MBTI Facts and common criticisms
Vanessa Bradford, The Myers-Briggs Company
You may have heard or read things about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) assessment that cause you to question its validity. Here, we’ll address some of the most common criticisms and misconceptions, and answer some common questions about the assessment.
A quick bit of history
Let’s look at a few MBTI facts. The MBTI assessment has been around for more than 75 years, and for over 40 of those years, it has been available as a tool for organizations in education, government, and industry, as well as for use by MBTI Certified Practitioners.
People use the assessment to gain a better grasp of the natural differences between people and to put that knowledge to good use in a wide variety of public and private settings.
- The MBTI assessment is available worldwide and in 29 different languages.
- 88 Fortune 100 companies have used the MBTI assessment.
- Millions of people take the assessment each year.
The latest form of the MBTI assessment—the MBTI® Global Step I™ assessment—is the result of a complex and painstaking process of research and constant development. Decades of testing has led to fully developed assessment items based on many thousands of representative samples. These items have been continuously analyzed for functionality and tested for statistical integrity with diverse sets of people since the mid-20th century.
Origins of the MBTI® assessment
Talking about the MBTI assessment begins with the work of Katharine Briggs (1875–1968), a writer and scholar who spent her lifetime analyzing and studying human personality. Briggs’s fascination with personality led her to spend tens of thousands of hours studying the subject, reading biographies, and analyzing personalities. Using what she learned through study and observation, Briggs created a framework for understanding personality type. She developed her first system of personality typology during World War I.1
In 1923, renowned Swiss psychologist Carl Jung published his groundbreaking work on personality types, Psychological Types,2 in English. Jung is now considered one of the founders of modern psychology.
Briggs studied Jung’s work and recognized a close resemblance to the framework she had been working on. Realizing that Jung’s work had surpassed her own, she abandoned her framework and began to focus on Jung’s theory of psychological types.
During the World War II years Briggs’s daughter, Isabel Myers (1897–1980), took an interest in discovering how to harness personality differences in a way that allowed people to make productive use of her mother’s development of Jung’s theory. Myers had long admired her mother’s work, and so she set out to create a useful tool—a personality indicator. She revealed the first version of the MBTI assessment in 1943.3 Myers spent the next decade testing different forms of the MBTI assessment using data gathered from over 5,000 medical students and 10,000 nurses.4 Her work continued and, in 1957, she and Educational Testing Service (ETS) reached an agreement to publish the MBTI assessment for research purposes.
In 1962, ETS published an updated form of the MBTI assessment, accompanied by a users’ manual, still primarily for research purposes.5 In 1975, Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc. (now The Myers-Briggs Company) first published the MBTI assessment for practical application. Since then, the assessment has steadily grown in popularity due to the benefits it affords organizations of all kinds and the greater understanding of personality and relationships it grants to individuals.
Nine common MBTI® criticisms and misconceptions
1. “Neither Briggs nor Myers was a psychologist.”
True. Katharine Briggs earned a bachelor’s degree, with honors, in agriculture from Michigan Agricultural College—now Michigan State University. Isabel Myers earned her bachelor’s degree, also with honors, in political science from Pennsylvania’s Swarthmore College.
The MBTI assessment is based on Carl Jung’s book, Psychological Types, and the tool Briggs and Myers created is founded on principles of psychology.
One of the common criticisms of the MBTI assessment is that its creators’ lack of formal education in psychology prevented them from developing sound results. However, many people without formal education in a particular field have made significant contributions. Here are some examples:
- Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, the motion picture camera, and the phonograph, claimed over a thousand patents despite his early expulsion from school and subsequent home education.
- Jane Goodall, revered for her study of chimpanzees, made groundbreaking anthropological discoveries before attending college.
- Steve Jobs lacked programming or engineering credentials and hadn’t finished college when he cofounded what is arguably the most innovative technology company in history—Apple Inc.
2. “The MBTI assessment uses artificial binaries, but most personality traits exist on a spectrum.” The implication is that the MBTI preference pairs are artificial."
