© Spencer Wilson

On the first day of his new job at the management consultants McKinsey & Company, Alick Varma, then 22, was asked to take a test. The questionnaire quizzed him on aspects of his personality, asking, for instance, whether he would “rather be considered a practical person or an ingenious person?” and whether he considered himself “a ‘good mixer’ or rather quiet and reserved?”

Varma, who joined McKinsey as a business analyst in October 2007, was taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) — a personality test that has become a rite of passage for millions of white-collar workers. Since the 1960s, when the test began to be rolled out across corporate America, more than 50 million people around the world are estimated to have taken it.

Myers-Briggs has a particularly strong influence at McKinsey, according to current and former staffers (when contacted for this article, McKinsey said it does not comment on its “internal processes”.) Included in the basic biographical information supplied on the company’s staff profile pages are addresses, educational background — and MBTI personality types. When a team begins a new project, associates often start by discussing their respective personality traits — are you an “E” (extrovert) or an “I” (introvert)?

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As Varma settled into his new job at the company, working long hours alongside other ambitious overachievers, he found the insights provided by the test helpful. “It’s 11 o’clock on a Monday night and you’re frustrated with each other and asking, ‘Why are you not seeing it my way?’” he says. “Now, you’ve got this thing you can lean back on and understand that the way colleagues see the world is different to how you see the world.”

Not everyone is so enamoured. One former McKinsey executive says he was unimpressed with its findings. Unable to speak of this heresy, he chose to use his colleagues’ faith in MBTI to his advantage. Despite being labelled an “E”, the associate told his workmates he was an “I”. It was the perfect excuse to avoid after-work dinners, plug his headphones in at the office or leave for the gym at a reasonable hour. “I could always just say, Hey guys, sorry, I’m an ‘I’,” he recalls, laughing. “That’s a totally reasonable excuse at McKinsey.”

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Whether you believe in its findings or not, Myers-Briggs has become a powerful brand. Some users even post their personality types on online dating profiles to hone their search for a good match. An international network of Myers-Briggs “meet ups” exists, built on the premise that you’re likely to get on with those of a similar personality type. A spokesperson for General Motors says it has been using Myers-Briggs on employees for 30 years, while a spokesperson for Procter & Gamble says that thousands of its staff “have benefited, and are still benefiting” from taking the test. Financial Times journalists, too, have taken the MBTI in recent training courses.

But while proponents argue that Myers-Briggs is an indispensable tool for modern businesses, critics say it is imperfect, outdated and, sometimes, dangerously misleading. Professor John Rust, director of the University of Cambridge’s Psychometrics Centre, says: “It’s a bit like ‘Gangnam Style’. It went viral in the hysterical sense of the word and everyone started using it.”

Myers-Briggs is not the invention of white coats in laboratories or tweed jackets at universities. Its origins can be traced to 1917, when Katharine Cook Briggs, a housewife and writer from Washington DC, and her husband Lyman hosted a Christmas dinner with their daughter Isabel and her fiancé, Clarence “Chief” Myers. Katharine liked Chief but according to The Cult of Personality (2004), a book about the personality-testing industry by Annie Murphy Paul, found him difficult to read.

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“Tightly knit as they were, the Briggs family shared certain qualities: they were imaginative and intuitive, big-picture thinkers,” writes Paul. “Chief was different. An aspiring lawyer, he tended to be practical and logical, focused on details.” To better understand her future son-in-law, Katharine started reading books on the emerging field of psychology. In 1923 she came across an English translation of Psychologische Typen by Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology and contemporary of Sigmund Freud.

Jung posited that people make sense of the world through psychological “frames”. For instance, while some make intuitive leaps, others concentrate on their immediate senses and what they can see, hear or touch. “‘This is it!’ Katharine exclaimed to Isabel,” according to Paul’s account. “[Jung’s] system explained it all: Lyman, Katharine, Isabel and Chief were introverts; the two men were thinkers, while the women were feelers; and of course the Briggses were intuitives, while Chief was a senser.”

