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. Read more…