Personality Testing And Race: Myers-Briggs v. Big 5

The Washington Post has a fascinating article by Lillian Cunningham on the popular and lucrative Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test that is widely used by employers but is ignored by academics:

It is a classic chicken-and-egg problem: No major journal has published on it, therefore no elite academic will support it, therefore no major journal will publish on it. 

But there are concrete reasons it was not welcomed in the first place. 

“Carl Jung was a pioneer in terms of really creative and novel theory and ideas, but a lot of his work was done before psychology was an empirical science,” says Grant, the Wharton psychology professor. And the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types, remember, are even a step removed from that — they are an interpretation and recasting of Jung’s theory. Even more compromising, according to Grant, is the fact that Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers created the framework in their living room before doing any robust scientific research, rather than the other way around. 

The research that most psychologists today hold up as the best attempt to derive personality types from empirical data is called the Five Factor theory, which emerged from several large-scale independent projects that, conducted over decades, pointed to the same broad set of conclusions. The studies found five core axes that underpin personality, versus the MBTI’s four. They are represented by the acronym OCEAN: openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Of the five, only extroversion closely maps with Myers-Briggs. 

Yet the Five Factor theory has a small commercial problem. 

“There’s no individual or group who owns it,” Grant says. “It’s something that’s collectively owned by the academic community.” That means it’s harder to copyright and package. 

There’s another problem: Not all the personality traits delineated by the Five Factor theory are positive. One of the traits in this framework is neuroticism, for example, which has undeniably negative associations.

One of the major selling points of Myers-Briggs is that it is unequivocally positive. No personality type in its framework is better or worse than any other; each is billed as having unique and constructive strengths. 

This rubric has massive marketing appeal for organizations, especially given that much of the literature and language around talent development in the past few decades has taken a decidedly soft approach. Words like passion, motivation and collaboration have rooted themselves in the corporate lexicon, and they have been part of a larger wave of management theory that has turned its focus to motivating and eliciting best behavior. 

“There’s been a huge wave in positive psychology. It’s been remarkably refreshing,” Thoresen says. “But it’s controversial, and it makes many psychologists nervous because it’s not in their bailiwick.” 

Use of psychological assessments in organizations really picked up in the late 20th century, alongside a growing trend in seeing talent management as a core component of a company’s competitive advantage. Myers-Briggs became one of its first and shiniest symbols. An organization that used the test showed that it recognized people, and their diversity of background and thought, as one of its biggest assets. 

“To raise questions about [Myers-Briggs’s] reliability and validity is like commenting on the tastiness of communion wine. Or how good a yarmulke is at protecting your head,” says Brian Little, a former psychology professor at Harvard University who is now at the University of Cambridge. “It’s simply the wrong question, from their perspective.” 

… And yet the psychological community has been reticent to speak up too vocally against it. The fact is, many psychology professors do lucrative side work as organizational consultants. And as taboo as it is to praise Myers-Briggs in U.S. academia, it’s equally taboo to disparage it in corporate America.

The Myers-Briggs typology doesn`t sound too bad: the extravert-introvert contrast is extremely useful, and the others don`t seem terribly destructive.

I`ve never been all that excited by personality testing. It would seem like there is some potential to correlate personality traits with the usual identity politics categories, but I haven`t heard of too much work along those lines. For example,

The Big Five factors are:

  • Openness (inventive/curious vs.consistent/cautious)

  • Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs.secure/confident)

 

Off the top of my head, I would guess that, relative to white Americans, the the three main minorities would look like this:

Openness: East Asians lower than whites, blacks pretty high, Mexicans lower

Conscientiousness: Asians higher, blacks notably lower, Mexicans somewhat lower

Extraversion: Asians lower, blacks much higher, Mexicans somewhat lower

Agreeableness: Asians variable (Chinese lower, Japanese higher at least in terms of politeness, Indians very high), blacks higher (except when they are lower), Mexicans middling

Neuroticism: Asians higher, blacks lower, Mexicans middling

But my impression is that personality testing tends to become less reliable as it crosses cultural borders. I vaguely recall finding years ago a global report on Big 5 scores for dozens of countries. This seemed like it would be wonderfully enlightening, until I noticed that Swedes and Danes scored as having extremely different personalities. I suspect what was going on was something like people in those two countries like to think: “We are Swedes/Danes and we are different from those horrible Danes/Swedes.”

Nobel laureate economist James Heckman`s big project these days is to get the government and society to focus on bashing some conscientiousness into blacks. Historically, this doesn`t sound impossible to pull off. From the historical record, you can see the Prussian state bashing conscientiousness into Prussians, and then all Germans, to help them stop losing wars. But it`s practically impossible to state clearly in public what the goal of Heckman`s project is, so it tends to wander off into more popular sidelines like denouncing Charles Murray.