The Entrepreneurial Type

Bennett Voyles

How a mother and daughter team developed the world’s most popular personality assessment tool

If you’ve ever taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator assessment and felt a certain thrill of self-recognition when you discover you are an INTJ (introverted – intuitive – thinking –judging), an ENFP (enthusiastic _ intuitive – feeling _ and perceiving), or one of the other 14 personality types into which Myers-Briggs places almost all of humanity, you have two entrepreneurial women to thank: Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers.

As recounted in Merve Emre’s book on the invention of the test, What’s Your Type?,  the gestation of the test began in 1923, after Katherine had spent eight years fighting a depression brought on by her daughter Isabel’s departure for college.

Katherine had been suffering from more than an ordinary case of empty-nest blues. She had made her experiments with Isabel’s education the subject of a prolific, lucrative freelance writing career as the World War I era-equivalent of a Tiger Mom. She expounded a philosophy of child-rearing that emphasized encouraging curiosity and punishing disobedience.

Since the brilliant graduate of what she called her Cosmic Laboratory of Baby Training had left home, Katherine had felt at loose ends. She tried her hand as an inventor, and even patented a few inventions (one was for a removable tray for luggage to keep clothes unwrinkled). She also wrote and sold a screenplay. Nothing, however, captured her imagination for long until she read a magazine article about Carl Jung, the influential Swiss psychologist who believed that human personalities could be divided into 16 types.

Fascinated by the idea, Katherine read Jung’s book Psychological Types again and again, corresponded with him, and once even met her hero in person. In 1926, she wrote an article about her studies for The New Republic magazine that reduced Jung’s 446-page tome to a 2×2, 1-page table of the 8 qualities that went into Jung’s 16 personalities (“Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paintbox”). But although she tested her “paintbox” on various friends, she didn’t take the type-assessment idea much further. Instead, in the 1930s, she pursued a vocation as a kind of freelance Jungian therapist.

Jung Again

That might have been the end of it had Isabel not found herself in a depression like her mother’s after Isabel’s two children left home in the early 1940s. Once again, Jung came to the rescue.

After reading an article in Reader’s Digest about the rise of personality testing and realizing that industry would soon need help finding good matches for different jobs among the millions of people joining the workforce to help with the war effort, Isabel thought there might be a market for a test based on her mother’s interpretation of the 16 Jungian types.

In 1943, Isabel pitched a prototype test to the leading personnel-testing service on the East Coast, Edward N. Hay Associates in Philadelphia. Matching personality to occupation was “a time-consuming and sometimes painful process, like trying on all the shoes in a shoe store to find a fit,” she wrote. “If men came like shoes, with the most vital data as to size and style marked outside the box, many a cramping misfit could be avoided.”

Isabel’s indicator was different from the other tests Hay sold in that there were no winners or losers – she was always careful to call her test an assessment. It was not a test of ability: Everyone had a personality, and Isabel held that certain personalities were better suited for some professions than others. Like Harry Potter’s sorting hat, the test revealed who you were and where you belonged.

Hay hired her as a consultant, and she went out and sold the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator to government and corporate clients. Among her first customers was the Office of Strategic Services (a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency), which used the test to assess which candidates would make good spies. A few years later, other large organizations followed, including General Electric, AT&T, and Standard Oil, along with a number of colleges and banks.

Despite her test’s popularity, one problem nagged Isabel: proving its validity. In 1959, she left Hay and took her test to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) of Princeton, N.J., the firm that marketed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, hoping that organization could validate the Briggs-Myers indicator.

Although social scientists at ETS were skeptical, ETS founder Henry Chauncey was on the lookout for a personality test and liked the fact that it was easy to understand and easy to administer.

But although Chauncey signed her up, he and his team foresaw two problems. First, Briggs-Myers wouldn’t work as an acronym) reversing the names would avoid anybody making a scatological reference). Second, they shared Isabel’s concern about validity.

The name was easily changed but the second problem proved harder to solve. Despite multiple attempts, ETS statisticians never could confirm the validity of MBTI, and it languished. Sixteen years later, in 1975, ETS gave the rights to MBTI back to Isabel and she found another publisher, Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP), in Oakland, CA.

Myers-Briggs Hits the Big Time

CPP worried less about the science behind the test, and the market didn’t seem to mind either. In 1975, MBTI earned $10,000 in royalties. By 1979, the figure reached $100,000. And the growth continued after Isabel’s death in 1980: These days, around 2 million people continue to take the official 93-question test annually, according to a 2016 Financial Times article

In the same article, a spokesperson for General Motors said it had been using MBTI on employees for 30 years, while a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble said that thousands of its staff “have benefited, and are still benefiting” from taking the test.

Among corporate users, it seems to be used mostly as Isabel Myers originally intended – as a kind of personality shoe sizer. An employee of one major consultancy that still uses MBTI confessed on a bulletin board two years ago, “[h]onestly we really just use it to describe working styles/preferences and surface some of the potential conflicts or things to be mindful of. It’s very useful from that point of view – as is any framework that gives you quick reference points.” As this consultant summarized, “Classic case of efficiency > accuracy.”

On the consumer side, people advertising on dating sites often use their type as a data point, including their four-letter Myers-Briggs acronym in their profiles. Other dating sites have taken it one step further: Birdy, for instance, is a dating app “that connects you through the compatibility of your personality using the power of science (inspired by Myers-Briggs).”

Meanwhile, most scientists continue to be skeptical about MBTI. As psychologist Adam Grant has put it, “When it comes to accuracy, if you put a horoscope on one end and a heart monitor on the other, the MBTI falls about halfway in between.” Grant argues that other tests, such as examinations based on the Big Five personality traits, have been shown to be much more reliable.

Despite the skepticism, MBTI and MBTI copycats such as the website 16Personalities still have plenty of satisfied customers. By some estimates, MBTI retains a 20% share in the $2 billion global personality testing market. Apparently, a lot of people still agree with Isabel Briggs Myers that “[t]he understanding of type can make your perceptions clearer, your judgments sounder, and bring your life closer to your heart’s desire.”