Type Setting

The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing BY Merve Emre. Doubleday. Hardcover, 336 pages. $27.

The cover of The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing

MERVE EMRE STRIKES a rare off-note in her crackling new book, The Personality Brokers, when she briefly purports not to understand the appeal of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). A questionnaire that sorts humanity into sixteen personality types, the MBTI is a means of “annihilating individuality,” Emre points out. “What remains unexplained,” she writes, is why so many individuals embrace it.

Unexplained? Please. People love to think about themselves, and they love a pseudoscientific rubric with which to do so. Every person to whom I mentioned this book asked immediately whether I’d found out my type. Of course I had, and by beginning this review with one of my very few complaints about the book, I am arguably indulging the foibles of that type: ENTP, the Devil’s Advocate, per FamousTypes.com. The MBTI uses questions with “forced-choice” answers (Which do you agree with: A or B?), to break down personality along four dualisms, based loosely on Jungian psychology: introversion versus extroversion, sensing versus intuition, feeling versus thinking, and judging versus perceiving. Hence the sets of four initials (with N for intuition, to distinguish it from introversion) that make up the types.

As Emre notes, the uninitiated often assume that Myers and Briggs were colleagues in scientific research, as well as probably men. They were not: Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, never had any specialized training in psychology or conducted much in the way of research—certainly nothing that would hold up to peer review—before formulating the ideas to which they gave their names. Yet the Myers-Briggs indicator became a management tool embraced by corporations, universities, and the military. It also became a pop-psychology phenomenon—witness the innumerable knockoff tests available online, and self-help literature, from the 1978 best seller Please Understand Me to the Kindle e-book How to Slay Dragons and Understand People: MBTI & Personal Growth for Gamers.

As she traces the history of the MBTI (and the development of personality psychology more broadly), Emre delineates her own ambivalent fascination with its typology. She knows that, in some sense, it’s bullshit, but she can also see its power:

There was a certain narcissistic beauty to the idea, a certain luminance to the promise that, by learning to speak type, we could learn to compress the gestures of our messy, complicated lives into a coherent life story, one capable of expressing both to ourselves and to others not just who we were but who we had been all along. What type offered us was a vision of individual identity in its most transcendent and transparent form.

A lack of scientific rigor is easier to overlook when there’s luminous transcendence on offer. With Myers-Briggs, prosaic human behaviors—being on time, having a messy desk, chatting up strangers at a party—extrapolate into destiny. The fully formed identities of type inspire vague, grandiose titles like the Giver and the Mastermind.

The pleasure of Emre’s book, meanwhile, is not vague grandiosity but specificity. Whatever her reservations about Katharine and Isabel’s work, her commitment to her subjects is total—she renders personality in all its detail and contradiction. Her heroines are readers and writers at heart, inveterate observers and storytellers, and Emre, a literary scholar, portrays them in this spirit. Both obsessive and dauntlessly able, they emerge as true, irreducible weirdos.

KATHARINE ENROLLED at Michigan Agricultural College when she was fourteen and graduated at the top of her class; Lyman Briggs, whom she married shortly afterward, was number two. While he pursued a Ph.D. in physics at Johns Hopkins University, she established what she called a “cosmic laboratory of baby training” in their living room. Her daughter, born in 1897, was the primary research subject. For Isabel, Katharine devised what she called an “Obedience-Curiosity” method of parenting. Obedience and curiosity, she believed, were the most important traits to cultivate in a child: “It never occurred to her,” Emre writes, “that they were diametrically opposed to each other.” The girl’s accomplishments reliably wowed neighborhood mothers—although, after hearing her read aloud from Pilgrim’s Progress at the age of five, one did worry that Isabel would die of brain fever.

When Isabel went off to Swarthmore College, successfully reared, Katharine’s was “just the old, old story of the mother whose life begins to crumble when the children grow up and don’t need her” (as she wrote in her diary). She had channeled all her considerable intelligence into the work of motherhood; her daughter’s departure left her with nothing to do but worry that her work would be undone. At Swarthmore Isabel fell in love with a man named Chief, who gave her William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, thereby threatening Katharine’s “eighteen-year experiment in obedience and curiosity with his modern literature about personality.” Mother and suitor entered into an extended negotiation over Isabel’s heart and reading material. Isabel, who excelled in college, graduated as Mrs. Clarence “Chief” Gates Myers—like her mother, at the top of the class—and went on to success as a writer, becoming a minor celebrity as the author of a best-selling mystery novel, Murder Yet to Come.

