People Sorting: An Interview With ‘Personality Brokers’ Author Merve Emre

Merve Emre on the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | September 2018 | 23 minutes (5,900 words)

If you haven’t yet read Merve Emre’s writing on the history of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, you might assume that Myers and Briggs were men. In fact, as Emre documented first in a 2015 piece for Digg and with great depth in her new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, the indicator was the brainchild of Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. Over the course of decades starting in the early twentieth century, and shaped by their interests in childrearing and the theories of Carl Jung—if not formal training in psychology—Katharine and Isabel created what has become one of our preeminent means of categorizing, and thus conceiving, people.

Though her writing ultimately accrues into a critique of the MBTI along several dimensions, including the way it upholds extant social, racial, and class inequalities and its perpetuation of insidious capitalistic values, Emre excavates the history of the indicator from its inception through its modern expression with tremendous rigor, nuance and, ultimately, empathy. It seems as important to her to honor these two women’s work as both inventors and mothers—as well as the profound meaning the MBTI can hold for people—as it is to examine the intent and effects of their creation. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Jennifer Szalai described the book as “history that reads like biography that reads like a novel — a fluid narrative that defies expectations and plays against type.”

Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University, has written prolifically for both academic and popular literary outlets. (Her first book, Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, came out last year.) She is, in my estimation, one of the sharpest critics working today. But we first met long before she published her first piece—in fifth grade.

This past June, when I visited Emre in New Haven, where she was staying with her family before moving to the U.K., we spoke not only about the MBTI but also about our own history. Though we were friendly and moved in similar circles during our childhoods, we didn’t become close until our early twenties, by which point both of us had changed enough that we were able to become real friends. If the MBTI is predicated on the understanding that a person’s personality type never changes, how does one account for personal evolution?

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Even though parts of your Digg piece are incorporated into this book, there’s a great tonal difference overall. The Digg piece is acerbic in a way that was kind of fun, so I assumed the book was going to be more of an outright critique. But it’s much more biographical than critical, and tonally much more subdued. Can you talk about that choice?

The Digg piece was sharper and a little bit snarkier, you’re right. Part of what that was registering was my frustration that I had gone to these great lengths to follow the directions of CAPT [the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, which holds the personal papers of founder Isabel Briggs Myers] in order to get access to their archives, and then they denied me access for no discernible reason or purpose. Or rather, the purpose was discernible, and it was that they wanted to protect this person’s image and they didn’t want anybody to write anything that might be even a little bit critical.

So the Digg piece was in some ways excavating those frustrations. But when you sit with any subject for long enough, certain nodes of sympathy begin to open up that you might not have anticipated.

Once I got access to Katharine’s papers, I saw that there was that there was a real struggle for her and for her daughter to figure out how to take what at times seemed to them like the banal and unpromising labor of motherhood and domestic care and transform that into something that they felt was self-actualizing, and self-actualizing in a very professional way. It’s hard for me not to feel sympathy for that. The more I sat with their materials, with their letters—the more I learned about their lives from primary sources—the less I wanted to write a straightforward critique. Or, I felt that I had written a straightforward critique for Digg, and that it had served its purpose.

For the book, I wanted something that would make a little bit more sense of why we continue to be drawn to an instrument like the MBTI even when I think many of us know that it’s not valid or reliable, that it’s a flat and unspecific understanding of human personality. It seemed to me that I couldn’t answer that question with critique alone—or that critique alone would only answer half of that question and leave the other half, which was about the human desire to know ourselves and to know our intimates, unanswered.

Your presence as a narrator is different, too—you’re more of a character in the Digg piece, whereas for most of the book, you drop out of the narrative. That must have also been a conscious choice, to give the story over to these two women.

Right. I only use the first person in the introduction and in the conclusion—but I hope you can sense my presence just in the way that I’ve chosen to emphasize or frame certain things.

