The War on Self-Understanding

by Dirk Knemeyer

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has been a recent target of attack. From the thoughtful-but-over-the-top Huffington Post article to the recent hit piece from Vox, online publications with high visibility are taking aim at the MBTI. While some of the criticisms of the MBTI in these pieces are valid, their inflammatory conclusions are not ("totally meaningless"?!?! Really?) This divisive approach serves to create a chilling effect of embarrassment and self-doubt for the people who use tools like the MBTI to augment their journey of self-understanding.

Since 2010 I've been deeply immersed in studying behavioural aspects of the human condition. A good part of that learning has occurred in applied business tools like the MBTI. In fact, I've become certified in a variety of tools including four of the most popular: the MBTI, the DiSC, the Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and the Hogan System. I did not get these certifications to start a consulting business and leverage the methods for cash; it was part of a massive process of learning about models of human understanding to put into my own, broader work.

What I like about methods devised for a professional environment is that they are designed for acceptance and adoption. Yes, inevitably there are people who don't want their personality to be examined. But the design of these tools is generally geared toward framing constructive and productive conversations about (depending on the tool) behaviours, skills, values, and preferences. Yes, of course people misuse them. Whether the product of a poorly administered assessment, or poor communication around the results, or treating the results as scientific truth as opposed to a guideline, or even the employer over-emphasizing the results and making foolish judgments, any attempt to characterize and make decisions about people can lead to harm. We have all heard stories of a personal vendetta, or a manager who doesn't pay close enough attention, or any other number of incompetencies. The problem in these latter examples is not the very concept and presence of managers, it is how those managers actually do their jobs. So it is with personality tools like the MBTI, tools with tremendous potential to do good, yet also hold the potential to instead do harm.

"Personality tests" have their strengths and weaknesses. In getting educated in so many methods I quickly identified patterns and problems—things I thought were more or less true, that worked better or worse. Ultimately there was no one that I liked best, even if cherry-picking aspects among them. These tools do not represent some scientific truth from on high, nor should should they be treated as such. Yet they certainly have the potential to be valuable in ways that, say, astrology (to use something compared to the MBTI) does not. This should be obvious on its face as the MBTI, for example, claims to reflect the inherent preferences that each of us has. I think we can all agree that we are each born with inherent preferences, regardless of our respective beliefs about the nature/nurture balance in who we finally become. However I think almost all of us can likewise agree that the notion that the pillars of our behaviour and personality being the product of the time of year we are born is ridiculous on its face.

The biggest problem facing our species is not global warming, the world economy, or third-world genocides. It is a lack of understanding of the self and one another. This, indeed, is the root from which the seemingly more pressing problems begin, as we ignorantly and animalistically fail to harness technology we've developed but lack the ability to responsibly use, or to harmoniously co-exist in a multinational world with over 7 billion people. While the hard sciences have enjoyed an orgy of investment, attention, and progress since Copernicus shattered the vanity of our Earth, only minimal time and effort have gone into a "science" of human understanding. One of the more notable examples is the work of Dr. Carl Jung, who was one of the primary targets of the Vox piece. So little work is being done around human understanding and, instead of trying to glean insight and grow from that work, these publications simply burn it to the ground without providing an alternative.

Now, the HuffPost piece did attempt to be constructive in mentioning the "Big Five Personality Traits," which is the scientist's proposal of a correct model for human personality. I've studied this as well, and I agree with the basic premise that, through the lens of hard science, the "Big Five" is more generally correct. The problem is that it is entirely unusable by people in their everyday lives. The "Big Five" offers five dimensions of personality traits each of which is on a continuum from most to least desirable. Very few people will be willing to accept this sort of a personality assessment. Rather than give people language to understand themselves and engage with others in a more aware and meaningful life it puts people on the defensive. As might be expected, most people are low in one or more of these measures. Some people are low in ALL of them!

I wonder how the inherently judgmental nature of the "Big Five" would translate to a professional setting? I wonder whether it could lead to productive conversations about how people work and live together? The "Big Five" may be very useful for secretly evaluating and making decisions about people, judging one more or better than the other. It may be very useful for a totalitarian government to ruthlessly structure its society around. It may be very useful for a eugenics agenda, to weed out those deemed inferior. But it offers little to help solve the biggest challenge of all: helping each of us understand ourselves, and provide a language and framework with which to navigate the complicated world that we share.