Meanwhile, to fill the void left by Isabel’s independence, Katharine had acquired a new top interest: the work of Carl Jung. She’d been working on a personality-typing system of her own, based on observation of her family and friends, when she discovered Jung and saw a beacon. She wrote him letters. She went to see him when he spoke at Harvard University, and wrote a commemorative song on the way. She wrote erotic Jung fanfiction. Katharine disseminated her ideas in magazine articles like “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box” (the New Republic, 1926).

Dorothy Alig, Sense of Self ESTJ, 2016, acrylic on wood panel,12 × 9".
Dorothy Alig, Sense of Self ESTJ, 2016, acrylic on wood panel,

12 × 9".

But Isabel, for all her mother’s zeal, was the one ultimately responsible for making Myers-Briggs what it became. In contrast to Katharine, Emre writes, Isabel “alighted on Jung’s theory not as a personal religion but as a practical tool.” This could mean helping men and women to better understand their complementary roles in marriage, or workers and homemakers to better take their places in the modern economy. Katharine and Isabel both believed, for example, that feelers tended to be women, and thinkers tended to be men; they contrasted themselves with their husbands in this regard. “I am a strong believer in the theory of types,” Isabel said in a 1932 Philadelphia Ledger profile. “Most women are by nature cut out for the job of looking after personal relationships.” She presented herself “not as author or playwright, but as wife and mother.”

Using her mother’s notes on Jung, Isabel began to compose a questionnaire, testing it out on her husband, and her children and their high school classmates. When the questions she’d written failed to generate the responses she’d anticipated—based on her self-appointed role as family “type watcher”—she modified the questions. From her observations of the people closest to home sprang a system that confidently promised to encompass the American workforce. (Many army officers belonged to the introverted sensing type, the first type-manual asserted. This did not seem to be based on any assessment of actual army officers.) A satisfactory form in hand, she presented it to Edward N. Hay and Associates, a firm specializing in white-collar workplace aptitude tests. Type enthusiasts today tend to promote the MBTI as a means of self-help and self-discovery, but it was designed as a tool of corporate efficiency. The first test booklets went on the market in 1943, for fifty cents apiece; the first order came from the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, DC.

Isabel spent years refining her questionnaire—traveling, typing more people, selling more tests. Triumph seemed close at hand when, in the late ’50s, the Educational Testing Service showed interest. But despite long efforts (and significant investments) to validate the indicator, the data necessary to back Myers-Briggs proved elusive. Justification for Katharine and Isabel’s convictions could not be reverse engineered. Later years found Isabel prowling the corridors of ETS, bedeviling the staff statisticians and drinking a homemade beverage she called tiger’s milk: cow’s milk, mixed with brewer’s yeast and melted Hershey’s bars.

THE PERSONALITY BROKERS presents a damningly thorough critique of the MBTI: From its lack of scientific merit to its role as a tool of Cold War–era conformity, personality testing looks misguided at best and potentially sinister at worst. Emre echoes Theodor Adorno, who aligned the exercises of personality typing and people-sorting with fascism. And yet her book’s slyest argument against MBTI—conveyed forcefully, if only implicitly—might be its portrait of Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs themselves. Emre confronts the reader with an undeniable gulf between the normalcy they profess and the energetic, idiosyncratic intensity they display. The banalities of type falter beside their combined force of personality.

Nonetheless, as Isabel wrote in an early draft of her type manual, “The doctrine of uniqueness is not useful from a practical standpoint.” Both women were determined to use the language of type to insist on their status as ordinary wives and mothers—to insist, indeed, on the value of that status. In Emre’s telling, type becomes a force for conservatism: endorsing conventional social roles, encouraging individuals to content themselves with their lot, shoring up institutional power. Rather than questioning the strictures of their lives, Katharine and Isabel dedicated their talent and ambition to fortifying them.

Right now, another Jungian eccentric has captured popular attention: Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychology professor and best-selling author of 12 Rules for Life. In Jung’s eternal myths, Myers and Briggs found an explanation for their lives’ limitations and reassurance that their understanding of the world was correct. Peterson’s young male fans seem to see something similar. With Peterson, as with Briggs and Myers, the appeal lies in the grand, unverifiable leaps—from self-help to world view, from myopia to universal truth.

Molly Fischer is an editor at The Cut. Her writing has appeared in New York magazine, Harper’s Magazine, and n+1.