I end the introduction by talking about my own children, and how trying to figure out how their personalities were developing and how I was contributing to it, if at all, was orbiting my mind as I started writing the book. And then the book becomes an account of how the labors of motherhood and housework shaped these women’s perceptions of what personality was and how they could classify it, and what good it would do to people to classify it in the first place. I think there was probably a way of telling this story that didn’t lean so much on questions of care and motherhood, and relationships between mothers and children, and the relationship between the work that one does at home and in the workplace—so there is a narrative presence just in the organization and presentation of the material, even if the “I” drops out.

Did you have [your first son] Aydin before or after the Digg piece?

I had him after the Digg piece, but when I accepted Doubleday’s offer, I was in labor. Labor takes forever, especially if you’re a first-time parent, so I was in labor for thirty-seven or thirty-eight hours, I think. I had a totally wonderful epidural, so there was nothing I could do for a while, so I was texting back and forth with my agent as she was negotiating this book deal. It felt very symbolic of something.

I had [my younger son] Altan exactly when the book was due. So I sort of used him as a biological deadline for finishing the book [laughs]. But obviously both of them, and the new reality that I was becoming attuned to, were on my mind when I was writing this book. That sympathy that I was talking about is definitely part of my own experience of motherhood. And also, we like to pretend that we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of how we treat mothers and women more generally in society, like the kinds of discrimination that people like Katharine and Isabel were facing are relics of the past and they’re only historically interesting. But they aren’t: They’re completely present in our contemporary moment. And so all of the scenes in the book where one of the women tried to talk to a man about her work and was not taken seriously, those moments also felt real and present to me.

I think that has a lot to do with why people haven’t really written about the history of this instrument before: because the people who invented it are women. A lot of the people who’ve read early versions of the book have been surprised to learn that Myers and Briggs were women in the first place. Often, when it’s men who have invented and lent their names to things, their histories are quite easily recoverable. In this case, once people found out Myers and Briggs were women, it became easy fodder: critics could say, “Well, these were just two housewives; what could they have known about personality?”

One of the things I’m interested in, in the book, is walking this very fine line: no, they weren’t trained to be designing psychometric tools. On the other hand, they were highly educated and incredibly ambitious women. That doesn’t mean they didn’t know anything about personality. It’s just a question of what you consider knowledge and what kinds of knowledge you value. That was another reason for the softening of the tone: I myself was being initiated into a different kind of knowledge and a different process of knowing that made me sympathetic to what they had been doing.

Yes. I felt that, too, reading. By the end, the evidence against the MBTI’s validity accrues, but without you force-feeding any sort of overt viewpoint. But by the same token, I felt a surprising amount of respect—

Good!

—for the women I was reading about.

That is exactly where I want the reader to end up. Because that’s where I ended up, too. I felt very strongly that nobody wants to read three hundred pages of pure critique. I think that would get pretty boring after a while.

It would’ve been dishonest for me not to show the dimensions of the women and their work that are not respected today by the people who own the Myers-Briggs and market it at the expense of ethical guidelines and practices that Isabel Briggs-Myers was deeply invested in. I think she would be pretty appalled by what has happened with her instrument. It was sort of inevitable that the people who bought it, CPP, would want to turn a profit with it, but I think she would have been really galled by the degree to which they let her standards slide.

When she sold the indicator to CPP, she had these highly nuanced and granular descriptions of the four different types. The president of CPP asked her to soften the descriptions of the types so that they’re not so specific, so that they can be applicable to more people. This is probably part of the indicator’s appeal: The descriptions of the types—similar to horoscopes—have found a middle ground where it’s both completely generic but also somehow manages to seem specific enough that you think you are being directly addressed. Isabel had real qualms about that; she worried that decision was for the sole purpose of the businessman’s bottom line. She was right, I think. And I believe that is part of what accounts for the indicator’s continued popularity: Whatever type you get, there is a way to see yourself in it.

It’s so interesting. I can see myself in that: I’m profoundly skeptical of these kinds of things, but I also happen to take great comfort in online quizzes. I’ve taken the MBTI multiple times online.

What’s your type?

Apparently INFJ. And yours?

I’m an ENTJ.