It’s true that most personality traits are measured along a spectrum, and exhibiting “too much” or “too little” of a given trait is usually seen as problematic. However, citing this as criticism of the MBTI assessment is a mistake, because the MBTI assessment isn’t designed to measure traits; it’s designed to identify differences in personality.
Jung’s theory of psychological types states that people have natural tendencies to use our minds in different ways. In his theory, Jung introduced three of the four MBTI preference pairs: Extraversion–Introversion, Sensing–Intuition, and Thinking–Feeling. Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers later added the fourth preference pair, Judging–Perceiving. Everyone has a preference for one side of each preference pair.
Rather than being artificial, the MBTI preference pairs are closely linked to the theory on which the assessment is based. Moreover, they reveal correlations consistent with a variety of psychological tests and assessments, including the Adjective Check List, the Big Five, the NEO-PI® assessment, and the Birkman Method.6
3. Carl Jung, in a 1957 interview,7 said, ‘There is no such thing as a pure extravert or a pure introvert. Such a man would be in the lunatic asylum.”
This may seem to contradict the idea that people have a preference for Extraversion or Introversion. However, further understanding of Jung’s theory helps to explain this statement.
Jung’s theory of psychological types focuses on the mental processes of perception (perceiving) and judgment (judging)—also referred to as the two primary “functions” that allow us to operate effectively in our lives. We gather information using our perceiving process (Sensing–Intuition) and make decisions using our judging process (Thinking–Feeling). We also have a preference for Extraversion or Introversion, which Jung called our “orientation of energy.”
Jung was clear on the need to engage both our judging and our perceiving processes. Without both processes, a person would receive information without making decisions, or make uninformed decisions without necessary information.
Another key element in Jung’s theory is that one of our mental processes will be extraverted (used in the outside world), while the other will be introverted (used in the inner world). So, whether we prefer Extraversion or Introversion, we still engage with the outside world of people and things and our internal world of reflection.
Jung believed that living in both worlds in this way is essential. His reference to a “pure extrovert” refers to someone who engages Extraversion to the exclusion of Introversion—that is, engages only with the outside world. A “pure introvert” would do the opposite, engaging only with their internal world and excluding the outside world.
Jung isn’t refuting his own theory in this statement. In fact, he’s supporting it.
4. Jung again, in Psychological Types: "Every individual is an exception to the rule.”
This quote has been used as proof that Jung’s theory is invalid, and therefore as a critique of the MBTI assessment. However, in context, the quote looks very different. Here’s the complete paragraph:
Although there are doubtless individuals whose type can be recognized at first glance, this is by no means always the case. As a rule, only careful observation and weighing of the evidence permits a certain classification. However simple and clear the fundamental principle of the two opposing attitudes may be, in actual reality they are complicated and hard to make out because every individual is an exception to the rule. Hence one can never give a description of a type, no matter how complete, that would apply to more than one individual, despite the fact that in some ways it aptly characterizes thousands of others. Conformity is one side of a man, uniqueness is the other. Classification does not explain the human psyche. Nevertheless, an understanding of psychological types opens the way to a better understanding of human psychology in general.8
Jung’s full statement advises us to:
- Avoid making assumptions about someone’s personality type.
- Acknowledge that personality types are complex.
- Refrain from trying to explain someone’s entire psyche using a type description.
Jung, comparing his personality theory with points on a compass, said, “They are just as arbitrary and just as indispensable… I would not for anything dispense with this compass on my psychological voyages of discovery.”9 As Isabel Myers later put it, “An ENFP is like every other ENFP, like some other ENFPs, and like no other ENFP.”10
5. “Everyone is an ambivert.”
The Big Five personality model was used in 2013 to popularize the concept of “ambiverts” in an attempt to find the personality type that resulted in the most productive salespeople.11 The Big Five measures five personality traits—characteristics we all share that are measured on a continuous scale. One trait, the focus of the study in question, is extraversion. Research showed that the most successful salespeople scored at a midpoint on the extraversion scale; these people were then referred to as “ambiverts.”
