The Personality Brokers

Perhaps the two most noteworthy features of the immensely popular and profitable Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are that it is no more scientifically valid a tool for assessing individual proclivities and strengths than astrology or phrenology and that this “psychological instrument”—employed by hard-nosed organizations from the U.S. military to international corporations and universities—was developed by a mother and daughter, Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, out of their own homes. In fact it began with what Katharine called a “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” Merve Emre begins The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing with a third, more sinister-seeming feature of the indicator: the jealousy with which Isabel’s personal papers are guarded against researchers by the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, the organization which owns them. Refused access, Emre was eventually told that a precondition to gaining it was her “re-education” in the shape of undergoing a four-day, $2,095 “Myers-Briggs accreditation session”—which she did, only to be denied access again. “To investigate the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” she writes, “is to court a low-level paranoia. Files disappear. Tapes are erased. People begin to watch you.” Oddly, all this hugger-mugger turns out to be nothing more nefarious than the inflated protectiveness for which archives are notorious. It is, in fact, the least interesting aspect of this truly absorbing, wide-ranging book, a work that covers a century of thought which moved from an emphasis on character to an exploration of personality.

Katharine Cook Briggs was born in 1875 in Michigan to a college professor and his wife who believed that women deserved an education. After leaving college, she married Lyman Briggs, a physicist and eventually the head of the Bureau of Standards in Washington, D. C.. The couple had one surviving child, Isabel, whom Katharine went about educating according to her own elevating principles. Her eventual goal was, as Emre puts it, “to hasten the evolution of humankind one personality at a time.” More specifically, she believed that the key to civilization and its advance was specialization and that each individual possessed propensities that should be brought out and cultivated, the end result being both personal fulfillment and the benefit of society. This core rationale remains in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, as, of course, does the idea of types which Katharine refined after reading Jung, whose work she discovered in 1923, thereupon becoming obsessed with the man and his work.

Katharine’s Jung-infused thoughts on personality types were distilled in her article “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box,” published in the New Republic in 1926. It presented a way of identifying your component propensities to discover who you really were: extroverted or introverted, sensing or intuiting, thinking or feeling, and in what combination. It appealed to the public’s growing appetite for self-discovery and, unlike other means of delineating personalities—of which there were countless being cooked up at the time—it was nonjudgmental, no type or combination being cast as better or worse than the others. Katharine, Emre points out, understood that “modern people didn’t want judgment, repentance, or absolution…They wanted understanding and they wanted it on their own terms.”

Katharine’s thought possessed a mystical, quasi-religious aspect which was utterly absent in her business-minded daughter’s outlook. Married to Clarence “Chief” Myers and the mother of two children, Isabel was not content to stay at home to fulfill what Jung taught was woman’s noblest work: “to help a man recognize the full extent of his powers.” Though she absorbed her mother’s views on personality types, she departed from them by adding a fourth dichotomy, judging and perceiving, and went even further afield by introducing the idea of testing, which was anathema to Katharine. She interviewed countless groups of people, subjecting them to questionnaires in order to create what she considered a scientific basis for identifying types and the vocations best suited to each. With that she entered the work force.

In 1942, she secured a job with Edward Hay who, a year later formed Hay and Associates which developed and peddled aptitude tests—flawed ones in Isabel’s view. In 1943 she introduced her own version, a “people sorting device” which she called the Briggs-Myers Personality Indicator. (It was only later renamed Myers-Briggs in part to avoid the unfortunate initials, B.M.) The indicator’s first client was Station S, a department in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) under the direction of Harvard’s Henry Murray whose graduate student Donald MacKinnon had purchased the Briggs-Myers from Hay. Station S’s goal was to develop an understanding of Hitler’s personality and its effect on the German people, and further, to identify the personality type best suited to espionage and special operations. The project had a shaky, if romantic underpinning in that Murray’s views of spies and spycraft had been gleaned from novels.

Isabel did not look to fiction for facts, but spent months of travel interviewing people in various fields to discover which types of personality were suited to which job. Such was her faith in her system that her belief was not shaken when she discovered that subjects tested as having one set of personality indicators on a given day, came up with another when tested the next. Retreating to Jung she explained this as “enantiodromia” or “a ‘going over to the opposite’ in which one of the preferences a person did not express ascended to a ‘much more honored place’ in the psyche.”This, she further explained, was a good thing as it showed that the indicator fostered the emergence of a “better self.”

If this sounds like humbug, it is not the only example. As Emre shows, the Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, like other tests of aptitude, was shot through with bias, not least in Isabel’s advice to an executive at Standard Oil that there was no point in testing unskilled workers, as “type differences show principally in the more intelligent and highly developed half of the population.” As Emre notes, for the Myers-Briggs, “evidence mattered less than the indicator’s ability to justify as ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ the division that already existed in the world, a world in which the wealthier, whiter, and more upwardly mobile were found to be more self-aware than everyone else.”

Emre brings the story into the 1950s—and the massive growth in the use of personality tests by businesses and other organizations as a basis for personnel decisions—and on to the present day and her own experience taking the Myers & Briggs Foundation’s certification program.. The book is filled with startling material including the influence on Katharine and Isabel of The Great Gatsby (1925) with its portrait of a methodically-assembled personality; Isabel’s own foray into fiction, winning $7500 for first prize in a mystery-novel-writing competition with Murder Yet to Come (beating out Ellery Queen); and Truman Capote’s participation in Donald MacKinnon’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, during which he developed the prototype for Holly Golightly.

The Personality Brokers is a rich, fair-minded book of enormous scope and deftly presented detail. It encompasses biography as well as social, cultural, and business history, and shows magnificently what a pivotal decade the 1920s were in America, years which witnessed the transition in consciousness from concern with salvation and survival to a preoccupation with personal happiness and fulfillment. The Myers-Briggs Personality Indicator, so stamped with its originators’ own personalities, as Emre makes clear, was both symptom and contributor to that transition.