At one point, you quote from a 1984 book that correlates being an INFJ with being an author. And I was like, “But I am, though!” [Laughter]

Right. I think that’s completely normal. That is the great appeal of this indicator: you can have all of the evidence amassed in front of you that it is completely meaningless—that it has no basis in human psychology, however you choose to define that—and yet at the same time the second it gives you a glimmer of recognition, you are grateful to it and you are seduced by it all over again and you want to believe, despite your better instincts not to believe.

I think most people just say, “What’s the harm in believing? If it’s useful, if it helps me command myself, if it helps me manage who I am or if it helps me manage my expectations of other people, then what’s the harm?” In that way, it seems to me a basically religious or spiritual question. And that’s true on the individual level. But I think it’s a very different story on the institutional level, where people continue to use it to screen for job applicants, or to justify micro-aggressive discriminatory behavior towards introverts or feelers. Then it becomes a more systemic problem, and then there is real harm in believing. But I think you have to approach those two questions differently.

So another way of getting at your original question about tone is to say that the acerbic or snarky or tone of the Digg piece is now directed more towards institutions that use it, whereas the sympathy is reserved for the individuals who created it and use it and believe in it.

You’re talking about having yourself reflected back to you by the indicator, and how comforting that can be. I have developed a habit of going to this psychic who’s around the block from me. Every time I go I’m like, “Please don’t do this again.” But I think I’ve gone eight times. [Laughter] The similarity I see is that when I go, maybe fifty percent of the things she says are even tangentially applicable to my life, but there is a remarkable ability to ignore the rest in order to grab onto the hope that she’s giving me that things are going to be just fine. And here, it seems you’re suggesting it’s not just a matter of being “seen” by this indicator—it’s also that life is scary, the world is scary, and this indicator offers reassurance that there are others like you and they are just fine, you’re not a crazy freak, you’re going to be okay.

As much as it’s a technology of the self, which is what I call it in the book, it’s also a form of social belonging. If you tell me that you’re an introvert, I know exactly what that means or I think I know exactly what that means and I think I know you. All of a sudden, you have a place in my social worldview, the same way you might have a place in your own social worldview if you know that you are a feeler and you know that other people prefer thinking.

So I think the great appeal of the indicator in that sense is not just that it gives hope, but that it’s empowering. It’s not just that you will be fine; it’s that you can make yourself fine. If you accept who you are and you accept your strengths and your limitations, then you can figure out why it is that you behave the way that you do in certain circumstances, and you can also rationalize the fact that those behaviors, or the decisions that you’ve made, are in no way wrong or subject to judgment or to the scrutiny of others, but are simply an extension of some immutable self. I think that is deeply comforting because on the one hand, it’s an abdication of certain kinds of responsibility, and then on the other hand it’s the assumption of a really profound kind of responsibility for yourself.

Right. But then one of the dangers on the individual level, as you map out toward the end of the book, is in giving too much power over to this instrument to shape the course of your life.

Yeah. I mean, my theory toward the end, which I think is true at least for the limited social world in which I move, is that the kind of person who would give themselves over to the indicator in this way is a product of the eighties and nineties, who had the formative experiences of going to school and having their first jobs at the moment when the indicator came into a kind of public consciousness, along with other kinds of self-help trends. In the 2000s and in our present moment, it’s harder to be a true believer and to give yourself over to the indicator not just because it has been subject to so much critique, but because there are so many tests like it out there and because it has been subject to much parody. I think it’s very hard to take something like a Buzzfeed quiz and then go take MBTI and not realize that they’re sort of doing the same thing. One is doing it in a parodic vein, but it’s totally laying bare the logics of the original instrument in doing so. So if you’re even a little bit influenced by that sort of internet meme-ish uptake of the indicator, and of all personality testing, then I can’t imagine not being a little bit ironic or detached towards it.

One of the dangers you point to is the way the indicator promotes a dichotomous way of thinking about human beings: are you like this, or like that? Do you prefer this, or do you prefer that? Along each of the four dimensions you are classed as either one thing, or the other. It seems there is a danger to inculcating black-and-white thinking in this way.

