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MBTI criticism / critique

This article in Fortune Management had me wondering for a while what kind of personality type the author has. Some kind of narcissistic guardian?

Have we all been duped by the Myers-Briggs test? By Roman Krznaric

Sorry, that was silly. Almost as silly as the journalist’s claim that “… the MBTI mistakenly assumes that personality falls into mutually exclusive categories”. That’s not the MBTI’s assumption. That’s the journalist’s superficial assumption about what the MBTI does.

Let me back down a bit. I’ve met a lot of people who think of the MBTI the way the journalist does. I’ve met a lot of people who think of “right” and “wrong” the same way, too. Lawyers and judges tend to stick to that scheme: When they come across something grey, they describe the problem and solution as if the the challenge is to decide whether it’s “actually” black or white. The rest of us tend to be more advanced, at least some of the time, and it’s the same way with the MBTI.

A metaphor I sometimes use when I want to describe this to someone, is that of right- or left-handedness. Most of us have two hands, but we tend to have a preference for one of them for certain kinds of work. That doesn’t mean we never use the other. The preferences described by the MBTI are much more subtle, and more subject to variation over time (even over very short periods of time), but it doesn’t mean they’re less real when they’re there.

I’m a great fan of the MBTI as a tool, if you know how to use it … and I was surprised that the retest reliability, as described by the journalist, was as high as 50%. I’ve seen several different versions of the test. Many of the questions in some of them are ambiguous, and the instructions for scoring when you’re in doubt about the answer, vary. Another problem is that once you’ve explained to the subject what the questions are about (the 4 main preferences), you can never get a spontaneous answer again.

However, the fact that the all the test that are being used for this purpose have limitations, does not mean that the thing they are testing for is illusory, or that it doesn’t matter. My experience is that it’s real, and that the MBTI can be a good tool for understanding the synergies between your strengths and your weaknesses.

The MBTI has a huge advantage over the often-praised “big 5”. That test measures the same 4 traits plus one (degree of neuroticism), with a higher degree of precision, but it does so with a strong underlying bias that some types are better than others. When it asks about people’s “degree of” extraversion, openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness, there’s a prejudice that those traits are good, and the lack of them less good – as if the ENFJ is the personality type we should all strive towards, and everybody else is somehow defective. The MBTI avoids this mental shortcut, by encouraging the idea that all the preferences are good (for some situations), and that the “perfect” type isn’t any one of them, but one that can work synergistically with the others around it.

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