The Big Five model and the MBTI assessment are very different. Though the MBTI assessment shows correlations with the Big Five,6 the Big Five measures traits, while the MBTI assessment uses a type-based "sorting" approach.
One example of this difference is “handedness” the dominant hand you use to write or perform other daily tasks. The Big Five would measure handedness on a continuous scale, demonstrating that most people who have full use of both hands do use both hands and therefore fall in the middle of the scale. The MBTI assessment aims to determine which hand someone prefers to use—the hand that feels most natural and comfortable—while acknowledging that everyone who can is likely to make use of both hands to some degree.
6. “Psychologists don’t use the MBTI assessment.”
Critics of the MBTI assessment sometimes cite a 2012 article in The Washington Post that quoted Carl Thoreson, PhD, psychologist, and former chairman of CPP, Inc. (now The Myers-Briggs Company), as saying that use the MBTI assessment “it would be questioned by my academic colleagues.”12
Again—the context is important. Missing from the article was the fact that Dr. Thoreson’s work at Stanford University focused on altering type-A behaviors to lower heart attack mortality.13 The MBTI assessment doesn’t measure type-A personality; therefore, it’s clearly not an appropriate tool for the topic Dr. Thoreson was discussing.
Whereas clinical psychology mostly focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of psychopathology, the MBTI assessment focuses on identifying natural differences between normal, healthy people. The MBTI assessment was never intended to diagnose anything. So—apples and oranges.
7. “The MBTI assessment is designed to flatter people.”
This common criticism is again based on a misunderstanding of the purpose of the MBTI assessment.
The MBTI assessment is designed to help us identify our preferences on four aspects of personality. The preferences on each side of a preference pair are equally valuable—there are no “better” or “worse” preferences or personality types. The MBTI assessment is not designed to diagnose anything or to identify good vs. bad or normal vs. abnormal personalities. It’s a mistake to confuse the MBTI assessment with psychological diagnostic tests in this way. In fact, the MBTI assessment isn’t a “test” at all; it’s an assessment, an exploration of someone’s personality preferences.
Sure, descriptions of the 16 MBTI types include typical behaviors and strengths associated with each type, which are intentionally described in a positive way. However, the descriptions also include challenges and possible areas of development for each type. These challenges are integral to what Jung called “individuation”—“development of the individual personality”14 in working toward and achieving self-actualization.
8. “The MBTI assessment is unreliable.”
Articles criticizing the MTBI assessment tend to quote a single reliability statistic that says, “Across a five-week retest period, 50 percent of participants received a different classification on one or more of the MBTI scales.” The origin of this statistic is an article published in the Journal of Career Planning & Placement,15 citing a 1979 study.16
The first commercial version of the MBTI assessment, Form G, was released in 1977. This version of the assessment has long been obsolete. The current version, the MBTI® Global Step I™ assessment, was released in 2018.
So, what’s the difference?
The MBTI Global Step I assessment, like the previous version, Form M (1998), selects and scores items using a computer-based method called item response theory. This is a vastly improved technique compared to the mechanisms used for Form G.
Many outdated or less-effective items have been removed from the assessment since 1977. The 92 items used in the MBTI Global Step I assessment were tested and validated using an international representative sample unavailable in 1979.
So, more recent articles that quote the 50 percent test-retest statistic from the 1993 journal article are citing obsolete data and outdated information about a version of the MBTI assessment that hasn’t been used for decades.
Test-retest correlations for the MBTI Global Step I assessment, over periods of 6 to 15 weeks, show correlations of 0.81 to 0.86 for all four preference pairs, indicating excellent reliability.17
9. “The MBTI assessment can't predict who will succeed in a given occupation.“
A common criticism of the MBTI assessment is a lack of evidence to show a positive correlation between MBTI type and occupational success. Articles applying this argument often cite examples of people hired or encouraged to make career decisions based solely on their MBTI type.