I completely agree with you. I think the indicator does teach you to speak in its language—which is one of the things that’s greatly appealing about it. So even if you don’t believe your results, you still walk away from it having internalized this new vocabulary of thinking about the self and of thinking about other people. There are so many caveats in the MBTI training sessions about this question of dichotomies—they say there are degrees of the different preferences, so I might be a strong extravert and someone else might be a moderate extravert, or someone might be in the middle. But at the end of the day those qualifiers really aren’t getting you away from that dichotomous way of thinking.

And I think the bigger question it raises is, are these even the categories that we should be using to think about human beings? And to what extent have these categories, which were worked out in fairly complicated and nuanced ways, become so morphed by the uptake of the indicator in corporate environments, specifically, that they have come to mean completely different things? It’s striking to me that now when we talk about introverts what we basically mean are people who are quiet, which has nothing to do with the original definition of introversion and certainly not the definition of introversion that Jung was using, or that Katharine and Isabel were interested in. And that seems to me to be a direct product of the fact that in corporate settings, the quiet introvert is being compared to the loud, boisterous extravert, who is always held up as a kind of entrepreneurial or leadership figure. So it’s not just the problem of the dichotomy, but what specific functions or qualities are being assigned to the different parts of the dichotomy. Even if they were once capable of accommodating some kind of nuance, they have now become completely and deliberately resistant to any kind of nuanced thinking.

Remind me what Jung’s view of introversion was?

For Jung, introversion and extroversion really had nothing to do with quietness or loudness or talkativeness. The introvert was someone whose primary orientation to the world was set by his or her own subjectivity. The example Jung gives is that on a cold or blustery day, the introvert is someone who will refuse to wear a coat outside because he wants to be sort of hardened by the elements, whereas the extravert is someone who changes according to external conditions. So the extravert is a kind of chameleonic character actor, and depending on what situations they’re in, they will embrace different personae. The introvert, in Jung’s model, is someone who either cannot or will not adjust their personae in order to fit whatever the mood or atmosphere or scene is that they have found themselves in. That has nothing to do with being quiet or being gregarious. It has to do with something about your willpower and your belief in yourself and your desire to bend external circumstances or conditions to your own sense of self rather than to adjust who you are or how you are acting to suit those circumstances. And to me that’s also interesting because there has been such a push to make introversion attractive, right? But for Jung, it was always the introvert who was attractive. It was the introvert who had this strong and unyielding sense of self. So I think these are the moments when the history becomes really important for understanding why the vocabulary of the self that Myers-Briggs gives us has taken the particular shape that it has today.


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Yet this isn’t exactly a perversion: even as Isabel conceived it, the MBTI was a means of classifying people to be more efficient cogs in the workplace, which is one of the broader critiques you levy in the book.

Yes. Katharine and Isabel were both interested in specialization, but for Katharine, specialization had a religious dimension to it: Specialization would lead to salvation because you were doing good work on earth. For Isabel, it was much more about, we have so many more people in the workplace, surely we need some way to help them specialize. And surely employers need some way to figure out who is good at doing what kinds of tasks. Some people claim that Isabel had real doubts about the fact that this had been used in hiring and firing. I haven’t seen any evidence to that point, and am inclined not to believe it. So I think you’re right that it’s not really a perversion of what Isabel was doing, and it’s completely predictable that it would have ended up the way that it has.

In that context, what you were just saying about the way our conception of introversion and extroversion has been distorted makes total sense: The way our workplace is structured, extroversion is more useful. It’s as though the indicator accrued some kind of nefariousness as it went along.

I love that phrase, that it accrued a kind of nefariousness, because I think that’s absolutely right. I think one person using it in one workplace doesn’t seem particularly nefarious, but then when you see people using it en masse, and when you see people not only using it but then testing it on workers, it does begin to seem nefarious.

Part of the historical argument in the book is that Isabel comes back into the workforce after World War II at precisely the moment when you see this uptick in service work, and you see all of these new organizations, like consultancies, being formed. One of the things they’re trying to figure out is, what makes a person good at his job if what his job entails is managing other human beings? It doesn’t entail putting a cog in a machine, right? In that case, you can tell what makes him good at his job—it’s how fast he puts the cog in the machine, and how often he gets it right. It’s much harder to ascertain that with something like customer service or being a CEO. You are not making things, you’re managing people.

