Non-fiction Review: What’s Your Type by Merve Emre

CoverWhen Merve Emre asked for Isabel Briggs-Myers’s papers held by the University of Florida, a ‘gentle and apologetic’ librarian told her she would never be allowed to see them. It makes for an intriguing opening as, like Emre herself, I was forced to wonder what secrets those papers might hold. Isabel had never been a politician or a spy and her one invention – or rather co-invention – is so widely known that it’s the opposite of secret. Everyone’s heard of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Most of What’s Your Type (titled The Personality Brokers in the USA) is a biography of the mother and daughter who came up with the test that has become beloved of management consultants and pub psychologists around the world.  It wouldn’t be quite true to say that they collaborated; Katharine Cook Briggs started the work on the test and her daughter Isabel later picked up where she left off later on.

As to whether it has any real value, Emre states her scepticism from the start. This is the story of a pseudoscientific rather than a scientific revolution.

The story starts with the frustrations of Isabel’s mother, Katharine Briggs, who consistently came top of her agricultural college class but knew the lot of a late 19th century American woman was to become a wife and mother rather than to use the degree she’d earned with such distinction. She formulated a set of criteria for parenting that look as if they owe their origins to a class on crop husbandry, which made her name – or at least her penname – famous through a series of articles on parenting in general and the progress of her own daughter in particular.

Quite what Isabel, the carefully cultivated daughter, made of it is less than clear but as soon as she was old enough, she wasted no time in moving away to her own college and falling in love with a man who was less interested in Katharine’s Christian principles than in the blasphemies of socialism. Socialism didn’t stop him and Isabel taking the conventional route of getting married and going to work while Isabel took on the role of housewife.

Isabel proved a difficult character to keep down, though how much that had to do with her carefully planned upbringing is a point that Emre leaves to conjecture. She achieved some success as an author of detective fiction before the Wall Street Crash devastated the publishing industry and put an end to her writing career.

Meanwhile, Katharine was developing an infatuation with the writings of Carl Jung. She refined his theories into a system of rigid types that she believed everyone fell into. If each person’s type could be identified, she reasoned, then each person could find a place in the world that would leave them happy and fulfilled. This was during the inter-war period when the theory of eugenics was widely accepted. Katharine’s deterministic interpretation of Jung was a logical extension of the biologically deterministic principles that held sway among those who did not put them to the test.

Katharine’s interest in Jung’s writings became an obsession with Jung himself. Not content with breathlessly reading his books to Isabel whenever she had the opportunity, she exchanged letters with Jung for years. When Jung visited America, she composed paeans of praise to the great man to the tune of songs from musicals and followed him from city to city until she had the chance to meet him.

It was when Katharine’s eccentricity slipped into full senility that Isabel started to take an interest in her mother’s work on psychological types. Isabel refined it into the categorisations of what became the MBTI while she was working in a management position that wouldn’t have been available to a woman had the Second World War not been raging at the time.

Psychological testing was nothing new, though many tests had agendas that were less than obvious from their terminology. Emre quotes one indicator sold to management to categorise their workforce, in which ‘manic depressive’ actually meant ‘union member’. Isabel’s test was different in that, at least ostensibly, it made no judgement as to the value of the people it tested but simply aimed to match them to their niche within an organisation.

It quickly spread from the corporate world to attract the attention of academic psychologists, and from there to a far murkier world: the recently established Office of Strategic Services (OSS) used it as part of the process they used to select people for training as spies.

The fact that a test that still appears in everything from dating profiles to annual appraisals was invented by a pair of amateurs with no psychological training might seem extraordinary today, but what is even more extraordinary is that so many people credit it with so much authority when it isn’t backed up by a shred of experimental evidence. The central premise of the MBTI is that an individual’s type is fixed from an early age. Emre had to chant ‘type doesn’t change’ as part of a training course she was encouraged to take part in to get hold of Isabel’s papers.

Yet Isabel herself described cases where the same individual was typed differently when they repeated the test. Rather than wonder if it might be measuring what mood someone was in rather than an inflexible type, she rationalised away the problem by concluding that carrying out the first test had released those individuals’ true types, which had been picked up on the subsequent test. All was well with the MBTI and management consultants need not lose any sleep over it.

In fairness to both Katharine and Isabel, they developed the test before psychological research had embraced the scientific method. Like Jung himself, most psychologists simply tried things on their patients to see what would happen and formulated theories that had as much to do with preconception as observation. Katharine and Isabel were probably as well qualified to produce valid as the professional psychologists they worked alongside, and occasionally against.

My main criticism of the book would be that other than Isabel’s fudged results, it doesn’t really deliver on the promise set up by the opening of the restricted papers. The main point of concealing them seems to be that the MBTI doesn’t offer much more of an insight into someone’s character than one of those Facebook quizzes asking whether you’d be an elf, a dwarf or a troll if you found yourself in Middle Earth, but that’s hardly earth-shattering news.

Another minor niggle is that in a few places, Emre does seem to assume her reader is familiar with the MBTI. I’ve never taken the test and I don’t know my INFJ from my ESTP and though I didn’t feel I missed much, a little more explanation might have helped.

Neither of those points detract from an engaging story of how the rather unprepossessing birth of a sliver of pseudoscience led to it infiltrating the world. Emre never states it as explicitly as that, although her scepticism is impossible to miss and equally impossible to take issue with. We are no longer in the mid-20th century. Psychologists no longer throw amphetamines at their patients and call it a panacea, and eugenic determinism has long been debunked. Surely it’s time we left the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator into the same category of medical history where it belongs.

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction

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