Don’t Let Myers-Briggs Limit Your Opportunities

When she was 14, a girl in Chautauqua County, New York began keeping the company of a 21-year-old local hoodlum named Johnny. He was the son of a reputed gangster, indulged in liquor and gambling, and sometimes carried a gun. He also had a steady income and access to several cars, which no doubt impressed his young romantic interest.

Partly to encourage her interest in show business, but probably mostly to separate her from Johnny, the girl’s mother sent her to a prestigious school of theatre and dance 400 miles away in Manhattan.

Unlike the school’s star pupil of the time, Bette Davis, the girl did not thrive. For most of her time at the school she felt frightened, intimidated, and humiliated.

School administrators eventually sent the girl’s mother a letter informing her that she was wasting her money. The girl, they said, was simply “too shy and reticent” to succeed in show business.

Fortunately, this personality assessment would not deter the girl, and Lucille Ball would go on to become one of Hollywood’s greatest icons.

“The more I was put down, the more I shrank,” she would later recall. “I don’t improve under that kind of tutelage. The more embarrassed I get, the quieter I get.”[1]

Lucy did not respond well to the school’s instructors or their methods. In the view of the school, though, there were fundamental aspects of Lucy’s personality that made it unlikely that she would ever succeed as a performer.

Their personality assessment was wrong.

But that was 1926, and their personality assessment was really just the opinion of a few instructors and administrators. Since that time, personality assessment has become a much more refined process. And it is so pervasive that it has become an industry in itself.

However, many would argue that despite refinements to the various methods and instruments used, making predictions about an individual’s future performance based on personality traits remains pseudoscientific folly.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is probably the most well-known and widely used personality assessment tool. Even people who have never taken the assessment have likely heard of four-letter personality types such as “INTJ” or “ESFP.”

The MBTI is a forced-choice, self-report questionnaire that assigns people to one of 16 possible personality types. Individuals are classified according to personality preferences operationalized across four dichotomous dimensions:

  • Extraversion or Introversion. Are you more outgoing or more inwardly focused?
  • Sensing or Intuition. Do you focus on the observable facts and practical realities of the information you receive, or do you prefer to interpret, apply insight, and add meaning?
  • Thinking or Feeling. Do you rely more on logic and reason or more on subjective emotion when making decisions?
  • Judging or Perceiving. Do you prefer to analyze, plan, and organize, or do you prefer flexibility and spontaneity?

The MBTI was originally developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. Briggs had begun researching personality around 1917, but was profoundly inspired and influenced by Carl Jung’s book Personality Types. Though neither of them had any formal training in psychology or psychometrics, Briggs and Myers spent years refining their personality typology and learning about the construction, scoring, and validation of test instruments.

In the 1940s, they compiled the first collection of questions that would evolve into the modern MBTI. They thought that such an instrument would help women entering the civilian work force for the first time identify the types of jobs that would suit them best.

Modern applications and prevalence of use

The MBTI is commonly used by career counselors, coaches, consultants, educators, human resource professionals, and organization development practitioners.

According to the developer and publisher of the instrument – The Myers-Briggs Company – the MBTI should be used primarily to “improve interpersonal skills, manage conflict, improve relationships, and inform career choices.” They caution that the MBTI “is not intended for use as part of a hiring process, nor to assign people to specific teams, roles, or functions within an organization.”

Many employers use the MBTI as part of their hiring process. The question is, to what extent? Even though the publisher warns against it, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people have been hired (or not hired) because of their MBTI type.

According to The Myers-Briggs Company, 88 percent of Fortune 100 companies use the MBTI, and about 1.5 million people take the online version of the assessment each year. As an aggregate, the personality testing industry is estimated to be a $2 billion industry.

Criticisms of the MBTI

One of the most common criticisms of the MBTI is that it lacks reliability. That is, it doesn’t produce consistent results over time. One study found that 35 percent of participants received a different four-letter personality type when taking the test four weeks apart, and another study found that 50 percent of people were typed differently after a five-week interval.[2]

There are also questions about the predictive validity of the tool, as there is little evidence that demonstrates the long-term success of educational or career choices made on the basis MBTI results. Further, the MBTI does not strongly relate to other prevalent scientific personality models.[3]

Personality typing in general, critics say, may be flawed because it ignores context and assumes that our personalities are consistent rather than contingent. Instead, personality is probably more complex than that, and likely represents specific interactions between our natural tendencies and our circumstances or situations.[4]

This can be especially true in professional settings, where organizational forces can be a strong influence on decisions and behavior. People often behave in ways that are consistent with their roles rather than their personality type. For example, one study found that introverts in marketing jobs performed networking functions just as often as extraverts.[5]

Unfortunately, research also found that some people – after an MBTI workshop – returned to their work environments believing that their personality type is inherently incompatible with some other types.[6]

Another common complaint is the MBTI’s rigid dichotomy. Since the instrument relies on an absolute classification scheme, people with similar scores are frequently labeled with very different personality types.[7]

