Who Are You? The Science (or Lack Thereof) of Myers-Briggs

If you’ve been hired for a job in the last thirty years, chances are you’ve heard of Myers-Briggs. It’s a personality diagnostic tool used by everyone from self-searching college kids to Fortune 500 companies.

It’s understandable why employers embrace the Myers-Briggs Inventory. If there is a way to figure out ahead of time whether or not you’re going to ‘fit in,’ it could save the company money in the long run, and you might avoid working for a company you don’t like.

If the test can prove you’ve got the right stuff, maybe you’ll even skip a couple of rungs on your way up the management ladder. Perhaps someday you’ll be the one ordering the personality testing of the young upstarts seeking to unseat you from your hard-fought throne.

Obviously, when it comes to business, this is all a pretty big deal.

If you’re like me, you probably believed the Myers-Briggs was supported by some serious clinical evidence. After all, this is a common, widespread, accepted tool. People embrace their Myers-Briggs designation, labeling themselves ENFJ or ISTP the same certainty as height or blood type.

Surely it’s been all proven out through a double-blind study, or perhaps studies. We’re talking the kind of careful, thorough science necessary when people’s egos, and personal livelihoods, are balanced on a handful of test answers.

The problem is that science has the same relationship with Myers-Briggs that it had with alchemy back in the Dark Ages. It’s true that Myers Briggs has turned into gold, but a different kind of gold to be sure.

Isabel Myers, daughter of Katharine Briggs, conjured up the personality test at her kitchen table in the forties, shortly after World War Two. She had no formal training in psychology or testing. She based her system on her reading of Carl Jung, who had in turn been a student of the famed Sigmund Freud. Jung suggested in one of his writings, Psychological Types, that human behavior seemed to break down into categories.

Myers, believing that Jung was on to something, went on to build her personality test, placing people on four different continuums: Introvert/Extrovert, Thinking/Feeling, Intuitive/Sensing, and Judging/Perceiving. These variables allowed for 16 different combinations.

When she sent her personality inventory, or ‘Indicator’, to Jung, he was lukewarm, suggesting to Myers that an individual’s personality was far too complex to capture with a set of clever questions. Undeterred, Myers made the rounds of academia, hoping to drum up support for her newly minted system. She was repeatedly turned away due to an utter lack of scientific bonafides.

But in true entrepreneurial spirit, Myers soldiered on. She eventually found a buyer in Henry Chauncey, who had just started up a company called Educational Testing Service. You might know it better as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT.

Back in the late fifties, Chauncey decided that a personality test would be a nice addition to his fledgling college entry exam. According to Annie Murphy Paul in her book, The Cult of Personality, Myers was then able to leverage her Chauncey connection into some measure of respectability.

Unfortunately for Myers, one group never fully bought in: psychologists. They have their reasons, including studies where people’s answers on the Myers-Briggs can differ significantly depending on the time of day it’s administered. One study showed that up to 50% of the people who are given the test a second time end up with a different personality profile.

It’s also been suggested that because of the way the test was constructed (little emphasis on negative traits), most people tend to accept their results without examining it too closely.

So what’s the bottom line? Is Myers-Briggs a bunch of baloney? At least on an anecdotal level, there certainly appears to be some connection between people and distinct communication styles. Even Hippocrates observed that people seem to fall into four different types.

However, it seems like an overreach to suggest Myers- Briggs, or any test for that matter, could ever capture one’s personality as neatly as trapping a firefly in a glass jar. We’ve witnessed this oversimplification before, with the idea that a single number can represent the breadth and width of one’s IQ.

Myers-Briggs, like IQ tests, do tell us something about ourselves, and it probably makes sense to consider them as one interesting set of data points on an incredibly complicated spectrum of human behavior. But in the end, putting too much emphasis on a personality test appears to be less about science and more about alchemy.

And you always wondered what went on in HR behind closed doors…

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Are You Under its Spell?

When it comes to brain biases, one that gets an awful lot of play is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It’s a phenomenon demonstrated by many studies, but it all started with, you guessed it, Dunning and Kruger.

The pair surveyed undergrad college students who had just taken a test, asking each student to predict his or her score. Then they compared each student’s guess against the results.

The students who did really well on the test had slightly downgraded predictions. The students who did poorly, on the other hand, had overestimated their scores by an average of 30%.

