrologist, a retired priest—how to “speak type fluently.” This was how Patricia put it, as if speaking type would soon become the most natural thing in the world to us. “This is only the beginning!” she said when we first filed into the room. “Just think of this as a language immersion program.”
Among the various people and instructions that I observed at my re-education program, the most striking was Patricia’s insistence that one’s ability to “speak type fluently” depended on regulating with great care the language one used to describe the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to the uninitiated. The first rule of speaking type, Patricia said, was that you had to memorize the history of type. Sometime in the 1940s, during the closing years of World War II, two women, a mother and daughter named Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, designed a lengthy and ingenious questionnaire that assessed one’s personality along four dimensions of ordinary human behavior: extraversion (E) and introversion (I); sensing (S) and intuition (N); thinking (T) and feeling (F); and judging (J) and perceiving (P). The categories were easy to understand and universally relatable, Patricia claimed. “Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I),” explained the first slide she showed us. She clicked to the second. “Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition ( N).” The third: “When making decisions, do you prefer to look first at logic and consistency or first look at people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).” And the final one: “In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).”
How one answered the ninety-three items on the questionnaire would determine one’s personality: one of the sixteen possible four-letter combinations that revealed your true self—your “shoes-off self,” as Isabel liked to say—to you. We were told that both their questionnaire and their categories of personality (E/I, S/N, T/F, J/P) were based on the writings of Carl Gustav Jung, one of the twentieth century’s most influential personality psychologists and author of the 1921 book Psychological Types. It was not necessary for us to know anything else about Jung other than his name. “Jung is a very respected name, a big name,” Patricia told us. “Even if you don’t know who he is, know his name. His name gives the test validity.”
The second rule of speaking type was that you did not, under any circumstances, refer to the type indicator as a “test.” It was a “self-reporting instrument” or an “indicator,” Patricia explained. “People use the word ‘test’ all the time, but what you’re taking is an indicator. It’s indicating your personality based on what you told the test.” Although her statement sounded tautological, Patricia assured us that it was not. Unlike a standardized test like the SAT, which asked the test taker to choose between right and wrong answers, the type indicator had no right or wrong answers—only two competing preferences. “In reading for pleasure, do you (a) Enjoy odd or original ways of saying things; or (b) Like writers to say exactly what they mean?” “If you were a teacher, would you rather teach (a) Fact courses; or (b) Courses involving theory?” And unlike a standardized test, in which a higher score was always more desirable than a lower one, there were no better or worse types. In a riposte to the long and punishing tradition of psychological testing in America, which had proceeded by separating apparently normal people from neurotics, psychotics, and sociopaths, all sixteen types were created equal. They each had their strengths and weaknesses and their special place in the world.
The final rule of speaking type was, to my mind, the most important and the most unsettling: you had to conceive of personality as an innate characteristic, something fixed since birth and immutable, like blue eyes or left-handedness. “You have to buy into the idea that type never changes,” Patricia ordered us, and she asked that we chant after her: “Type never changes! Type never changes!” “We will brand this into your brains,” she promised. “The theory behind the indicator supports the fact that you are born with a four-letter preference. If you hear someone say, ‘My type changed,’ they are not correct.” Her insistence on a singular and essential self—a self whose moods and mysteries were crystallized by four simple letters—seemed to me impossibly retrograde amidst the cheerful promises of self-transformation through diet, exercise, travel, therapy, and meditation that I encountered in popular culture every day. Yet it also struck me as an irresistibly attractive fiction. There was a certain narcissistic beauty to the idea, a certain luminance to the promise that, by learning to speak type, we could learn to compress the gestures of our messy, complicated lives into a coherent life story, one capable of expressing both to ourselves and to others not just who we were but who we had been all along. What type offered us was a vision of individual identity in its most transcendent and transparent form. “Who are you?” the type indicator asked. “I am a clear ENTJ,” Patricia answered. “I am an ISFP,” the woman sitting next to me whispered in return. What other language afforded such clarity? Who would not want to believe in it? (XIV)
For Katharine Briggs, the only man more dangerous than Hitler was U.S. president Franklin Delano Roosevelt—an extravert like Hitler, but unlike Hitler a feeling type. The scrapbook she kept during the war contained no reports from the battlefields of Dunkirk or Stalingrad, no lists of saved prisoners or photos of triumphant GIs. Instead, it preserved dozens of pamphlets decrying Roosevelt’s “State Socialism,” emphasizing the weakness of his personality, questioning his fitness to lead the country during war. It was another issue on which Chief and his mother-in-law did not see eye to eye. “Whatever his peacetime sins, this man Roosevelt has shown that he does not intend to fight Hitler with an umbrella,” he wrote in a letter to the local newspaper, an implicit rebuke to Katharine’s political sensibilities, informed by her typing of the major players in the European theater of war.