In fact, the dichotomous individual dimensions presented by the MBTI are not necessarily logical or psychological opposites. For example, research shows that we use intuition and reasoning ubiquitously. Every choice we make is influence by both. Similarly, sensing and perceiving are pervasive nonconscious processes. It doesn’t really make sense to suggest that people are born with a preference for “thinking” versus “feeling,” or “sensing” versus “intuition.”[8]

The rigid dichotomies of the MBTI, then, may imply significant personality differences where there simply are none. Using the tool to make inferences about someone’s personality may mean drawing an unjustifiable conclusion. There can be considerable inconsistencies across the dichotomous dimensions, and roughly a third of the participants in one study felt that the MBTI mislabeled them.[9]

The MBTI personality types, some suggest, may be little more than stereotypes. By typing someone this way, we lose sight of their unique potential and qualities. Essentially, the MBTI tries to cram all of the complex aspects of someone’s personality into a contrived and restricted classification scheme.[10]

Further, the MBTI deviates from its theoretical underpinnings. The MBTI views personality as innate and unchanging, but Jung saw personality as changing over the course of the individual’s life. And while Jung felt that personality types were very difficult to identify and distinguish, Myers and Briggs believed that distinct personality types could be easily identified by a few basic cognitive differences.

It is the MBTI’s oversimplification of the intricacies of human personality, critics argue, that encourages its widespread misuse.

Why the MBTI is so popular

The MBTI’s simplicity is one of the reasons for its popularity. It doesn’t take a lot of time to complete, and the results are neatly categorized and easy to explain and understand. It offers concise, boilerplate descriptions of the very complex set of characteristics that form our personality.

We all like things to be easy, and we all want to know more about ourselves.

People also like the MBTI because the results, by design, are always nonjudgmental and positive. It will never tell you that you are a reckless sociopath whose most likely short-term life outcomes are convict or corpse.

We are much more willing to accept favorable character interpretations than unfavorable ones. We are also more likely to see them as accurate. If we like what the results are telling us, and we think the results are accurate, then we attribute higher validity to the assessment instrument.

There is a tendency for people to accept ambiguous, general, or vague statements that are true of many individuals as applying specifically to them – especially when these statements are flattering. This is known as the “Barnum effect,” and it also explains why some people believe horoscopes and psychic readings are accurate.

Barnum statements are particularly effective if they have a  high rate of occurrence in the general population, allow people to project their own interpretations onto them, and involve socially desirable characteristics.[11]

Here are a few Barnum statements used in a classic experiment by psychologist Bertram R. Forer:

  • You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage.
  • While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them.
  • At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.
  • You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations.
  • You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof.
  • At times you are extraverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved.

On the surface, it’s pretty obvious that statements like these can apply to almost anyone. But if they are presented as part of a profile that has been developed specifically “for us,” we start to see them as more individualized than they really are.

The Myers-Briggs Company claims that “your natural preferences . . . sort you into one of 16 distinct MBTI personality types.” Once we have been correctly “sorted” and given our four-letter “type,” we might start to see that particular type description as more uniquely applicable to us than it actually is.

The bandwagon effect could also explain the popularity of the MBTI. It’s popular just because it’s popular. Everyone has heard someone else talking about their four-letter personality type, and they’re curious about their own. Unfortunately, the instrument’s popularity can lead people to assume that it is more accurate, reliable, or valid than it might actually be.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the MBTI has been aggressively and successfully marketed for a long time. There is an extensive network of MBTI-certified trainers and coaches who have a vested interest in promoting its use.

Also, organizations like the test because it is easy to administer and interpret. It makes them feel more in control, better able to manage human complexity, and more secure in making otherwise uncertain personnel decisions.

How the MBTI can limit your opportunities

One of the problems with personality assessments such as the MBTI is that they may lead people to mistakenly believe that their “true self” has finally been revealed. This “a-ha” moment of self-awareness may in turn lead them to believe that their true passion or purpose must align somehow with their inherent personality type.

Research suggests, however, that if someone believes that their natural preferences have been revealed, they may fail to explore interests that seem to contradict their newly discovered predispositions.[12]

But the reality is that any personality type can do anything. And like it. And be good at it.

According to my latest MBTI results, I’m an INTJ. If I perform an online search for “famous INTJs,” I find a diverse group of people representing many fields and interest areas. Conversely, if I created a short list of, say, famous entrepreneurs or famous scientists and searched their personality types, I would find a wide range of types represented.

As far as professional interests, the MBTI might reveal what type of work you are naturally drawn to, but it can’t reliably predict what kind of work you’ll be good at, or that you’ll find most rewarding. There are no data to support the idea that certain personality types are more successful or more satisfied in specific careers than any other personality types.

When left unchallenged, beliefs can soon become biases. If we start to believe that people are more suited to particular types of work because of their personality, we may – consciously or not – limit their opportunities. Likewise, we might limit our own.