In Daniel R. Hawes’ article “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Dunning-Kruger Effect”, he shares the same general conclusion from another study:

“Participants who took tests in their ability to think logically, to write grammatically, and to spot funny jokes tended to overestimate their percentile ranking relative to their peers by some 40 to 50 points, thinking they were outperforming a majority of their peers when, in fact, they are the ones being outperformed.”

Put more frankly, people with limited knowledge have the potential to make total fools of themselves, without ever realizing how ridiculous they seem to everyone else. The problem of course, is you don’t know what you don’t know, so unless someone breaks through the wall of that person’s cognitive dissonance, it can perpetuate itself forever.

So here is an interesting question, and one that might be slightly uncomfortable. What if you are the poster child for the Dunning-Kruger Effect? What if you’re the one they’re chatting about around the water cooler? To that end, I share the following four warning signs for D-KE.

•   Any conversation that begins with your coworkers saying, in voices choked with withheld laughter, “Tell us that story again.” As in, “Tell us again how you explained to the exterminator that insects developed wings not so much through an evolutionary process but because they just didn’t know they couldn’t or shouldn’t be able to fly.”

•   When you approach the water cooler and the eye rolls move from person to person like the wave at a football game, and then they all break into a smile.

•   You believe that simply observing someone do something qualifies you as an expert, as in, “I’ve seen Mick Jaeger twelve times, how hard would it be to strut around on stage like that– provided I had access to his wardrobe.”

•   Any time your sentence contains the following words: “It’s not rocket science…” This one is actually a double whammy, because the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in play when you believe you understand rocket science enough to make a generalized statement, and likewise assume you are an expert in what you’re comparing rocket science to.

Important note: the above list is by no means a complete catalog of being under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect,  but it’s a start.

>It’s also important to understand that D-KE is not the same as self-delusion. Self-delusion  happens when you are in some way a willful party to the charade. But as a participant in the Dunning-Kruger Effect, you are completely oblivious to your behavior—which means without outside intervention, the behavior could continue indefinitely.

We all know people like this. They are both fascinating, and infuriating. And although it is unlikely that you or I will have any effect on the way they operate, there is something satisfying about at least having a name for their ilk.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch another video on a note-for-note breakdown of essential Jimi Hendrix guitar licks. Because there are two things I know to be true: practice makes perfect, and if I only had his guitar, I’d give old Jimi a run for his money.

Windex Philosophy and the “Tyranny of Or”

What do the lightbulb in your garage and your brain have in common? They both operate on about 60 watts of power. This is a problem for two reasons: first, your garage tends to be under-lit, and second, your brain doesn’t have enough processing power to deal with today’s environment. The human brain blueprint was built 40,000 years ago and hasn’t had any serious upgrades since. (Steve Jobs would be rolling over in his grave, if he hadn’t been cremated.) Continue reading

About Face

I’m writing to you from Shanghai tonight, a city of contradictions where it’s just as likely you’ll find a person on their Macbook Air as someone using an abacus. I’m sitting in a Starbucks, that most American of institutions, right around the corner from my hotel on the eastern side of the old city. As I watch the people pass by me, I can’t help but see the doppelgangers of my friends and family, the mind’s trickery played out on stranger’s faces.

Face is important. It’s estimated that a third of the brain is dedicated to reading and interpreting faces. If that area, specifically the fusiform gyrus, gets damaged, you walk around without the ability to recognize anyone. People with prosopagnosia, or face blindness, as it’s sometimes called, are literally unable to pick their mother or best friend out of a lineup. Continue reading

Sourdough, Websites, and the Self: The Myth of the Driver’s Seat

Our story this week begins around 1500 BC. It was roughly 3500 years ago that somehow––let’s be honest, probably through some kind of accident that doesn’t bear thinking about––Egyptians discovered that a mixture of flour and water, left in the right conditions, could bubble and ferment into a tangy ball of risen dough, and that this ball, when baked, was not only edible but delicious.

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The Reality Gap and the Power of Self-Myth

You are not you. By that, I mean that the idea of Self — the single arbitrator of decisions and sole captain of your wants and desires — appears to be a construct of the brain. And part of that construct is the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

Sometimes, it becomes clear that a person’s personal narrative is pretty different from who they really are. Like your friend who claims to be an avid runner but perhaps hasn’t run in weeks, months or even years. Or your office mate who claims to be ‘easygoing’ and then spends coffee breaks rearranging all the swizzle sticks to point in the same direction, and sorting and stacking the sugar packets by date of manufacture.

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