Merve Emre is associate professor of English at Oxford University and fellow of Worcester College. She holds a BA from Harvard and an MA, MPhil, and PhD from Yale. She is the author of two books: Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, November 2017); and The Personality Brokers (New York: Doubleday, September 2018), which investigates the strange, secret history of personality testing. Her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The New Republic, The Nation, The Walrus, Bookforum, Boston Review, The Baffler, n+1, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, where she is senior humanities editor. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two sons.
This interview with Emre appeared in the Boston Review (September 19, 2018). Deborah Chasman is co-editor of Boston Review.
Deborah Chasman: Our mania for testing knows few bounds. We test kids in school, early and late, for both “aptitude” and “achievement.” We test our DNA for exotic connections to the past. And we test our selves. Perhaps no assessment better symbolizes our love-hate relationship with testing — its power as well as its pitfalls — than the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), now used by Buzzfeed headline writers, college counselors, and Fortune 100 managers alike. Its sixteen personality types have become touchstones of cultural legibility, reducing the messy complexity of human interactions to talismanic four-letter essences. (I am an INFP.) Whether you see it as a tool of the neoliberal ideology of self-care, a flimsy excuse for gender disparities and social hierarchies, or a vehicle for authentic self-reflection, its popularity cannot be denied.
To better understand this enduring taste for typological thinking, I spoke with Merve Emre, an ENTJ, Oxford professor of English, and author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (2018). Emre’s book traces MBTI back to its origins in the work of two women — mother and daughter — in the early twentieth century, exploring how a test developed outside the main stream of professional science became a fixture of both self-help pop culture and the managerial elite. Probing its uncanny ability to deliver insights at once banal and profound, we discuss what the test really measures and what it misses, how it has come to function as a form of divination and therapy in an age of secular alienation, and why its claims of innateness are at odds with richer understandings of personality and character.
Deborah Chasman: What got you interested in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the mother-daughter team behind it, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers?
Merve Emre: I discovered the type indicator when I was twenty two. I had just graduated from college and started a management consulting job at Bain & Company. And one of the first things we had to do — all the new associates — was sit down and take the MBTI.
A couple weeks later we were whisked off to an extravagant retreat, where an executive talent coach debriefed us on our types and explained what they signaled about our future at the company. I remember finding the language of types incredibly compelling. I had never been in therapy at that point. I had never practiced thinking about myself in any kind of systematic or what appeared to be a kind of rigorous way. This was my first encounter with any kind of system of self-knowledge and self-understanding, at least in its most explicit form. It didn’t hurt that my type was the CEO type—ENTJ. I remember going up to the talent coach afterward. She said some generic but flattering things about how I would do really well, and people like me were going to take over the world. I enjoyed that kind of attention — for what I was told was innate to my personality, not what I had worked really hard for, or whatever. It was just something that was special and unique and essential to who I was.
As it turns out, I was a terrible consultant. I spent most of my time studying for the literature GRE under my desk. I was trying to be really sneaky about it but I’m pretty sure everybody knew what I was doing.
I left that job after six months to get a PhD in English, and I forgot all about this experience. Years later, when I was looking for a topic for my second book, I thought I might write about the relationship between discourses of personality and the development of literary character. I remembered my experience with Myers-Briggs and started digging into its history. I discovered that it had been created by a mother and a daughter who had no formal training in psychology or sociology — not, as I had assumed, by two male psychologists.
The daughter, Isabel, had been one of the bestselling mystery novelists in the 1930s, and their story seemed perfect for what I thought I was going to write. I found Isabel’s archives at the University of Florida. The book opens with my efforts to get access to them and being denied by the Myers & Briggs Foundation, which has never given access to anybody. The foundation strung me along for almost a year, making me jump through hoops, promising all along that I would be granted access. They eventually asked me to go to what they called a “reeducation program” so that I could learn how to speak the language of type the way that they believed it should be spoken. So I went to this week long program — and then they told me that they were not going to give me access, after all. When I emailed them to ask them why, they stopped responding to my emails. That motivated me to figure out why they were being so cagey. I was angry that I had invested all this time into this project and that I was being denied for no good reason. I was determined to find a way to write the book without their help.
