Note: This post originally appeared on the Contemplative Learning website.
Joseph Stromberg, writing for Vox earlier this week, argues that the Myers-Briggs Personality "test" is "totally meaningless." Since we do a considerable amount of work with the Enneagram personality system, which is sometimes compared to Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Stromberg's article was of interest. Stromberg raises some legitimate points that help illustrate key differences between the MBTI and the Enneagram, but ultimately his article fails even as an effective critique of the Myers-Briggs itself.
In a nutshell, Stromberg argues that MBTI isn't well-founded in psychological research. The binary constructs that make up the Myers-Briggs (introversion-extroversion, perceiving-judging, etc.) are far too simple to accurately characterize a single individual's personality. Context matters immensely in how we behave, and no one ever represents a perfect archetype of extroversion or introversion, for example.
Fair enough. But most of Stromberg's article focuses not on the MBTI as a conceptual framework, but rather the "test" that is administered in businesses large and small throughout the world to introduce the Myers-Briggs as a tool for helping people identify their type and for promoting teamwork and professional effectiveness. Stromberg notes (correctly as far as I can tell) that no research has ever demonstrated an empirical correlation with one's MBTI type and his/her job effectiveness or happiness.
OK, but so what? I'm not aware of anyone who asserts that people of a certain type are more "effective" in a particular role than others, or that an ESTJ is a happier person than an INFP. If these personality tendencies are largely fixed, what good would that information do you anyway? Rather, my experiences with the MBTI is as a tool for increasing self-awareness and helping us understanding others, which are good and noble purposes, and I believe that's primarily how it is intended to be used in the workplace (not as some mechanism for hiring people or judging their performance; if that's happening, I believe it must be a total misuse of the MBTI and its intentions).
Stromberg may be correct about inadequacies in the conceptual underpinning of the Myers-Briggs. In our work at CLS, we greatly prefer the Enneagram personality typing system to MBTI for several reasons.
First, the Enneagram seems to greatly exceed the accuracy of MBTI and other frameworks. Once you have accurately typed yourself, there is usually little doubt as to whether you've done so correctly. But correct typing occurs best when a person engages in serious self-study of the Enneagram system with an open heart and a lot of self-honesty, enhanced with the support of an experienced Enneagram teacher.
There are several online Enneagram self assessments out there that we have found helpful starting points, but they are just that: starting points. No one asserts that they are "tests" that can scientifically discern the differences between various personality types. The human personality is simply too dynamic to lend itself to being validly measured with some sort of quantitative instrument like a survey.
We do not assert that the Enneagram is research based. Its construct validity comes from the experience of people who study the system and discover that it does, indeed, accurately describe their behavior tendencies over the course of their lifetime.
But the Enneagram does more, and this illustrates yet another way it is superior to MBTI. The Enneagram does not simply describe the behaviors of different types, it helps illuminate the underlying psychological motivations that drive each type. And it does so with brutal, unflattering accuracy. If the MBTI makes people feel good, as Stromberg suggests, the Enneagram - at least initially - does quite the opposite. It exposes our greatest weaknesses, our regrettable habits of mind that seem to perpetually weigh us down and interfere with our well-being and personal effectiveness.
And this finally illustrates the Enneagram's greatest strength: by describing the behavioral tendencies of different personality types at varying levels of psychological health, it points us toward greater wholeness and happiness. There is no risk of the Enneagram being misunderstood (as I think Stromberg misunderstands the MBTI) as suggesting some types are more effective or happier than others. Rather, the Enneagram's beauty lies in its capacity to show how every type has its own patterns of ineffectiveness, as well as its patterns of strength that point us toward the possibility of greater happiness in our personal and professional lives.
So yes, conceptually I prefer the Enneagram to the MBTI. But Stromberg seems to mistakenly equate the Myers-Briggs test with the system itself, suggesting that it is flawed because it doesn't do things Myers and Briggs Myers (or Carl Jung, the 20th century psychologist who first articulated the archetypes upon which the MBTI is based) likely never intended.
In doing so, Stromberg may be revealing a host of his own biases and areas of ignorance, especially the materialist view that only things that can be measured really exist or matter.
Stromberg dismisses Jung (he refers to him as a "psychologist named Carl Jung," making one wonder what audience he is writing for if he so naturally assumes his readers have never heard of Carl Jung) as "outdated," noting Jung's interest in "ESP" and "collective unconscious. Certainly Jung's theories are subject to debate, but few serious students of psychology would argue that Jung has nothing to offer contemporary discussions of the human personality.
Yes, more empirical research is needed in the field of personality and how various typologies can best be understood and utilized. But serious students of systems like the Enneagram know that there is a limit to how much value can be derived from this kind of inquiry. What matters is how you use such systems. Ultimately, they are tools. And the effectiveness of a tool lies in the skills, practice, and dedication of the person who uses it.