Book review

“The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality” by Merve Emre

Written by Prof. Anneleen Masschelein.

It is always great to read a piece of research that you would have wanted to write yourself: thoroughly researched, fascinating and funny. The Personality Brokers is such a book. The book starts off as a personal quest as well as an archival research into the origins of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), a personality test frequently used by human resources and professional coaching. Personality type is characterized by a combination of four letters, determined along four axes: the world you prefer (Extravert versus Introvert), how you take in information (Sensing versus Intuiting), how you make decisions (Thinking or Feeling) and how you structure your life (Judging and Perceiving) (nowadays, there is a fifth axis, determining how confident you are).

The test is based on a questionnaire in which every question has to be answered in quick succession of one another. The MBTI normally has to be administered by a trained professional, but there are plenty of free online versions to be found as well. (https://www.16personalities.com/) Considering the widespread use and popularity of this and other personality tests and assessment in the twenty-first century, it’s not a surprise that the book is a bestseller, garnering excellent reviews (except from people within the MBTI brand community who don’t like the critical tone) in both literary and economic journals. Once you’ve finished the book, you cannot help but marvel at how a test – which became so successful as to evolve into a verb (typing), which brings it on a par with google – was created in the first half of the twentieth century by Katharine Cook Myers, a housewife who meticulously observed her daughter, Isabel, in order to perfect her education system. Katharine not only monitored her daughter, but also counseled her friends and neighbors on educational matters. When she discovered the writings of psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung in the 1930s, she was able to perfect her system into the first version of the MBTI chart, even though she never had any formal psychological training. Later in life, Katharine passed on her creation on to her daughter Isabel Myers-Briggs. Unlike her mother, Isabel was not happy to be just a stay-at-home mum and after a failed career as a detective writer, she devoted herself to the test and eventually found employment within the burgeoning field of human resources. She mostly worked on a correspondence basis, selling her test to small and large businesses to help with the hiring process. It didn’t take long however for her to gather some odd customers as well. The government for example wanted to use the test to train spies in the Cold War fifties era while universities were looking for statistically valid personality tests to screen students in the sixties.

The story of MBTI is an endearing story of two single-minded women who pursue their passion, against all odds and facing great resistance from the (male) establishment. At the same time, it also sheds light on some of the most intriguing aspects of the twentieth century: the interrelation of the rise of psychology and the war; self-improvement and self-care as a replacement for religion in post-War American society; the drive towards categorization and quantification of personality; and ultimately the exploitation of human resources in late capitalism.

One of the most interesting episodes is Isabel’s employment by the Office of Strategic Services, a precursor of the CIA. That the war greatly increased the demand of ways to assess the personalities of soldiers and spies is a well-established fact (it also greatly stimulated psychotherapy and group therapy), but that a government agency bought home-developed tests with no psychological credentials behind them is remarkable. Later on, the test proved to be a challenge for early psychometrics. In a funny chapter, the middle-aged Isabel goes to Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research to join a team of researchers holed up in a San Francisco frat house, for weeks of incessant testing, not just of students, but also of some of the most distinguished creative minds, among whom Truman Capote.

The narrative of strained relationships with the university and different teams of psychologists who weren’t able to either statistically validate or to definitively discredit the Myers-Briggs test, offers telling insights in how psychology, even today, is never a fully scientific (in the quantitative sense) discipline. That the lack of scientific evidence has not hindered the test’s popularity in late-twentieth’s century capitalism is an understatement: the test’s belated and enduring success can be attributed to its simplicity, to the drive for self-knowledge and human capital and to the shrewd business model behind the institute that safeguards Katharine and Isabel’s invention. Although Emre, following Adorno, is very critical of the essentialist and categorizing drive behind MBTI, she is also deeply fascinated by the test’s enduring appeal. She manages to combine the details that she unearths to a compelling insight into our age’s compulsive focus on the self, also described by sociologists like Eva Ilouz. Focusing on the mother-daughter duo as unlikely heroines, and following their dogged determination and weird encounters, the book reads like a novel that is impossible to turn down.

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