DC: One really interesting thing I learned from the book is that both Katharine and Isabel were deeply conflicted about traditional gender roles, right? They were devoted mothers, and they were also very ambitious, but sometimes their work seems to comfort them with the idea that serving their family was the right thing for their personalities. Katharine got very depressed when things didn’t work out professionally. I wonder if you have something to say about that — whether resolving that conflict about gender is somehow hardwired into MBTI.
ME: Right. One reason I found these women so interesting was that I started writing this book when I had my first child, and I finished it right when I had my second. The entire time I was learning how to negotiate my new personality — I don’t want to say identity because that seems too over-determined. I was learning how to reconcile the personality that I had always projected as a professional — as a writer, as a researcher, as a teacher — with the new social relationship that I had been thrust into as a mother.
Many of the conflicts that Katharine and Isabel faced felt very familiar to me in that moment. They were women who intuited how sexist or misogynistic assumptions about what women were meant to be and do had been baked into their lives, but they didn’t quite know how to respond. So, for example, Katharine’s response to her parents paying for her husband’s postgraduate education but not hers was to say, let me figure out how I can turn my own home into a kind of scientific laboratory, let me figure out how I can professionalize the domestic labor that I’m doing, if not in a material way — she certainly wasn’t getting paid for it — then in an ideological way. She could make child rearing scientific, so that she could feel that she wasn’t giving up on the professional dreams that she had to abandon once she got married. Women make all sorts of adjustments to try to preserve their sense of self under circumstances that do not allow for them to flourish in the way that they want to. So the story in the book is historical — how Katharine negotiated that conflict at the turn of the century and later how Isabel did it in the 1940s — but it is also a story that seems really enduring to me as a working mother today.
DC: Yes, I felt the same way when I read the book. You also mention that there is a gender bias in the results: women are mostly “feelers,” guardians of personal relationships, and men are mostly “thinkers.”
ME: I would never refer to these women as feminists because they really had no interest in any kind of political organization around gender. Toward the end of her life, Isabel was dismissive of what she called the “women’s libbers” of the 1970s. But both she and Katharine were interested in women’s flourishing in a deeply individualistic way. So it is appropriate that the indicator they designed has become such an agent of this neoliberal idea of compactualization and self-care. I think that was the limit of what they could imagine, in terms of progress. Isabel’s husband was more of a committed leftist and feminist than she was; he was dismayed by her lack of political understanding and political interest when it came to liberating women from what he viewed as the oppressiveness of their household role. But Isabel and her mother were so bound to certain Victorian ideals of femininity and domesticity that it would have been impossible for them to imagine any kind of different organization for work or care.
If you look at the statistics around the indicator, it is true that women tend have a stronger preference for feeling than men. But what I think is so dangerous about MBTI is that it claims that those personality traits are innate; it naturalizes the feeling-work that women do when really it is often a function of much larger structural dynamics. That women were often tasked with doing the affective labor of social reproduction has very little to do with biology and everything to do with the way that the household has been set up and theorized as a private space — where feelings are managed — as opposed to the public space of material labor and of work.
DC: That leads to my next question — what MBTI actually assesses. In the book you describe how, when the test took off as a corporate tool for sorting workers into the right jobs, users discover that it doesn’t really work on manual laborers — the types don’t emerge. Isabel’s response is that they are not sophisticated enough to have a type, they are not smart enough.
ME: She claims outright that with an IQ under 100, type differentiation isn’t possible. People just can’t have personalities if they are not smart enough.
DC: This seems a clear case, then, where the indicator is reflecting structural differences instead of innate characteristics. It works on people who have already achieved a certain professional status, so perhaps it is more a reflection of experience than intelligence.