Katharine was so taken with Jung’s theories that she wrote to him, declaring his book her “Bible”, and in 1926 the New Republic magazine published “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box”, an article she had written using Jung’s categories to provide a way for readers to reflect on their own — and others’ — traits. Katharine’s enthusiasm inspired her daughter. In 1942, Isabel wrote to her mother about a Reader’s Digest article she had read on the rise of “people sorting” questionnaires in the workplace. Lockheed Aircraft was using such a test to locate “potential troublemakers”. Another US company used a similar test to select “henpecked husbands”, arguing that a man under the thumb at home would also be easily subjugated at work. Katharine wrote back encouraging Isabel to create her own pencil-and-paper test based broadly on Jungian principles. In 1943, in honour of her mother’s contribution, Isabel named it the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator.

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At first the test struggled for recognition. The role of eugenics in Nazi ideology made discussion of personality types controversial. Academics balked, seeing Jung as a mystic and Isabel’s questionnaire the result of untested armchair philosophy. She ignored the sceptics and sought commercial backers. The test she devised classifies people along four axes: introversion against extroversion; sensing against intuitive; thinking against feeling; and judging against perceiving. It supposes every person has a dominant preference within each pair, neatly allocating all humanity into one of 16 precise personality types.

In 1962 Educational Testing Service (ETS) — publishers of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), the standardised exam taken by most US teenagers heading for university — published Isabel’s test, having persuaded her to change its name to Myers-Briggs in recognition of her leading role in its creation. However, a number of ETS’s own psychologists, according to Paul’s account, “derided [the test] as unscientific rubbish”, and sales were not pushed hard by the company.

Then in 1975, the California-based publishing company Consulting Psychologists Press — now called CPP — picked up distribution rights to the test and heavily marketed it to American businesses. Isabel died at the age of 82 in May 1980, just as sales were taking off. By 1983, 750,000 people were taking the MBTI annually. In 1993, three million took it. To this day, Myers-Briggs is CPP’s biggest earner. The privately held company, founded by two psychologists in 1956 to publish psychometric tests and career guidance tools, does not reveal financial details but reports suggest revenues related to the test are about $20m each year.

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In 2011, when I was working in a previous job as a reporter, I was asked to take the MBTI as part of a corporate leadership programme. After my results were collated, I was told that my type was Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking and Judging — or ENTJ. I’m “likely to conceptualise and theorise easily; adept at translating possibilities into plans”, and am “usually seen by others as direct, challenging, decisive, objective and stimulating”. You may notice that these statements are overwhelmingly positive. This is how the test is designed. Of the 16 possible variations, no type is better than the other and each has unique strengths. A serial killer might be shown to be methodological, a self-starter and able to put plans into action.

The main thing I learnt from the test was that I was a clear “extrovert”. According to Myers-Briggs, extroverts are “solar-powered”, constantly gaining energy from people and information around them. My wife, I realised, was more of an “introvert”, someone who apparently tops up her energy from regular periods of quiet reflection and solitude. This revelation helped resolve a regular marital conflict. My wife couldn’t understand why I always wanted to be the last to leave a party, while I was baffled by her desire to leave early. The Myers-Briggs results prompted a discussion. These days, she is happy to hang around a little later, knowing I’m aware of her urge to leave a tad earlier.

According to Jeffrey Hayes, the chief executive of CPP, this kind of experience is at the heart of the test’s popularity. “The reason it endures is that people find its insights very valuable,” he says. “It helps them lead more productive and fulfilling lives.”

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Adam Grant, a psychology professor at Wharton, University of Pennsylvania and the bestselling author of Give and Take (2013), disagrees. One of the most vocal critics of Myers-Briggs, he argues that the test is built on scientifically weak ground. Its results are not “reliable”, he says. By CPP’s own analysis, 50 per cent of subjects change at least one of their four types when they retake the test. And according to Grant, even the benign revelations that the test provides, such as the preferences of a married couple at a party, are baloney.

“There is a myth that extroversion and introversion is about where you get your energy from,” Grant says. “Introverts walk away [from the test] thinking they get their energy from being quiet and having solitude. That’s false. We have good evidence that introverts get energised by the same things that extroverts are. It’s just they need less of it to get energised and are more easily overstimulated.”

In some cases, Grant believes, Myers-Briggs is particularly unhelpful, for example when companies use it to select job candidates (CPP guidelines warn against this, stating: “It is not ethical to use the MBTI instrument for hiring or for deciding job assignments.”). “There are ways it creates injustices,” says Grant. “It gives people an inaccurate understanding of themselves.”

