Always challenge assumptions
I was recently reminded of the weaknesses inherent in a widely-used test, the Myers-Briggs personality test. If you’ve been in a workplace in the last decade or so, I’m sure you’ve taken one before. You were probably labelled something like INTJ, ESTP, BMI or TMI (maybe not the last two!).
If you’re not familiar with the it, the test uses a simple questionnaire to measure people’s traits and assign each person a personality ‘type.’ This type is based on four major personality scales: Extroversion/Introversion, Sensing/Intuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judging/Perceiving. So if you are ‘INTJ’ (Introversion, Intuition, Thinking, Judgment) you are ‘innovative and driven by your own ideas’.
I encountered Myers-Briggs many years ago when studying psychology, but I didn’t recall it having any real standing. It continued to appear every couple of years until I turned a corner and all of a sudden it seemed every workplace I encountered was using it. I’ve seen personal profiles where people indicate their Myers-Briggs personality type as a badge of pride. It seems to have become an assumption which is extended into the managing of people and teams.
What I didn’t know was its very chequered history. A new book by Dr Merve Emre, ’The Personality Brokers’, describes the weakness of the evidence behind the development of the test. The test was created by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a mother and daughter partnership, with no formal training in experimental psychology. Katherine Briggs studied Agriculture and Isabel Briggs Myers had limited studies in political science. The test was a loose re-writing of earlier descriptive and non-experimental work by Carl Jung on personality archetypes.
The test was an invention that occurred at the right time and the right place. It passed into the slipstream of a voracious American industrial complex in the economic expansion after World War II, when there was a need for a categorical process to organise and place workers. Unconcerned with whether it had any empirical (measurable, test-able) backing, it was adopted widely and continues to be used today.
Thinking about the Myers-Briggs test got me thinking about how we let evidence-less ideas become safe assumptions.
I’m always appreciative of the historian Yuval Noah Harrari’s work (see the excellent book ‘Sapiens’) reminding me that we constantly make up ‘imaginary orders’ (narratives or belief systems). The problem is that we often forget these imaginary orders were made up in the first place, or where they came from, or whether they ever had any scientific evidence backing them.
This weak foundation becomes hidden under layers of later activity. I understand that we are moved by stories over facts. I’m not sure this is a great excuse for doing something just because we’ve always done it.
I can think of dozens of examples of assumptions that have persisted and for which there is little to no evidence of their validity. For example, (a tidbit from history that sounds so strange you feel it must have been made up) Victorian lifesavers at the beach used to believe that blowing tobacco smoke up a drowning victim’s anus was an excellent way to revive them.
The image below provides a rich account of the bellows, tobacco combustion chamber and piping required to deliver the smoke to the appropriate location. Resuscitation societies were created to fund ’resuscitation kits’ (much like the one illustrated below). These were situated along the river Thames in London, ready for the moment some unfortunate was pulled from the water to be hopefully revived.
So next time, just before you use a Myers-Briggs personality test, start pumping at the tobacco-spewing bellows, or do anything that you are treating as a safe assumption, don’t forget to ask why.
Lawrence, G. (2002) Tobacco Smoke Enemas, Lancet (Dissecting Room), Vol 359, Issues 9315, P1442, April 20 2002.
Harari, Y. V. (2011) Sapiens. Harper Collins.