ME: Of course. I think the indicator is completely designed to reify certain hierarchies that already exist in the world. It is like Adorno’s argument about typological thinking in The Authoritarian Personality (1950) — there are only certain people to whom the benefits of individuality are extended. Not everybody gets the privilege of thinking of oneself as a unique individual, somebody who has a rich inner life or even a highly differentiated set of preferences that are worth talking about and classifying. Even before you get to typing people using the indicator, a type system has already sorted them — there are those who get to have access to personalities and those who don’t.
Today, still, by the logic of this particular indicator, people who are white and wealthy and powerful and male get to think of themselves as personalities. The indicator really works to perpetuate that. When I went to the reeducation program, one participant was this wonderful man, a college counselor from a small, Midwestern school, who was telling us that 70 percent of his students were first-generation immigrants, they were the first people in their families to go to college, they were overwhelmingly from lower-income households, many of them were women and students of color. He was telling the talent coach that for many of these students the questions on the test are simply inscrutable — they ask you to imagine these scenarios where, say, you are planning a vacation and you have to figure out whether you plan everything ahead of time or you just go spontaneously. Or at work, you have this huge project and your boss is a thinker and you are a feeler, so how do you go about making decisions. His students found the minds of those decision-makers impenetrably bourgeois. He asked the talent coach what he should tell them when they say they have never gone on vacation, never been able to afford to go on vacation, or that in their workplaces people don’t cooperate — they are just told what to do and to punch in and out. Her response was striking: well, this is the pool of success, and if they want to swim in it they just have to learn, they just have to acclimate themselves to this language, to these ideas. MBTI continues to be classed and raced and biased in all sorts of implicit ways. It was explicit in the ’40s. It is more implicit now.
DC: That brings me to another aspect of the bias. The test claims that it is neutral about the types; no one type is better than the other. But I couldn’t help thinking that there is something judgmental about it. It brought to mind the lawsuit against Harvard for consistently rating Asian Americans lower on personality in their admissions process. Do you see any connection here to the kind of testing that Myers-Briggs does?
ME: Absolutely. The complaint against Harvard is that Asian American applicants are by and large ranked as being inscrutable — as not having personalities. They are judged to be automatons or robots. So again, this is a group to which individuality is being denied through personality assessment. Even if they aren’t using Myers-Briggs, they are using the kind of language that orbits it. Positive personality, likeability, kindness, being widely respected — those are the kinds of traits that they use to deny Asian American candidates any sense of individuality. That is completely consistent with the ’40s model of personality typing, which assumed that certain people just don’t get to have access to this language of type and certain people don’t get to think of themselves as being differentiated individuals.
DC: Can you say something about how the test is most used today?
ME: It continues to be most prevalent in corporations. One in five Fortune 1000 companies use it during the hiring process. Something like 89 of the top Fortune 100 companies use it on people in the workplace, for self-assessment, team assessment, team building. Probably the second biggest group of users is universities. Most people at the reeducation program I attended were college counselors who were learning how to use it to help incoming freshmen figure out what to major in or outgoing seniors figure out what kind of jobs to apply to. But there are other pockets of use as well. I’ve received a number of emails from people in the military talking about how they use it in training. A woman from the Department of Defense is using it for her employees; people in the Protestant church certainly use it. And then — this is sort of a more diffuse group — people who are generally interested in wellness and self-care also use it. It is often packaged as part of holistic programs of self-discovery and self-care and self-betterment.
DC: Let’s talk about that for a minute. There’s no scientific rigor behind the test, and it reflects structural biases, but it is so widely popular as a self-help tool. People recognize themselves in the results. Did Katharine and Isabel get something right?
ME: Part of the argument of the book is that it is important to consider the individual dimension — the individual experience of the indicator — alongside its larger social ramifications and the ways it institutionalizes a very particular model of personhood. I would never deny anybody the experience of recognition or liberation — even, in some cases, seduction — that they have when they encounter the indicator. So many of the people I’ve talked to throughout writing the book — people I respect, including family members and friends — believe in it wholeheartedly, despite the fact that they know it is not scientifically valid or reliable. It offers them this incredibly powerful language of self-understanding.
