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Angela Tilby on the Myers-Briggs personality test: An approach to life which connects us

26 October 2018


THE Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is one of the best known personality inventories in the world. It is widely promoted in business, health, and education.

It is often offered to ordinands and clergy. We used it routinely at Westcott House when I taught there. The point of the Myers-Briggs is to help individuals to understand their behavioural preferences, and how they are likely to respond to stress.

It has always had its detractors. Some people find the whole idea of exploring their personal preferences intrusive, and fear that they will be for ever labelled as this or that.

Like other personality tests, it is also often queried on scientific grounds. A recent edition of the Radio 4 programme Start the Week rubbished the MBTI as having no objective basis. One contributor, the psychologist Robert Plomin, argued that personality was the product of our genes, which also drove our personal development.

Merve Emre, the author of The Personality Brokers: The strange story of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing, explained that the mother-and-daughter team who invented the Myers-Briggs almost 100 years ago had no psychological credentials. The impression given was that Myers-Briggs was a bit of a con, and was as useless as astrology.

I was intrigued by this, but not convinced. I have done the Myers-Briggs several times, and I usually turn out the same way (INTP: Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Perceiving, since you ask), although, in the rarified atmosphere of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, I mysteriously migrated from the thinky to the feely end.

I have always thought that the MBTI’s greatest value was not in any objective definition of individual personality, but in helping people to recognise habitual preferences. No doubt, genes and nurture play a part. We all look at life through lenses coloured by our biological and personal inheritance.

Of course, there is no proof that the Myers-Briggs types, which are based on Jungian theory, have universal validity. They are, after all, based on subjective observation, as are other self-reporting systems, from the Belbin Team Roles assessment to the Enneagram. In other words, the detailed questionnaires on which these tests are based act as a mirror. Self-recognition is the key.

The Myers-Briggs connects us ultimately to the ancient philosophical matrix in which the Christian spiritual tradition developed. The Delphic maxim “Know thyself” was absorbed into Christianity, and is the basis both of the possibility of repentance and of spiritual growth.

Some scientific thinkers may dismiss this emphasis on personal subjectivity, but it remains the basis of personal life, of prayer, and of poetry. We are more than gene-machines. And doing the Myers-Briggs at work might just help us develop charity to the unspeakable nerd on the left and the dizzy extrovert next door.

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