Author: Merve Emre
APA Style Citation
Emre, M. (2018). The personality brokers: The strange history of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing. Toronto, ON: Random House Canada.
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Have you been asked to take a personality test to be matched to the ideal college roommate or perfect summer job? If so, perhaps you have taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). But what exactly is this test and should you believe its results? Marve Emre, author of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing takes the reader on a journey to discover the history of the test and its authors Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.
Katharine was a self-reflective and intelligent young child. At a young age she attended college and met her husband Leyman Briggs. Once upon graduating, they lived in the Washington D.C. area and started their family. Katharine began her experiments and personality testing on her only daughter Isabel. Her living room became a laboratory for baby training. Soon she used her methods on neighborhood children and family acquaintances as well. Her daughter Isabel was a bright young child, just like her mother. Writing under a pseudonym, she wrote a checklist for transforming any child into an obedient and curious one.
While in college, Isabel met Clarence “Chief” Myers. Isabel quickly fell in love and they were engaged. They kept their engagement secret, which was scandalous and provided a divide with her mother. Upon President Wilson declaring war on Germany, Chief left college and joined the army. They were married June of 1918 and Chief encouraged her to pursue her passions. During WWI, Isabel recognized that there should be a division of labor so everybody works but at the job fit for them. This would become the goal of the MBTI, which promised to match workers to the jobs they were best suited for based on their needs. Isabel titled her first and only book Gifts Differing. When Chief returned, they moved to Philadelphia so he could attend law school. After Chief was fired from his teaching assistance position, she moved back home with her parents to save money. It was at just the right time; her mother was struggling with depression.
Katharine was obsessed with Carl Jung and that is not being dramatic. After ordering his book Psychological Types, she spent the next five years contemplating life and classifying all of her friends and family. His book became her Bible. Jung, the man from Zurich, was her personal God on earth. She wanted to bring Jung’s theories to the masses. She wrote another magazine article titled, “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paintbox.” It provided sixteen ways to grow from infancy to maturity. Later she created a questionnaire, but first she started with a 3x5 index cards method. If the reader recognized a description on a card, they would move it to the top of the table, only to be replaced if something else spoke to them more strongly. Self-discovery became accessible and even fun! Katharine was consumed and wanted to know more. She wrote a letter to Jung, asking more about intuition. Before Isabel returned home to her husband, Katharine shared her notes on type and child-rearing and encouraged her to use type language to improve her marriage.
Katharine turned to dream analysis. She was known for documenting her husband’s dreams when he awoke on her 3x5 cards. She also started a dream study club to analyze women in the neighborhood. She did not think of ethical concerns, which would be drafted two decades later by the APA. Katharine analyzed other people's dreams and sought Jung's opinion.
In 1925, Henry Murray and Jung spent three weeks sailing Lake Zurich talking about life and women. Murray fell in love with Christina Morgan and took her to meet Jung. Once hypnotized, her inner self appeared to Jung in images rather than language. Eventually, Murray was prompted to create images rather than ask for images when testing personality. Morgan was a skilled artist and created 19 original pictures. Subjects were handed a card and allowed to examine it for 20 seconds before being asked to name the main character. Most subjects then told developed stories. Morgan was the co-creator of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), but was never given credit. Murray went on to be the director of Harvard Psychological Clinic and became the public image of American personality psychology.
Both Murray and the Briggs family contributed to WWII and spent time trying to type Adolf Hitler’s personality. Murray was approached by the Office of Strategic Services (OCC) to analyze Hitler from his biography, political speeches, and classified reports. While it was fraught with speculation, Murray felt it was his patriotic duty and essential to the war effort. Katharine was fascinated by Hitler and her husband was asked to join a special advisory committee on the atomic bomb. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Isabel used her mother’s materials to create a questionnaire to match people’s different gifts to different professions. She called her device form A and insisted on putting her mother’s last name first- Briggs Myers Type Indicator.
Isabel started to work on her own indicator and was convinced to study normal behavior rather than the abnormal. In 1943, Isabel debuted her finished indicator, but not with her mother’s approval. Katharine did not believe it was necessary to have a questionnaire, when only simple observation was needed. But Isabel wanted the indicator to move on to the masses. The test now had 117 questions and offered two answer options.
The first request for the MBTI was from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), led by Murray. They were interested in matching spies to the secret missions that best suited their personalities. The use of Isabel’s indicator meant she now played a role in the war effort. In the 1950’s Isabel’s fortunes rose along with capitalism, but her mother’s dementia was also developing. Isabel sent a letter to Jung sharing form C. Jung had his secretary respond warmly that the type indicator would be helpful to the future of type theory. He died shortly after. Isabel’s clients grew to some of the largest utility and insurance companies in the US. As she became more confident in the indicator, its influence began to spread more. Soon she was using it for admission to medical school. By 1954, she had typed over 5,000 medical students from 45 schools.