This is what I think Isabel and her mother got right: if you can offer people a relatively simple vocabulary for describing themselves and making themselves masters and arbiters of their own destiny, then that language will never die. It will resist whatever attempts are made to undercut it. It is ultimately, to my mind, a system of secular belief. You don’t need proof of it to feel like it speaks some kind of truth to you and about you. I wanted to use the biographies of the two women to understand that belief and its strength and its endurance, while at the same time showing how the belief was propped up by all sorts of larger social, structural issues, that could not be explained away or ameliorated by the fact that individuals felt seen or liberated by the indicator.
DC: One thing that I kept thinking about throughout the book is the use of the word personality and how it related to the word character, and then there’s character in the Greek sense, which is linked to your fate. How does the Myers-Briggs sense of personality compare to those other concepts?
ME: For me, character is most interesting in the literary sense — character as a kind of fictional construction. Personality, or these discourses and systems of personality, allow us to imagine ourselves as characters. They articulate narratives about our fate and allow us to imagine ourselves as part of larger, social orders that we navigate in different ways through different plot trajectories based on what we learn about our personalities. To me, personality and character are deeply intertwined along that kind of imaginative dimension of character creation.
DC: When we think of personality or character as innate, what do we miss? People might recognize themselves in their type, but what don’t they see?
ME: I think the first thing that we miss is the total ahistoricism of thinking about personality as innate. To me the most interesting way to understand personality is how it is socially and culturally constructed — the ways one’s personality can shift based on the different social or institutional contexts one inhabits or has to inhabit, the different interactions that one has to have with different sorts of people. That understanding of personality is ultimately irreducible; it doesn’t lend itself to a typological system. Type thinking takes those messy facts and cleans them up and gives them a framework — even if it is obviously flattening out many things.
The other thing we miss is that we imagine that the systems people use for classifying personality are also somehow natural or essential. There is definitely nothing natural or pure about the different systems that are used for classifying personality. I wanted the book to show that the language of type that many of us now speak so effortlessly is a deeply idiosyncratic and contingent product of two women and the forces that they encountered in history. There is nothing innate or natural or essential or pure about extraversion or introversion. Or about or feeling and thinking. I think even talking about validity and reliability sort of misses that point — because it asks whether these tests are really measuring what they purport to be measuring and whether they show the same thing over time, and those are questions for scientists, or psychologists. As a humanist I want to preempt those questions because even they are premised on assumptions that the systems and language that we use to describe people have some kind of basis in truth. I don’t think they do.
DC: Has your experience as a mother of two young children changed your ideas about personality?
ME: I just gave you this whole song and dance about what we miss when we say personality is innate, but I am convinced that my children’s personalities were sort of set from the minute they were born.
DC: Yes! Me too. Totally.
ME: I can talk about this theoretically until I am blue in the face and deny it. Yet every time I go home and look into my children’s eyes, I think, you are the exact person that you were the moment I held you. For my older son, I saw the mischief in his eyes from day one and for the younger one I saw a kind of adoration and sweetness from day one. Then I’m immediately resistant about that because it is so tempting to impose those narratives onto your children and to treat them in ways that reinforce that they are the kinds of children that you have always assumed that they are. I am very aware of the dangers of that. But my experiences as a parent have made me appreciate why people gravitate to the language of type. As a parent you are raising these strange and really completely inscrutable creatures, and you’re just trying to find a way to make sense of who they are—because you don’t and can’t know in those early years. Of course you will gravitate to any kind of system that clears up the confusion and terror of parenting—
DC: Especially when your children are different, you know they are different, you know they respond to things differently.
ME: Absolutely. On the one hand it is the most banal thing that people are different. But on the other hand, when I go home and see my kids interacting with each other and with me, it feels like the most extraordinary discovery in the world. I think there is something to be said for the way the indicator is always toggling between these two extremes — the kind of banalities that it offers you and that extraordinary sense of discovery.
Dan Clendenin: firstname.lastname@example.org