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Critics of Carl Gustav Jung’s Typology and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) often argues that it lacks scientific evidence and is therefore of no use, while those who approve of it tend to take no interest in whatever scientific investigations say and presuppose that the typology works anyway, relying on their own subjective validation (and relying on the opinion of others). I’m inclined to think of both of these views as unsatisfying.
In the ”meta-debate” about the value of MBTI I’ve noticed some different standpoints which somewhat simplified could be divided into three camps which I will be calling the Jungians, the MBTI:ers and the Scientists. I think all these three camps bring some important contribution, but each camp also tends to fail to recognize the value of the other camps. An aim of this article is to help these camps get better understanding of each other.
MBTI:ers, Jungians and Scientists
When speaking of MBTI:ers I mainly refer to the MBTI community on the Internet. There are several forums dedicated to the MBTI with people subscribing themselves and others to MBTI types signified by a 4-letter code. By Jungians I speak of Carl Jung himself and his followers. The Jungians have read original texts by Jung and generally don’t speak of MBTI types, and don’t approve of the specific MBTI theory. The Scientists I choose to call people who in general are skeptic of the MBTI. I could also have called this group the ”skeptics” or the ”critics”, but the general argument against MBTI is its lack of scientific evidence – and I wanted ”science” to be mentioned in the title as it will be central issue for the text.
An attempt to outline some tendencies of the groups
MBTI and Carl Jung
MBTI aiming to be an extension, but not an opposing theory to Jung
The MBTI is based on the work by Carl Jung. I think that it is important to stress that it is not developed opposed to Jung, but rather it is aiming to be an extension to the work of Jung. For example, Jung describes 8 different types, and Myers-Briggs adds for each type two subtypes making it a total of 16 types. Jung describes three different dichotomies, while Myers-Briggs adds to this a fourth dichotomy. According to Jung, if the first function (dominant) is introverted then the fourth (inferior) function is extraverted, but he doesn’t explicitly say anything about direction of second and third function, Myers-Briggs however adds that the third function is in line with first function and the second function is opposite of the first function. Jung vaguely spoke of his typology as a tool to be used (with a lot of caution) in psychotherapy, while Myers-Briggs had wide ideas of how to use the typology for career counseling.
Compare the work of Jung to a drawing, then Myers-Briggs can be seen as one who continues to draw on the same piece, filling holes which seems to be missing, adding more details etc.
The fixed vs. the unfixed
While Jung was interested in complicating … our world and the people in it, Myers seemed determined to tidy it up, make it neat. – Annie Murphy Paul, author of the book The Cult of Personality Testing (ref)
The MBTI describes 16 different types, each with a fixed set of abilities. Say the ESTP person for example, s/he is supposed to have the four functions Extraverted Thinking (Te), Introverted Sensing (Si), Extraverted Intuition (Ne), and Introverted Feeling (Fi). This is far from anything that Jung himself would ever claim. Compare with this quote by Jung:
I came to the conclusion that there must be as many different ways of viewing the world [as there are psychological types]. The aspect of the world is not one, it is many–at least 16, and you can just as well say 360. You can increase the number of principles, but I found the most simple way is the way I told you, the division by four, the simple and natural division of a circle. I didn’t know the symbolism then of this particular classification. Only when I studied the archetypes did I become aware that this is a very important archetypal pattern that plays an enormous role. (ref)
What you see is much more vagueness in the quote by Jung, compared to the MBTI. It may further be noted that when Jung speaks of personality types, he adds that every person is an exception against the rule.
There is both a strength and a weakness in the fixed. The strength is that it becomes more user-friendly. The vagueness of Jung will likely confuse people, while the fixation of MBTI appears more appealing. The weakness is that the fixation makes it less accurate, and is likely to mislead people. Imagine the work of Jung to a painting program on the computer where you can use some different tools to draw figures on the screen (like Microsoft Paint), then I’d say the MBTI is rather like a picture program where you have to choose from a given set of figures when creating a character. Say you want to add a pair of eyes to a character, then you get to choose one of many sets of eyes, but you may not choose, for example, to have the left eye blue and the right eye brown. The Jungian painting program has more potential, but on the other side it is more difficult to use – and so most people will find more value in the MBTI picture program. (I beg readers regard this comparison with caution as it is quite far-fetched)
To label or not to label people, that is the question
MBTI:ers often gets criticized for labeling people. Jungians stress that it is against the intentions of Jung. Jung often said that his typology is not at all intended to label people. For example this quote:
The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all. It is only the instrumentarium for the practical psychologist…
However, it is quite difficult to understand what Jung really meant by this. We may note that Jung himself quite frequently spoke of types of real people. For example this quote:
we might take Darwin as an example of the normal extraverted thinking type [and] the normal introverted thinking type could be represented by Kant
Or, when asked about his own “type”:
I most certainly was characterized by Thinking … and I had a great deal of Intuition, too. And I had a definite difficulty with Feeling. And my relation to reality was not particularly brilliant. … I was often at variance with the reality of things.