It’s true—the MBTI assessment isn’t designed to predict success in a given occupation… so it doesn’t. No evidence exists to suggest that certain MBTI types are more successful in certain lines of work.
The MBTI assessment is designed to describe, not predict. Unfortunately, like other psychological methods, the assessment is sometimes misused for things like making hiring decisions. Doing so confuses preferences with skills and abilities, and such misuse harms both employer and employee by potentially screening out people who would excel in a given position. Worse, employers may risk litigation by screening out qualified candidates based on a system not designed for that purpose.
Personality type doesn’t indicate skills, abilities, job performance, or future success. It’s unethical to use the MBTI assessment in recruitment or selection. In fact, it’s unethical and sometimes illegal to require job applicants to take any sort of assessment if the results might be used to eliminate them from consideration.18
Research on occupation attraction shows that certain personality types gravitate toward certain careers.19 However, it’s important to remember two important facts: First, data that indicate an attraction to a certain career path should never be interpreted as predicting performance in that occupation. Second, although research shows that certain personality types are overrepresented in certain careers, the research also indicates that all 16 personality types are represented in almost every known occupation.
Watch Patrick Kerwin's webinar to learn more about each of these points.
You can also watch a short summary from Dr. Rich Thompson, Senior Director of Research at The Myers-Briggs Company, or read our comprehensive MBTI facts page, for more information.
- Francis W. Saunders (1991). Katharine and Isabel: Mother’s light, daughter’s journey. Palo Alto, CA: Consulting Psychologists Press, Inc., 58.
- Carl G. Jung (1921/1971). Psychological types. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Saunders, 111.
- Isabel B. Myers with Peter B. Myers (1980). Gifts differing. Sunnyvale, CA: The Myers-Briggs Company, xi.
- Original research (n.d.). Retrieved from www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/original-research.htm?bhcp=1
- Nancy A. Schaubhut, Nicole A. Herk., & Richard C. Thompson (2009). MBTI® Form M manual supplement. Sunnyvale, CA: The Myers-Briggs Company, 11–13.
- Richard I. Evans (1957). Conversations with Carl Jung. Princeton, NJ: Nostrand.
- Jung, 516.
- Jung, 541.
- Isabel B. Myers (2015). Introduction to Myers-Briggs® type (7th ed.). Sunnyvale, CA: The Myers-Briggs Company, 52.
- Adam M. Grant (2013, April). Rethinking the extraverted sales ideal: The ambivert advantage. Association for Psychological Science, Psychological Science 24(6), 1024–1029.
- Lillian Cunningham (2012). Myers-Briggs: Does it pay to know your type? The Washington Post (December 12).
- Meyer Friedman, Carl E. Thoresen, James J. Gill, Diane Ulmer, Lynda H. Powell, Virginia A. Price, ..., & Theodore Dixon (1986). Alteration of type a behavior and its effect on cardiac recurrences in post myocardial infarction patients: Summary results of the recurrent coronary prevention project. American Heart Journal, 112(4), 653–665.
- Jung, 448.
- David J. Pittenger (1993). Measuring the MBTI… and coming up short. Journal of Career Planning and Placement.
- R. J. Howes & T. G. Carskadon (1979). Test-retest reliabilities of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® as a function of mood changes. Research in Psychological Type, 2(1), 67–72.
- Isabel B. Myers, Mary. H. McCaulley, Naomi L. Quenk, , & Alan L. Hammer (1998). MBTI® manual for the Global Step 1™ and Step II ™ assessments. Sunnyvale, CA: The Myers-Briggs Company, 173.
- Ethical use of the MBTI® instrument (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.myersbriggs.org/myers-and-briggs-foundation/ethical-use-of-the-mbti-instrument.
- Nancy A. Schaubhut & Richard C. Thompson (2012). MBTI® type tables for occupations (2nd ed.). Sunnyvale, CA: The Myers-Briggs Company.