So I think one of the explanations for the great success of this instrument is that it came into the popular consciousness at precisely that moment when people were trying to understand how it was that you could rationally assess service labor. The nefarious part of that is that underneath that conception, your whole personality became beholden to your employer. Your entire self had to have this kind of continuity between your home and your workplace. That eliminates any division that people might have believed there once was or fantasized that there once was—or any division there actually was—between the person you were at home and the person you were at work. So I think that’s the nefariousness of it, the way it kind of colonizes the human psyche so that there isn’t anything like a private non-laboring self left.

And, also, it seems you’re arguing that the insistence that there is no value judgment to any of these types crumbles under the truth that it’s mostly being used to get as much work for as little money out of people as possible. You could make the argument that there’s a place for everybody, and that different kinds of work require different kinds of people, and that’s true—but I feel like in the broad capitalist mechanism, certain things are prized more often than others.

I think the even bigger point is that to be the kind of person who has a personality, you have to also be the kind of person that capitalism finds valuable. There’s a reason that Isabel insists that people with IQs that are under a hundred aren’t worth typing: It’s because within this model of service labor, those people aren’t valuable because she doesn’t believe they can do the kind of intellectual or emotional labor that service work requires. So even beyond whether various corporations value extraverts versus introverts, there’s the larger point that only certain kinds of people under capitalism would ever be exposed to this language of the self or ever have this language of the self-made available to them in the first place.

At the training I went to, there was a college counselor there who was from a small liberal arts college in Minnesota where most of his students were first generation immigrants, were students of color, were women. One of the things he pointed out, very rightly, is that this language of selfhood that the indicator asks you to learn and then recite back is not legible to his students. It is most legible to middle class or upper middle class white men. The question to the person leading this training was, what am I supposed to do with that? And she was highly dismissive. Her response was that that’s the pool they’re going to be swimming in, so they should learn how to remake themselves according to those standards of white capitalist patriarchy. That’s the more dangerous or insidious thing to keep in mind: indicators like the Myers-Briggs, and the kind of worldview that they project of who is included in the social world, are deeply limited and obviously discriminatory, but we tend to forget that when they marshal a rhetoric about how all types are created equal or how everyone in the world is a type. Everyone in the world is not actually a type. So there is, I think, an inherent racism and sexism and classism to the indicator itself that has absolutely to do with its location in American capitalism.

I want to ask about the critique of the indicator as scientifically invalid, because isn’t an insistence on scientific validity in itself a flattening of humanity?

I think the problem is when people make claims about scientific validity in order to sell the MBTI and in order to convince employers to use it. I understand the suspicion of making scientific validity the be all and end all criteria for what we find useful in this world. I also chafe against that. But I think in this case it has everything to do with the way that validity and reliability are being wielded as a sales tool for the instrument.

I marveled at the amount of research you must have done for this book. You don’t need to take me through every step along of the journey, but as you mentioned at the beginning, you were prohibited access to Isabel’s archives, which I guess you never got?

No, I never did. But I had this contact in Australia who was formally a member of the APT, the Association for Psychological Type, which is the sister organization to CAPT. He had read the Digg piece and was really angered by how they had treated me, and it was of a piece with his general anger toward CPP and CAPT for giving into the commercial side of type and no longer respecting what he took to be its real potential for psychological research. We struck up a correspondence and he told me he had all of these documents and would be happy to give them to me. So I paid a graduate student at the University of Melbourne to basically go photocopy this guy’s whole archive. That’s how I ended up getting access to some things that I wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. It would have been hard to write a lot of the book without those materials.

That must have been really exciting.