If Jung was categorically against the typing of people, he himself did not seem to live according to his word – and thus it will be hard to take him seriously on that point.
However, one may note that Jung’s typing is different to the way MBTI:ers usually type. Jung’s typing tends to be more vague. For example, he doesn’t explicitly say Kant was an introverted thinking type, but he says Kant represents introverted thinking. It is quite a difference to say for example that Kant represents introverted thinking in his philosophical work, compared to say that the essence of Kant’s personality is introverted thinking. And when speaking of himself, I think it’s no coincidence that he speaks in past tense (“was” rather than “is”) and from an outsiders perspective (“was characterized”), also may be noted that it’s not on his own initiative he speaks of his own functions, it is to answer somebody else’s question. These small nuance shifts may be very important to note in order to understand the difference between Jung’s typing and more usual MBTI-typing.
We may further on consider this quote by Jung:
Classification does not explain the individual psyche. Nevertheless, an understanding of psychological types opens the way to a better understanding of human psychology in general.
This indicates that the interest of the typology is not so much to understand individuals, but rather to understand human psychology in general. However, I think it’s much of a two-way relationship: getting closer understanding of human psychology in general makes it easier for you to understand individual psyches, just as getting better understanding of individual psyches help you get better understanding of human psychology in general.
Inconvenience between MBTI:ers and Jungians
The description above can help us understand the peculiar relationship between the MBTI:ers and the Jungians. It is natural for the MBTI:ers to maintain a positive attitude towards the Jungians, as they don’t want to reject Jung’s theory but instead add more and add further application for it (such as career counseling). The MBTI:ers naturally seeks friendship with the Jungians, while the Jungians naturally rejects the MBTI:ers.
MBTI, Jung’s Typology and Science
Jung’s typology, MBTI and scientific investigations
At first must be noted that Jung’s typology is not scientifically validated. Jung based his typology on his personal experiences, as a private person and as a professional psychiatrist, but he didn’t conduct any scientific investigations such as controlled studies to validate his theory. He mentioned he probably would have done statistical studies if he had the means, but he didn’t have the means. Nor did Myers-Briggs conduct any controlled scientific studies.
However other people have made some studies with the intention to investigate validity and reliability of the MBTI, and their results have been negative. I’ve been trying to find in-detail information and nuanced analysis about these studies, but it has been surprisingly hard. When people have been trying to explain the lack of scientific evidence for the MBTI, I haven’t found their explanations very impressive. These people tend to spend more time and energy in musing in the assumed stupidity of MBTI the MBTI:ers, rather than providing a nuanced in-depth analysis of actual scientific studies. Most common article referred to, when speaking of lack of evidence for MBTI, seems to be this one by psychology professor David Pittenger: Measuring the MBTI…And Coming Up Short
Some points being made here:
*According to MBTI, people are either introvert or extravert, and there are few people in the grey-zone in between. This would show a bimodal distribution on a statistic test. However, at tests conducted, no such results are shown, there is no bimodal distribution – thus the MBTI is not reliable.
*According to MBTI, people don’t change type. Studies however show that there is a low ”test – retest reliability”. People who do the test multiple times tend to get different results over time, which contradicts the MBTI theory that people do not change.
These results however, don’t say much to me. Mainly because I don’t think most MBTI-tests, are reliable in detecting actual functions of people. I know for myself, I’ve taken several of these MBTI-tests, and I tend to get different result every time, but I don’t think it’s because I’m changing type – rather I think it is the tests that are unreliable. And I know a relative of mine who had a professional MBTI-test and according to that test he had a preference for intuition, but out from my experience, knowing him for many years, he strikes me as a quite clear example of person with sensing preference. So then it doesn’t surprise me at all that there is no “bimodal distribution” or “test – retest reliability”, because the test was never accurate in the first place.
Subjective validation vs. objective validation
An example of a representative for the Scientists can be “The Skeptics Dictionary”. Here is an article which deals with both Jung’s typology and the MBTI at that site. It has some strong arguments, pointing out potential weaknesses of MBTI. There are several ways one can get mislead when one doesn’t use scientific investigation to validate ones theory. Some issues are brought up in Skeptics Dictionary’s article on Subjective validation. Associated problems when using subjective validation, which both Jungians and MBTI:ers do, include:
The forer effect, Self-deception, Confirmation bias, Selective thinking, Wishful thinking
MBTI:ers and Jungians are indeed likely to fall into traps listed above, but I’m inclined to say that so are also all other people. Looking at the Scientists criticism of MBTI for example, I think it’s fair to say that they themselves are drawn towards selective thinking, confirmation bias etc. Subjectivity is not something one gets away from so easily, and one may question if it’s all desirable to get away from subjectivity. Rather than dismiss subjectivity, one sometimes has to learn how to deal with it.
The articles above help to show the dangers of subjective validation. However, even if there are many problems with subjective validation, sometimes one will find that subjectivity is far superior to objectivity anyway. The Skeptics Dictionary may be good in highlighting problems of subjectivity, but it is also rather one-sided as it doesn’t seem to recognize that there are also many strengths of subjectivity. Objective validation has it’s problems and limits too, and sometimes subjective validation is to be preferred.