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Critics have pointed out that Carl Jung’s original theories, which provided the basis for the MBTI, were just that — theories. Indeed, Jung himself warned against overt categorisation of individuals, writing in Psychologische Typen: “I am unsystematic very much by intention. We need a different language for every patient.”

One former hedge-fund executive, who asked not to be named, says his firm began using the Myers-Briggs assessment on new job applicants a few years ago. He knows the test is not designed to be used to select candidates, so he was surprised to find that anyone that did not match the firm’s dominant personality type was “deprioritised”. Another management consultant says that during a multimillion-dollar corporate merger in 2015, the chief executive of the acquiring company asked the incoming management team to take the test. This boss explained to the newcomers that those who did not meet a preferred personality type would not be fired but “weeded out” over time.

Researching this article, I could find little academic research published in top-quality, peer-reviewed scientific journals into the accuracy or effectiveness of the MBTI. When I raised this apparent lack of evidence with Rich Thompson, CPP’s director of research, he referred to the “thousands of papers” on the test available through Google Scholar, the internet search engine’s academic resource. Pressed for recent examples of studies published in major journals about Myers-Briggs, Thompson told me, “Academics aren’t really looking at it right now.”

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Some psychologists believe that independent, peer-reviewed research in the decades since the MBTI was devised has provided something better than Myers-Briggs. They champion the notion of the “Big Five” personality traits — openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Of these, only one trait is closely shared with the MBTI — extroversion. Myers-Briggs does not focus on “neuroticism” or, indeed, any similarly negative trait, which may point to one of the reasons why the criticisms lobbed at the test by modern science have yet to undermine its popularity. As Adam Grant says, “Going around telling people that they’re neurotic and disagreeable will not win you any friends.”

Speaking from CPP’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, California, Hayes emphasises how, despite the emergence of newer personality tests, Myers-Briggs continues to expand its reach. Last year, the company translated the test into Hindi, Hebrew and Thai.

CPP has built a successful business model around Myers-Briggs, with money made from both sides of the questionnaire. On the one hand, would-be “practitioners” are charged about $1,600 each for a four-day training course enabling them to administer the test; on the other, companies that wish to use the test pay about $30 for every person who takes it.

Isabel Briggs-Myers in the mid-1970s
Isabel Briggs-Myers in the mid-1970s © Courtesy of the Myers & Briggs Foundation

About 5,000 trained “practitioners” receive certification to deliver the test across 170 countries each year — and they are often its keenest advocates. While it may have been designed to help workers understand themselves, one of the test’s side effects has been to transform human resources departments into oracles of organisational management capable of both sharing pearls of wisdom with their colleagues and creating an army of salespeople to proselytise on behalf of Myers-Briggs.

When, for instance, Alick Varma took the test at McKinsey, he was identified as an ENTP — Extrovert, Intuitive, Thinking and Perceptive; that is, someone who is “creative, imaginative and clever,” whose world is “full of possibilities, interesting concepts and exciting challenges”, and who “uses their thinking primarily internally to analyse situations and their own ideas, and to plan”. So it is perhaps not surprising that Varma, who in 2014 founded Osper — a London-based tech start-up providing mobile banking services for children — still makes use of insights derived from Myers-Briggs. He is careful with introverts, fearful of crowding them. “They need to take time away in their own space,” he reckons. When hiring new staff Varma “will look for complementary skills . . . so I don’t turn the whole company into ENTPs, because you need to have diversity”.

Late last summer, I went to Milton Keynes, a half-hour train journey from London. From there, a 20-minute cab ride took me to Cranfield University, which appears suddenly at the end of the journey, as if plonked randomly in the middle of a field. The campus is filled with low-rise terraced homes for living quarters. Faculty buildings stand out for having a second storey.

Within these rather drab surroundings is the Cranfield School of Management, which runs a lucrative private practice advising international companies such as RBS, L’Oréal and Shell, for which it organises executive training programmes and organisational development courses. This is big business. According to the professional services group Deloitte, the global corporate training industry was worth an estimated $135bn in 2013.

Cranfield had organised a battery of personality tests for me to take under the instruction of David Deegan, the school’s executive development director. A man with an inscrutable face and a white goatee, he draws information from me by declining to interrupt until I choose to shut up. These tactics mean our session takes hours.