It was really exciting. A lot of the research here opened onto all of these strange new stories about midcentury psychology and sociology. Katharine’s archives were an unbelievable find. I had no idea they were there until I was Googling her, and I realized that I had made the mistake of constantly looking for materials about her under her married name. Once I started searching for Katherine Cook, which was her maiden name, rather than Katharine Briggs, all of a sudden I discovered this archive at Michigan State. Of course, this is such a testament to why women get forgotten, right? When you’re looking for a woman and you don’t even think to look under her original name? So I found that archive and it was chock full of materials about her, about Isabel, about their family, about Jung. I mean, it was all there.

Separate from this book, I want to ask you about your criticism. You’re an exceptional critic. From a process perspective, I wonder if you could explain how you go about it. Say you’re writing a book review. How do you keep so much in your mind at one time, and then organize it into some kind of argumentative framework?

I always think, “How would I teach this book?” That’s usually the guiding question that I’m operating with when I’m reviewing a book. Let’s say I had to give two lectures to an intro-level class, and I couldn’t assume they knew too much that was happening around the book, but I could assume that they had read the book and that they were pretty smart. How would I go about teaching this book? What kind of argument would I want to make about it?

Per the conversation we were having earlier [before we started recording] about the reviews of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, I continue to be surprised by how few critics actually engage with the text itself, how so much of the criticism is just a projection of people’s feelings and a little bit of hand waving at plot and theme. There’s often very little engagement with form or style. As an English professor, that’s basically what I spend all of my time teaching: how to engage with form and style. And I think that that’s actually what a lot of readers of criticism are hungry for. Many people can read a book and say, here are the salient themes, here is a plot summary. And I just don’t find that interesting from the point of view of criticism.

It’s not always the fault of critics. A lot of novels that people end up reviewing aren’t particularly interesting or aren’t giving critics a lot to hold onto either on the level of the sentence or on the level of form. For me it’s rare to find a novel that makes you want to do that kind of rigorous critical work.

This is actually a question that I’ve been thinking about more generally: Have these ways of assessing personality influenced the way we write character? There is a very literal sense in which that’s true, which is to say there are a lot of creative writing and screenwriting guides out there that recommend that people use Myers-Briggs to construct characters.

Really?

Yes. One of the things we were told in the training was that Myers-Briggs is beloved by Hollywood types and that so many sitcoms that you see are organized around Myers-Briggs types. So I am interested in whether these ways of thinking dichotomously about personality have influenced the way that contemporary writers write fiction.

I’ve known you for a very long time—

Since fifth grade, right?

Since fifth grade. I literally remember meeting you by the monkey bars on the playground outside school.

I was thinking about how long we’ve known each other leading up to doing this interview. There is so much skepticism in the book around the question of whether personality changes or not. And I would argue that certain aspects of my personality have changed and have made it possible for us to be friends in a way that would not have been possible with fifth grade me or twelfth grade me or junior year in college me.

Or with fifth grade me or twelfth grade me.

Right. So I think there’s actually a kind of test-case built into this interview around the question of type changing.

Yes. Because the basic premise of MBTI is that type doesn’t change.

Type never changes. This is a very hard and fast rule.

Right. And on the one hand, I do believe that to an extent you are born with certain characteristics: I’m always going to be a sensitive person. I’m not going to psychoanalyze myself out of being sensitive. But if there was no way of really fundamentally changing your engagement with or orientation toward the world, there would be no point to engaging in sustained self-reflection over a long period of time. So you said that you’ve seen a lot of change in yourself over time—how so?

The way that I track my own change has nothing to do with these categories. I think I was a hostile and angry person in part because I was insecure and in part because I couldn’t quite see the insecurities for what they were, particularly in high school. Now, in retrospect, I know that we went to high school in a very affluent district where certain things that we as high schoolers probably interpreted as beauty or popularity were actually about class in ways that we didn’t recognize then. They were about having access to particular kinds of consumer goods, whether they were jeans or bags or cars or even a hairstyle. Popularity, then, was about passive consumption of the right sorts of things and passive modeling of the right sort of things. At the time, I felt that what it meant to be intensely aggressive and hostile and even cruel at that age was about resisting that kind of passive modeling of femininity. And I think I’ve just moved very, very far away from that. It’s still really important to me to think about these things, but the approach is not the same at all.

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Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.