As a family, the Briggses were also involved with the war effort, although not through the politicization of personality type that Katharine’s unpublished writings on Hitler suggested. In 1939, Lyman, who had served as director of the Bureau of Standards for the past five years, had been asked by President Roosevelt to head the Advisory Committee on Uranium. At about the same time the United States entered the war, three of the world’s leading physicists—Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—had concluded that an enriched element called “uranium-235” was a fissile isotope: a material capable of sustaining a nuclear chain reaction. “This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed,” Einstein warned Roosevelt. “In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence.” The president had tapped Lyman to play liaison to the physicists while he and his advisors struggled to decide whether the U.S. government should help usher the world into the atomic age. It promised to be an era of “global neuroses,” a “death haunted time,” Henry Murray had predicted in 1938 of the world-altering invention of nuclear weapons.
Lyman’s participation on the advisory committee was a matter of much consternation in the Briggs household. Despite her ambition to reconcile the modern social order with spirituality, Katharine feared and detested the day-to-day machinations of politics. “Nothing in the modern scene is more pitiful than the masses of people who say their prayers to ‘Government,’ and look to the politicians for their salvation,” she wrote in her assessment of Hitler. She had no patience for Roosevelt, whose commitment to centralized planning and regimentation was matched only by Hitler’s totalitarian ambitions. She was certain that Roosevelt had already made up his mind about the atomic bomb. His appointment of Lyman to the advisory committee, she told her husband, was just a ham-fisted attempt to pressure the scientific community into providing him with evidence. That way, he could justify his decision to Congress and the American people by appealing to their sensing and thinking sides—empiricism run amok.
In her diary, she dramatized the meeting between the president and her husband. “A political go-getter, a very important and powerful one perhaps, may come to a Government scientist for help,” she wrote. “ ‘I’m preparing a political speech,’ he explains, ‘and I’d like you to do a bit of scientific research for me. I want you to prove that such and such is thus and so.’ ‘Well!’ replies the scientist coldly. ‘I’ll be glad to investigate the matter for you, but I can’t promise beforehand what will be “proved”! Perhaps such and such is not thus and so!’ ‘It better be!’ returns the politician implying a threat to the scientist’s job if his findings are not satisfactory. ‘You know what I want.’ ” Katharine believed that Roosevelt, like Hitler, had sustained his wartime powers by persuading intellectuals, scientists, and bureaucrats to abandon their moral convictions to support his agenda.
Isabel did not share her mother’s animosity toward the president; she was frightened by what the Nazis’ savagery revealed about mankind’s will to power. “In the darkest days of World War Two when the Germans were rolling irresistibly along and my shoulders ached with trying to hold them back and the horrible sinking feeling lived in the pit of my stomach, the thought came to me one day—I was making my bed at the time—that by letting them spoil my life that way I was helping them win,” Isabel recalled to a friend years later. It was a peculiar sentiment, striking for how it mingled political sensitivity with self-absorption; the “horrible sinking feeling” that “lived in the pit of [her] stomach” was not, in any way, helping the Nazis win; their spoilage of her life was nothing compared to the lives they had stolen in the camps. She knew this, of course. She had volunteered as an aircraft spotter for the Civil Air Patrol, a nurse with the Red Cross, a secretary with a housing program for European refugee children. She had witnessed the very real toll the war had taken on families. But now she wanted to do something to help herself and to shake her fears, something more suited to her “intellectual capabilities,” she told her mother, than the typical jobs assigned to women on the home front.