The US housewife and writer Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel, the eventual creator of the test, c1905
the US housewife and writer Katharine Cook Briggs with her daughter Isabel, the eventual creator of the test, c1905 © Courtesy of the Myers & Briggs Foundation

He starts by administering the MBTI. More informed than when I first took the test, I find myself more sceptical of its results. To determine whether I’m more sensing or intuitive, Deegan asks me to describe what I see in a photograph. Spotting an easel and shelves full of canvases, I venture that it must be an artist’s home. From this and subsequent answers, Deegan deduces I’m “intuitive”; a “sensing” type would focus on precise details, such as the three pictures on the easel and five canvases on the second shelf.

Deegan then asks how I put together flat-pack furniture. I tell him I follow Ikea’s instructions to the letter, laying out parts in advance so a bookcase is created in the precise order. This suggests I’m a “senser”; an “intuitive” type might wonder how the furniture fits best in a room and alter its design accordingly.

So what am I, a sensing or intuitive type? I’m probably somewhere in between. Psychologists say personality traits fall along a continuum, with behaviour affected by our mood and the circumstances we face in any given moment. “The test chops you,” says John Rust from the University of Cambridge. “It leads people to believe they have a type, which is more like astrology.”

Later, I take a different test, the Hogan suite of assessments, which, says Deegan, is built around data gathered from research into the Big Five. Hogan, which costs £250 to take per person, also has its corporate fans: Intel and Hewlett-Packard, for example, tell me that while they no longer use Myers-Briggs they do use Hogan.

Hogan requires subjects to fill out a number of questionnaires that together take about an hour to complete. Candidates are given statements such as “I hold grudges for a long time” and “I was born to do great things” and are then asked whether these are true or false. The overall results provide information about your “bright side”, the typical behaviours you exhibit at the best of times, but also your “dark side”, habits that emerge at times of stress and difficulty.

My dark side results show a tendency to be “leisurely”. This may mean that, when disagreeing with a boss’s instructions, I may nod along but refuse to do the task. When I say this could also be described as being “two-faced”, Deegan says a better characterisation is “passively resistant”. Either way, the observation stings. “I’ve watched executives go through this assessment and say it feels like they have just been punched in the face,” says Adam Grant. “But it’s a really useful punch in the face. If it helps you identify blind spots, patterns or mistakes that you’re predisposed to, in the long run it may be useful for your career or personal growth.”

Over a cup of tea in his office, Richard Kwiatkowski, a senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Cranfield, discusses the merits of the hundreds of psychometric instruments on the market. The university includes the MBTI as part of the courses it runs for businesses but also offers many alternatives. The gold standard, in Kwiatkowski’s view, is a “360” assessment, which gives the user the results from questionnaires together with feedback from colleagues to create a more rounded view of their personality. The cost of such a bespoke assessment is up to £8,000. Myers-Briggs, says Kwiatkowski, remains a useful tool: “It’s a starting point, giving us a common language to think about these things.”

Witty and unfailingly polite, Kwiatkowski also quickly gets distracted, jumping up to grab one of the many files and textbooks that pack his walls, searching for evidence to support his arguments. As he leafs through a ringbinder, I spot a stack of VHS tapes in the corner, including movies such as Men in Black and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I pause to wonder how much information I might need to assess his personality type.

With his knowledge of Myers-Briggs and Hogan, I imagine it has only taken the lecturer minutes to pin me down as an extrovert. But, he insists, individuals are enormously complex, with personalities beyond precise measurement. “You must go through life constantly assessing people’s personality types,” I observe. “No I don’t,” replies Kwiatkowski, with a smile. “Because I’m a human being and I have to function.”

Murad Ahmed is the FT’s European technology correspondent

Illustrations by Spencer Wilson

Photographs: courtesy of the Myers & Briggs Foundation

Below are a few examples of questions from Form M, the “basic” version of the Indicator, according to CPP. The numbers and “Parts” refer to the whole 93-question assessment, which CPP suggests would take approximately 20 minutes to complete. In 1984, CPP published an expanded 144-question version of the MBTI, “Form Q”, which is offered to clients looking for a “finer level of detail”.

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