That's where the MBTI is useful. Its four binary characteristics do have a relationship to human preference and behaviour. Is it clean and perfect and "scientifically valid"? No. Is it better than simply following our ignorant human impulses, with no attempt to understand what is going on inside us, or who other people are and how they might be wired as well? Yes, yes, infinitely yes! However, instead of trying to advance the conversation, to evolve from our current generation of personality frameworks into something more complete and correct, writers choose to throw around "utterly meaningless" and "astrology" and claiming it has equivalent merit to a Buzzfeed quiz.

It is hard enough for people to feel comfortable looking at who and what they are, doing the work to understand themselves, put language around it, and feel safe engaging one another in open, honest dialog. The MBTI, for better or worse, is one of the few tools that has some degree of wide adoption and use. It is based on the ideas of Dr. Carl Jung, one of the foundational figures in the field of psychology, and has been developed over more than 70 years. Many people often have some notion of their MBTI type specifically and the model in general, even if over time it has been reduced to "I'm an E-something-something-something." By simply dropping a nuke on the MBTI and reducing it to the level of snake oil you discourage people from taking an interest in who they are. The whole activity becomes unsafe. The fact that people saw truth and insight via the MBTI framework is being used by cavalier columnists to make them feel foolish. We already feel insecure enough sharing our essential selves without the few tools doing a reasonable job at providing understandable language and concepts being reduced to a joke or humiliation.

The hard sciences use a very specific, systematic, analytical process for figuring out the world around us. There is a search for truth and fact that is seductive in its seeming promise of certainty. That is not the correct process for every endeavour; just ask people who are terminally ill how they feel about waiting for FDA approval on treatment that could save their lives. Exploring the self should be an active, ongoing process, one that at this stage in the process is seen as both experimental and emerging. There may come a time for hard science but, like the pioneers in those fields centuries ago, we must encourage openness and participation. We remain at or near the starting blocks in this endeavour and, given the complexity of who and how we are, new approaches should be encouraged to help drive toward solutions that are considered more acceptable through the traditional lens of science.

It just might be that we are afraid. It's the same fear that people often show when getting the "results" of a personality tool like the MBTI. Most of us are insecure. We are scared the rest of the world may realize us for the pretenders that we fear we actually may be. We are afraid of not measuring up to the Jones next to us. That's why the tentative efforts of tools like the MBTI to help work through questions of personality, behaviour, and preference are easy and frequent targets. Science proclaiming understanding and thus dominion over the natural world makes all of us feel a little bigger. Endeavouring to lean into deep specifics of who and what we are in some real and intentional way taps into our fears and insecurities. So it is that looking for ways to assail the modest tools that are available is so seductive and, ultimately, easy.

I believe that nothing offers greater potential to improve our world holistically, and make the most of our lives individually, than a deep understanding of ourselves and each other. It is the missing link in a world where drones fulfill orders, satellites orbit the Earth, and a majority of first-world people can go from making the decision to record a video to sharing it with a friend on the other side of the planet in under a minute. We know how to make the magic but we still don't know how to intelligently use it.

I know the MBTI isn't perfect. But the shallow criticisms being popularly made draw erroneous conclusions from incomplete information and analysis. It should be tested and it should be critiqued, but in a constructive way. There is no common language for personality. Even if the language we have now is incomplete, or imprecise, it represents building blocks toward something more comprehensive. That something isn't here yet, but we should not be cowed into stopping our exploration and attempts to learn and grow in the meantime. Bombastic—and inaccurate—attacks have just that bullying effect: to push our society farther away than it already is from the important and elusive objective of real human understanding.

Give me the author who is critical, but is looking to build and move the conversation forward. Give me the explorer who sees the urgency of human understanding and wants to help pioneer the next and better thing. Give me people with an open mind and an interest in truly understanding themselves. Of all the many things our world "needs," none is more important than this.

About Dirk Knemeyer
Dirk is a social futurist exploring the intersection between technology, society, and the human condition and a founder of Involution Studios. He has written over 100 articles for publications like Business Week, given over 50 speeches and presentations including keynotes in the United States and Europe and at venues like TEDx and South by Southwest, and served on 15 boards spanning media, healthcare, and educational organizations.


Topics: Ideas, Blog