She was not used to reckoning with such strong feelings of despair. For her, the personal did not seem truly political: not when she gamely defended socialist revolutionaries in college; not when she acknowledged, with a smile and a shrug, the emotional labor that she performed for her husband and his fellow officers at flight camp. Until the end of the war, her experience of the world seemed buffered from anything that did not directly affect her home or her family. There was nothing of note in her “Diary of an Introvert Determined to Extravert, Write, & Have a Lot of Children” after the publication of Give Me Death in 1934. Life seemed to have proceeded tranquilly, if not exactly according to plan—the fame and fortune she had sought as a mystery writer had eluded her—then without any dramatic disruptions. Her children had grown into handsome, accomplished adolescents. Her husband had enjoyed a series of promotions at work. She believed she had made peace with her fate as a middle-class homemaker, even if she sometimes found it hard to distinguish between true happiness and complacency.
Every now and again, she recalled the newspaper interview she had given on type and relationships, when she had rifled through her mother’s notes on feeling and thinking types, ventriloquizing her mother’s passion for Jung’s theories as the key to a happy marriage. Her mother, almost seventy years old and showing some signs of the dementia that would eventually claim her mind, had never landed on the right tools for bringing Jungian theory to the masses. Isabel wondered if Katharine’s alignment of self-knowledge and self-mastery with spiritual conviction had hurt her cause, making it too philosophical and esoteric for the average person to grasp for any practical purpose. Now books with commanding titles like Wake Up and Live! (1936), Think and Grow Rich (1937), and How Never to Be Tired (1944) had hooked readers with the explicit promise that attending to the self could be useful—that it could make you richer and happier, more attractive, more productive, and more popular, but only if you were willing to change who you were. “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve?” asked Dale Carnegie in his 1936 best seller How to Win Friends and Influence People. “Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others—yes, and a lot less dangerous.”
Isabel did not believe people should have to “change and regulate and improve” to make their lives rich and profitable. She had alighted on Jung’s theory not as a personal religion but as a practical tool, first for saving marriages and, now, for safeguarding what she took to be a distinctly American way of life. With the men of the nation off fighting in Europe, more married women had started to enter the workforce, a throwback to the summer days of 1918 when Isabel, alone in her boardinghouse in Memphis, had pondered how men and women could put their “different gifts” toward different tasks. Now she wondered what she could do to stop the Germans from winning and making the world over in their image, imposing a world view that had no respect for feeling and thus no compunction about trampling on people’s inalienable rights. “I made up my mind that there was no logic or justification for turning possible future unhappiness into certain present unhappiness by being afraid of it,” she thought. “Do what you can to make a better world but don’t throw away one day or one minute of the world you have gone.”
Days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, she appropriated her mother’s preliminary materials for a Jungian questionnaire to design a prototype for a test that could match people of differing gifts to different professions. Her mother’s ideas about specialization had primed her for the task long ago, but it was a recent article in Reader’s Digest on personality testing that showed her how to execute it. From reading it, she learned that there were hundreds of personality tests that promised to classify workers as normal or abnormal, so that employers could avoid assigning an overly anxious or depressive man to a high-pressure job. At the same time, there were hundreds of psychological consulting firms that had created an industry out of administering these tests—a logistical convenience, to be sure, but also a means of protecting the employers from whatever hostility might develop as a result of demoting or firing people based on the test results. But what if she could design a test that generated only positive results? It would not be a test at all but an “indicator”—a device that provided information about one’s personality free from judgment or opprobrium.
She called her device “Form A” of the “Briggs-Myers Type Indicator.” She insisted on placing Katharine’s last name first. It seemed the right way to enshrine her deep indebtedness to her mother’s life’s work. (Pg.117)
WE&P by: EZorrilla
The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing Kindle Edition
by Merve Emre
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