Who’s afraid of the MBTI?

Dtcwee posted this video along with an interesting set of questions in response to the previous post on Temperaments and the MBTI:

I think this is the first time you’ve touched on both the Four Temperaments and the MBTI.
The poetic way the Temperaments are described makes the MBTI dry and pseudo-scientific in comparison.
You may find it interesting that Briggs originally had four types (meditative/thoughtful, spontaneous, executive, and social) which she mashed up with Jung’s four cognitive types (thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition).
This raises for me the following questions:
Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?
What is it with the number four? Don’t they know it’s super-unlucky? Can’t they just, like the Yi Jing, have inferior and superior?

Do Temperaments appeal to different people than MBTI? And if so, then to who and how?

It’s hard to say. The Temperaments are not as widely known as the MBTI. They’re popular in different circles, partly indeed because the MBTI can be presented in a pseudoscientific form, whereas the Four Temperaments are an anachronistic protoscience.

The Four Temperaments are named after bodily humours, a remnant of their origins in Galenic medicine: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile.

The MBTI types are presented in quasi-binary digital form, as acronyms reminiscent of modern medical, governmental, and technological contexts, like how the NSA could tell I have ADHD simply by monitoring my ADSL.

If you read much of the press on the MBTI, you’ll soon discover that it is extremely popular in the corporate world, and almost equally unpopular in the academic world. That is, no one takes it seriously in academic (or clinical) psychology, yet Human Resources departments love the stuff.

Why? It’s hard to say. Maybe it’s because corporations are intrinsically fascist, and love the idea of being able to administer a test to find out your intrinsic suitability for any given role? It reminds me of Brave New World:

Alpha children wear grey. They work much harder than we do, because they’re so frightfully clever. I’m really awfully glad I’m a Beta, because I don’t work so hard. And then we are much better than the Gammas and Deltas. Gammas are stupid. They all wear green, and Delta children wear khaki. Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse.

Or maybe the MBTI was just in the right place at the right time to become the reigning personality theory of the corporate world? It must have seemed very scientific and objective when it first appeared, and to be honest there’s not really anything more robust to replace it.

In terms of genuine psychology, the Big Five are robust, but don’t operate in the same way…they might be reliable markers of personality, but what people really want from the MBTI and the Temperaments is a deeper understanding of themselves and others. They want a theory or a model that lets you extrapolate from the observable, rather than merely measure the observable.

I find the MBTI exhausting at a certain point, and I can’t quite tell if it’s because the model overreaches itself  making predictions or deductions it can’t support, or (in MBTI terms) if it’s because the system and its presentation are so counter-intuitive.

That’s one way of interpreting the ‘dry’ aspect you noted: for an Intuitive type, the MBTI has some glaring faults in its presentation…or at least the way it is usually presented by enthusiasts online or in grueling HR glad-handling sessions.

Can you pick, for example, the irony implicit in arranging a whole-day team meeting to learn about the MBTI and discover your and your colleagues’ types? It doesn’t matter how earnestly you assert that all the 16 types are equally special, when the organisation itself is heavily slated toward particular types.

We introverts did manage to get the highly extroverted HR lady to admit that the organisation itself favours an EST perspective: extroverted, sensing, and thinking.

Likewise, the presentation and systemisation of the MBTI do not seem to sit well with the Intuitive function. There’s a disjoint between the presentation and the underlying principles that is either arcane or just clumsy.

Ideally, the four letters in the acronym would have equal weighting, right? But the I/E is about your overall orientation, the S/N and T/F are about cognitive functions, and the P/J is about the orientation of those functions.

That’s why rationalist (NT) types online will encourage people to forget about the labels and instead focus on understanding the functions.  Because if you just study the labels and their descriptions you’ll only get a superficial understanding of the whole system.

To be continued…

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2 thoughts on “Who’s afraid of the MBTI?

  1. “what people really want from the MBTI and the Temperaments is a deeper understanding of themselves and others. They want a theory or a model that lets you extrapolate from the observable, rather than merely measure the observable.”

    I think you hit the nail on the head, here. The driving force for people to believe in MBTI is vanity and the impression that they are gaining knowledge, i.e, the perfect climate for corporate pseudo-science.

    • I tried to write an article about the MBTI and corporations a year or so ago, but struggled to reach a conclusion.

      My main point was that the MBTI was introspection, corporate-style; suited to those who like to tick a few boxes, add up their scores, and find out what kinds of people they are.

      Others compared it to a religion of corporate America, fulfilling some deeper need than the corporate ethos itself would suggest.

      I think my mistake was looking for a rational answer, as if the MBTI had some kind of further purpose or utility that explained why corporations were so keen to embrace it. But if the whole point is that corporations are deeply dysfunctional, unaccountable, and lacking in underlying principles, then why does their use of the MBTI need any justification beyond “they like it”?

      Of course, as an INFP it’s so like me to think this way ; )
      Luckily I’m not vain, just incurably self-absorbed.

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