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Articles on MBTI ® applications: The Cult of Personality ?

"The Cult of Personality" by Annie Murphy Paul

The "Personality Cult" book has created quite a stir among Myers-Briggs practitioners for its broadside attack on the MBTI ® and the reputation of its originator Isabel Myers. Because there was interest in the book and controversy over a number of charges made by Paul, we invited two internationally known "students" of Jung's and Myer's work to look at the book and give us an assessment of what lies within the covers of this intriguing title.

"Why the MBTI® Test is Totally Meaningless" by Joel Stromberg
"Goodbye to MBTI, the Fad That Won't Die" by Adam Grant

Well it has happened again. A pair of articles slamming the MBTI, Carl Jung, and Myers-Briggs Personality Types has gained traction on the Internet and created quite a stir.

The authors have achieved their main objective - get published and obtain recognition by attacking an icon or a well-established, recognized name in a field of endeavor.

tri Go Here to read the comments of MBTI Educators Jane Kise & Roger Pearman responding to the latest broadside attack on the MBTI

"The Cult of Personality" or "The Cult of Journalism"?

Steve Myers, INFP - Wirral, UK

Annie Murphy Paul: The Cult of Personality - How Personality Tests are leading us to miseducate our children, mismanage our companies and misunderstand ourselves. Free Press NY 2004 ISBN 0-7432-4356-0

"The Cult of Personality" seems to have originated from an important premise. The results of Psychometric or Personality Questionnaires are often given far too much credence. They are often used in inappropriate ways, to limit and to stereotype, and to make judgments for which they were not intended. The best Personality Questionnaires are supported by reliability and validity research - but even the best research shows that such questionnaires can sometimes be wrong. But that fact is often forgotten, and as a result many people (including some 'qualified practitioners') misuse or abuse personality questionnaires by giving their results more authority than they deserve, or using them in contexts that are inappropriate.

This is such a problem that even the authors, suppliers and proponents of personality questionnaires are concerned about it. They place restrictions on who can purchase them. They run qualification courses to educate potential users about the dangers. They operate 'certification schemes' to motivate practitioners to engage in continuing education. They only issue materials to people who have passed exams to demonstrate their competence. But, even so, there are still people who misuse them.

In that context, "The Cult of Personality" could have been a landmark book, with the potential to be recommended as "must read" for anyone going through qualification training in psychometrics. At the heart of the book are some very important issues that need to be considered by both publishers and users of such instruments. And it contains some advice that is much needed - such as the caution that should be exercised when using questionnaires, and the questions to ask prior to completing one. There is certainly a need for a book such as "The Cult of Personality", and anyone who is not connected with the profession might think that "The Cult of Personality" fills that gap.

However, although the book contains many turns of phrase that will no doubt be popular and appeal to basic 'fears' of injustice and big-business conspiracy, there are many problems with this book that weaken its case and undermine the judgments it makes. It treats opinion as if it were fact, presents some facts in misleading ways, treats complex issues in a rather simplistic manner, and sometimes makes straightforward errors.

Simplistic analysis

An example of the simplistic approach taken is that blame for stereotyping is laid at the door of psychometric instruments. Actually, it is people who stereotype, not psychometric instruments. Stereotyping existed long before psychometric questionnaires were thought of (as ancient religious texts show), and if we removed all the psychometrics in the world, stereotyping would continue to be a common product of human nature.

In fact, psychometric questionnaires such as the MBTI can help solve the problem of stereotyping. This is because stereotypes usually originate from some kind of inter-group conflict, whether based on race, nationality, occupation, language, accent/dialect... or personality differences. The MBTI is used to illustrate those personality differences between people that naturally lead to stereotyping. Once those differences are recognized, you are then much more able to avoid "type bias" (which is seeing people who have different personality attributes in negative stereotypical terms). How else can you deal with a prejudice, if you aren't first made aware of it?.

Another example of the book's simplistic approach is that Psychological Type is mistaken as a substitute for the whole of personality. It is therefore dismissed as being of little worth in understanding the individual. This is akin to dismissing a test for handedness because "people are more complex than sorting between right-handed people and left-handed people". Yet understanding handedness is vital in many areas, from the treatment of individuals with dyslexia to the design of scissors.

Sweeping dismissal of research

The book questions the basic legitimacy of the MBTI and, in doing so, mentions, then dismisses, 7,800 research studies that have been conducted using the MBTI. Grounds for this wholesale rejection are either that the studies have been produced by people with vested interests or they have not been subject to proper scrutiny. However...

  • it appears that the author did not actually look at any of the studies before forming her conclusion.
  • the book appears to be one-sided, in reporting the opinions of some psychologists without acknowledging that there are always proponents and opponents of any area of study.
  • the book relies on a pulication by Druckman and Bjork as a basis for dismissing the MBTI; in fact, that book, more than a decade old, was constructive in calling for better standards of research (a criticism accepted by many within the MBTI community), and influenced the work of many subsequent researchers.
  • many of these studies in recent years involved successful defense of PhD submissions at widely-respected institutions.

Of the 7,800 studies involving the MBTI, some may have failed to live up to the normal standards of academic research (as in any field of research). Perhaps there is even a majority (to be honest, I don't know because I haven't read them all!). But I have read some, and am aware of the work of others, and I have strong reservations about a sweeping generalisation that makes a wholesale dismissal. While it makes for appealing copy, tarring every study with the same brush does not seem to be the right approach to take if one has a serious interest in the issues.

> > Page 2 - Myers Review of " The Cult of Personality" by Annie Paul

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About Steve Myers

Steve Myers offers a review of "The Cult of Personality" by Annie Murphy Paul, a former editor of "Psychology Today."

Criticizing the tool rather than the tool users, Paul has painted with a broad brush protesting the use of personality testing, including lumping the MBTI among the medicine she believes society can do without.