Some outlines for better scientific investigations
I want to claim, that in order to scientifically investigate the validity or usefulness of Jung’s typology and the MBTI, you need to confront yourself with extreme methodological difficulties. It will be very difficult both to set up a plan for a study, implement the study, and then interpret and mediate the results. When one is dealing with methodological difficulties, it can be reason to turn to philosophers rather than scientists for advice. Consider for example this quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein:
One of the most important tasks is to express all false thought processes so characteristically that the reader says, “Yes, that’s exactly the way I meant it”. To make a tracing of the physiognomy of every error. Indeed we can only convict someone else of a mistake if he acknowledges that this really is the expression of his feeling.
or this quote by Soren Kierkegaard:
If we wish to succeed in helping someone to reach a particular goal we must first find out where he is now and start from there.
Here Scientists seems to be coming short, they do not care to find out where their target really is at – and so when they think they are attacking MBTI:ers and Jungians they are in fact attacking something which the MBTI:ers and Jungians tend to not quite recognize. The quote below by John B. Lloyd may serve as an example of where many MBTI:ers/Jungians considers themselves to be, and why they often consider themselves invulnerable to the Scientists attacks:
The Myers-Briggs understanding of personality type can be seen as a hierarchy of two levels, the first of these theory-free, the second theory-laden. Stripped of its theoretical framework, Myers-Briggs typology becomes a simple taxonomy, with 16 types identified only by their observed characteristics. Parallels with 18th-century botany and zoology and with (the 20th century) Colour Me Beautiful illustrate that taxonomies can exist robustly without a supporting theoretical framework. Furthermore, Myers-Briggs typology retains much of its practical value when reduced to a theory-free taxonomy. The two levels of Myers-Briggs typology differ in their epistemic status. Myers-Briggs typology as a theory free taxonomy cannot be falsified and indeed does not need to claim that it is the only possible classification. By contrast, Myers-Briggs theory postulates the existence and singular importance of a number of entities (e.g., the four pairs of polarities) and the determinative nature of the dynamic interaction between the four components of a personality type. All of this is open to question and, in theory if not yet in practice, to testing and therefore conceivably to falsification. (ref)
I do not think Lloyd’s reasoning is unproblematic here (I’m inclined to think that his presupposition that something can have a practical value and yet cannot be falsified is contradictory) but I do think he has some good points and it helps to bring another perspective.
When you’ve appropriately set up a plan for a scientific study, most likely you will find that it cannot really be an interesting question ”if” there is scientific support for Jungian typology and MBTI, but rather ”in what sense” and ”to what extent” there is scientific support.
Reading this article one may think I favor the Jungians in front of the MBTI:ers. In a sense I am, but I think that the Jungians fails in one important aspect in which the MBTI:ers succeed. A problem with the Jungians is that they don’t manage to reach out to many people. Myers-Briggs succeeds in doing something which few others have succeeded with, that is mediating something profound (which I do believe the Jungian typology is) to a broad audience.
The Scientists help to show some of the problems with the MBTI, but they are being one-sided and ignorant when they end up seeing no value at all in the typology. The MBTI:ers tend to underrate the value and usefulness of objective validation, while Scientists tend to underrate the value and usefulness of subjectivity. Subjective validation is sometimes needed, it cannot always be replaced by objective validation, but one needs to recognize the dangers with subjective validation.
Meanwhile working on this article, I’ve come to realize that I myself have been simplifying in articles I’ve written on Jungian typology. For example, in some articles I’ve written about introverted intuition, without having accurate understanding of what it really is.
References and further reading
Texts that exemplify the Jungian approach
Psychological Types by Carl Jung
Personality Types: Jung’s Model of Typology by Daryl Sharp
Tracking the Elusive Human – Part I: C.G. Jung’s Psychological Types by James and Tyra Arraj – This text gives a good biographical background to Jung’s work Psychological Types, and also deals with the question of why Jung wasn’t pleased with how others used his typology. In my opinion one of the better texts written on the topic.
Texts that exemplify the MBTI approach
Typology Central – One of many MBTI/typology forums
personalitypage.com – One of many pages where you can read about the different MBTI types
Texts that exemplify the “Scientist”/skeptic approach
infj or estp idgaf the mbti and beyond
myers briggs test unscientific
Why the Myers-Briggs test is totally meaningless
Free Jung Typology/MBTI test
The Battle of the Giants: Big Five versus MBTI @ staffanspersonalityblog – A well-written, nuanced analysis, comparing MBTI and Big Five personality classification
My journey into (and out of) MBTI.
Jung and the post-Jungians – An article mapping different fractions of Jungians/Post-Jungians, also placing in the MBTI/Type Society.
What is so special about Jungian Typology?
Jung’s Typology and Philosophy
Alan Watts on Science, Buddhism, Jung and Wittgenstein
Wittgenstein MBTI, Why he was Introverted iNtuitive (INxJ)
The task of philosophy is to use ”introverted intuition”?