In western societies, there is a cultural bias toward extraversion. Managers historically favor extraverts when hiring or promoting, and extraverts are viewed as more effective by both supervisors and subordinates. One survey indicated that 65 percent of senior executives saw introversion as a leadership barrier.[13]

Extraverts, however, are not necessarily more effective leaders. One study found creativity to be the single trait most common to successful executives. And while extraverts may be more naturally outgoing and sociable, introverts are often more naturally creative.[14]

In an interview after being drafted first overall by the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Andrew Luck was asked about being the new guy and being expected to lead the team right away. “There are many ways to lead,” Luck replied. “You don’t have to change your personality to be a leader.”

Within organizations, creating teams or making new hires based on personality “fit” can lead to a homogenized environment that stifles creativity and innovation. Intentionally assembling teams of clones suppresses a diversity of viewpoints and can lead to groupthink.

Within ourselves, once we construct an internal narrative that our capabilities are defined by some four-letter “type,” we begin to overlook valuable opportunities that don’t seem to fit this new perspective.

How we can use the MBTI productively

Academics and practitioners can debate the predictive power, validity, and reliability of the MBTI ad nauseum. Like it or not, though, an assessment tool such as Myers-Briggs doesn’t necessarily have to be scientifically accurate to be useful.

The Myers-Briggs assessment is probably best used as a tool for self-awareness, rather than as a means of evaluating or categorizing others. Science or pseudoscience, the MBTI can increase self-awareness, and can provide guidance as to areas of interest.

The MBTI should inform, not define. It measures preferences, not ability.

Don’t use the results to make assumptions about yourself. Instead, use the results to ask questions about yourself.

What about your profile do you think is accurate? What is inaccurate? From the accurate results, what do like? What do you dislike? Where do you see strengths? Where do you see weaknesses? What could you change about your thinking or behavior to improve?

Read the descriptions of the other personality types. Do you wish you were more like some of the other types in some ways? Or at least in certain situations? What can you do about that?

If you find that you wish to change some aspects of your personality, you certainly wouldn’t be alone. Most people share that desire. One study found that 87 percent of people would like to be more extraverted, and 97 percent of people wish they were more conscientious.[15]

Fortunately, personality change may be a realistic pursuit. Even though personality traits remain relatively stable over time, it has been shown that they can change in response to a range of factors including social roles and life experience. Still more encouraging, research suggests that people can attain desired personality trait changes by modifying their thoughts and behaviors and reexamining their perceived social identities.[16]

If you use the MBTI at all, view it as a springboard to personal growth, not as a tether to a restrictive personality type classification. It shouldn’t define who you are. It should inform your choices about who you want to become.

Believing that we fit neatly into some discrete personality category can unnecessarily constrain us and limit our opportunities. Informed, insightful self-awareness, though, can fuel positive change and growth, both of which will bring more opportunity our way.


1. Kathleen Brady, Lucille: The Life of Lucille Ball (New York: Billboard Books, 1994), 24.

2. David J. Pittenger, “Cautionary Comments Regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research 57, no. 3 (2005): 214.

3. John Hunsley et al., “Controversial and Questionable Assessment Techniques,” in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, eds. Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Linn, and Jeffrey M. Lohr (New York: The Guilford Press, 2015), 68.

4. Malcolm Gladwell, “Personality Plus,” The New Yorker, September 20, 2004, 42.

5. James Michael, “Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a Tool for Leadership Development? Apply With Caution,” Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies 10, no. 1 (2003): 76.

6. Ibid, 74.

7. David J. Pittenger, “Measuring the MBTI . . . and Coming up Short,” Journal of Career Planning and Employment 54, no. 1 (1993): 51.

8. Randy Stein and Alexander B. Swan, “Evaluating the Validity of Myers‐Briggs Type Indicator Theory: A Teaching Tool and Window into Intuitive Psychology,” Social and Personality Psychology Compass 13, no. 2 (2019): 6.

9. Pittenger, “Cautionary Comments,” 213-215.

10. Pittenger, “Measuring the MBTI,” 53.

11. D. H. Dickson and I. W. Kelly, “The ‘Barnum Effect’ in Personality Assessment: A Review of the Literature,” Psychological Reports 57, no. 2 (1985): 369.

12. Paul A. O’Keefe, Carol S. Dweck, and Gregory M. Walton, “Implicit Theories of Interest: Finding Your Passion or Developing It?” Psychological Science 29, no. 10 (2018): 1663.

13. Adam M. Grant, Francesca Gino, and David A. Hofmann, “The Hidden Advantages of Quiet Bosses,” Harvard Business Review, December 2010,

14. Del Jones, “Not All Successful CEOs Are Extroverts,” USA Today, June 7, 2006,

15. Nathan W. Hudson and R. Chris Fraley, “Volitional Personality Trait Change: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 109, no. 3 (2015): 490.

16. Ibid, 503.

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