Isabel attended the first national conference on personality measurement in 1960. She was not well liked by many members of the ETS staff. However, she was under the wing of president and founder of ETS Henry Chauncey, who was known for administering the SAT to Army and Navy reserve officers and then college admissions. Chauncey wanted to find the test that could do what the SAT did for cognitive testing. He released a memo called “Why the MBTI Seems Promising” with six practical reasons and made several changes to the indicator. First, he had Isabel change the last names so it would not be called BM. He also revised the test and recalibrated the answer keys. Then he switched intuition to N rather than I so as not to get mixed up with introversion. Chauncey’s lengthening and strengthening of the indicator turned the newly debuted form D into a questionnaire of 250 items. He also had the power of the computer, which made it possible to score tests at a much faster rate and collect data. Throughout the early 60s ETS worked to check the validity of each test item.
Isabel was hired as a consultant by ETS. For the first five years, she refused to share the answer keys with the statisticians. She thought validating each question was only a delay. During her time at ETS, she had several handlers throughout the transition to form E and F. However, her most challenging mentor was Lawrence Stricker. He was only 27 years-old and younger than her kids when he partnered with her. He prepared a secret document to be provided to the research department that outlined the major problems with the MBTI. Systematically he dismantled her indicator. Isabel was shaken, but returned to ETS being careful to reveal her true feelings. As the ability of validating the MBTI grew more and more impossible, Chauncey was still unwilling to give up. Instead, he shifted his attention to what the test could do without being valid. He believed it had a simple systematic language that any layman could identify with to help better understand their expressed preferences.
Isabel’s relationship with ETS was fracturing and she experienced several personal struggles, including her mother’s health declining and both of her children going through a divorce. She had also never asked for royalties on the thousands of tests ETS was selling. It was the mid 60’s when the writing on the wall became clear and ETS had to move on from Isabel and the MBTI. They had invested too much money in the validation and sales were below expectation. But Isabel was hard to shake; she had one last year with ETS. She turned her attention to the nursing field and went out west.
In 1968, Katharine died in Philadelphia at the age of 93. Her death, spurred 70-year-old Isabel into action. She spent the next 12 years hoping to preserve the family creation. That year she met Mary Hawley McCaulley, a psychologist at the University of Florida. Mary wanted a test to administer to multiple people that could be scored quickly. She discovered the MBTI in an ETS catalog and sent for a copy. She was skeptical at first, but soon recognized how much her patients reacted to their results. Mary met Isabel and quickly earned her trust. Isabel offered her the scoring key and made copies of the special keys. When Mary returned to Florida, she was determined to start a research center for type. Isabel would often travel to see Mary and help her sort the data. They called the joint venture the “typology laboratory” and would attend conferences together. Over the next decade they gathered 30,000 answer sheets from couples and families. Their hope was to one day create guidelines for couples of all type combinations. By the mid 70s their lab had become a leading center for marriage counseling in the state.
When Isabel was 75-years- old, she discovered her daughter dead on the bathroom floor after a surgery. She had lost her mother a few years earlier. It was then that her cancer came back. It was first in her lymph nodes when she was 56, but now it was in her right arm and elbow. Soon it spread to every organ and she was given a year to live. ETS had dismissed her as a consultant in the 60’s, but now they were ending publishing the test altogether. After her daughter’s death, it was Mary’s dedication to type that pushed Isabel. Since she was not an authentic psychologist, she feared the MTBI would die with her. She made it her final mission to find another publisher for her indicator.
It was Mary that reached out to Consulting Psychologist Press (CPP) as a last resort. The owners were businessmen and agreed under several conditions. First, the test had to be shortened to be more manageable. Second, Isabel must edit her type descriptions to be more friendly. Finally, she had to give them full aesthetic control. They wanted to make the test more attractive and easier to read. In 1975, Isabel agreed and signed control of the MBTI over to CPP. Soon CPP introduced a self-scoring form G. Her impending death gave up her control, but it also made the test shorter and more appealing to meet the masses.
Isabel died on May 5th, 1980 surrounded by her family. The story goes that one of her grandchildren misquoted a favorite line of poetry, to which Isabel drew a breath and corrected him before dying. Later she was cremated and her husband spread her and her daughter’s ashes in the wind. The Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT), a nonprofit research center Isabel and Mary co-founded just before she died is where Isabel’s letters, diaries, and forms A-M are stored. The staff is very protective of her image. In order to receive access to materials, the author had to go through a re-education program for $2,000 and a four-day accreditation session. There were three rules needed to speak type fluently. First, you had to memorize the history of type. Second, you must not refer to the type indicator as a test. There were no better or worse types. Each of the 16 types were equal and had strengths and weaknesses. Third, you had to think of personality as innate and fixed. The MBTI became the most popular personality inventory in the world. For those born since the 80s you have probably been introduced to the MBTI at some point: applying to college, applying for a job, office furniture, or even through the American Bar Association. Many assumed that it was two male psychologists that created the indictor. Few know that it was really a mother-daughter team, not trained in psychology that changed the field of personality psychology.
Other Related Resources
Psychological Concepts and Figures
Carl Gustav Jung
John B Watson
American Psychological Association
Happiness and well-being
Nature vs nurture
Statistical significance, p values
Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)