Posts Tagged ‘Myers-Briggs’

I don’t believe in motivational speakers – those who claim that they can help you find love, or make you happier, healthier, or richer if only you take control of your life and pay them. But that doesn’t stop me from being fascinated by them. The motivational industry is such a hodge podge of airheaded optimism, pseudo-science, and half-truths that it reveals like nothing else the lengths to which people will go to find a shortcut to their goals.

At first, you might think that these New Age entrepreneurs have nothing in common. After all, they are all offer advice in different fields. Yet even when you look at them, the resemblance to each other is amazing.

Often, they even physically resemble each other. All too often, their clothes and the houses they are fond of filming themselves in have the bland taste of the aspiring middle class. The women among them have shoulder-length hair, often of that ash-blond color that you never see in nature, while the men sport mildly unruly surfer dude haircuts that suggest that they might have had an athletic past. Both sexes are tanned and seem to have had one face lift too many, leaving them with smiles that last a little too long, and show an alarming amount of gum. Both, too, have the unctuous manner of funeral directors – the types of postures and gestures that are never quite in sync with their body language.

Personally, their politeness always tempts me (purely in the interests of scientific research, I assure you), to see how long I can insult them until their facade collapses. I never do, but I am uncomfortable around most of them because they are so determined to project a Stepford Wife-like niceness that they are social hypocrites, and you can never be quite sure what they are thinking.

Yet even those who escape the physical stereotypes generally pitch a philosophy that resembles Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking or Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

This philosophy can be summarized as the belief that, if you feel good about yourself and project an air of confidence, you will succeed in whatever you are trying to do. To help you develop faith in yourself, the philosophy offers inspiring quotes (often ripped wildly out of context), and suggests that followers practice various forms of affirmation (repeated statements of their goals and general worthiness ranging from prayers and mantras to repeatedly speaking or writing declarations of it), The variations and the jargon are as endless as the speakers themselves, but the underlying similarity rarely changes; the perennial best-seller The Secret is a typical example of the belief system.

The trouble is, the only studies that suggest that any form affirmation leads to success either show a weak correlation or else are poorly designed, which makes their conclusions questionable. In fact, the result of teaching self-esteem in school for the last few decades are starting to seem like adults who expect to be rewarded simply for trying, and who become easily discouraged.

Such results fit well with my personal experience as a long-distance runner, when I found that being confident going into a race slid easily into over-confidence and losing. Pessimism and fear were actually more useful, because they encouraged me to think of tactics and stay alert.

When faced with contrary scientific evidence, motivational speakers and their disciples rarely respond by modifying their views. If anything, they are apt to ignore such results. If cornered, they are apt to launch into a condemnation of science and its narrow mindedness.

Yet, strangely, at the same time, the motivational industry is always eager to evoke science to create an air of respectability. Usually, however, their science is painfully outdated and simplistic, like the Myers-Briggs personality indicators. More often, it is not real science in the least, but pseudo-science – fringe beliefs like crystal healing that offer the appearance of science, down to the specialized terminology, but that lacks the rigor and testing procedures of true science.

Not that such limitations bother the speakers and their listeners – the appearance of science only needs to be superficial, since the point is to borrow the credibility of science, not to adopt its actual practices or criteria for truth. What the motivational industry is really concerned about is creating a closed belief system that can never be questioned or debunked, because no real standards apply.

I suspect that the reason that the motivational industry is structured this way is that the truth is very simple. Except in cases of glandular disorders and other medical conditions, the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, and find a balance between these two necessities that helps you to keep the weight off. Similarly, any real effort to teach people to successful would have to acknowledge that what is involved is acquiring skills, careful planning, and some luck – and that having money and connections doesn’t hurt, either.

But such answers are not very satisfactory for people looking for quick answers and minimal effort. Nor are they nearly as simple as affirmations. They are more qualified, and carry no guarantees, and who is going to pay for something that complicated?

In the end, all the motivational industry can supply (other than a way to spend money with very little to show for it), is a series of half-truths. Yes, a visible lack of confidence can work against you, but that does not mean that confidence is all you need. Yes, prayer might help you focus your mind on what is about to happen, but it the focus that is likely to prove useful, not the magic of divine intervention on your behalf. And, yes, science makes mistakes, and scientists can be as petty as anyone – but that doesn’t mean that science isn’t usually a more reliable way of interacting with the world than cultivating your self-esteem.

If anything, the motivational industry is constantly threatening to descend into either irrelevancy or farce. I know of one alleged relationship expert (with troubled relationships of their own) who preaches that the way to find a happy marriage is to settle for someone who is agreeable, a suggestion that is not going to be very satisfactory to those who want a particular person, or is dreaming of passion and true love. Still another suggests – with every sign of sincerity – that redecorating your bedroom is a key to finding a glamorous new lifestyle. In other words, in the case of the motivational industry, there is continual reason to believe that the emperor is not only buck-naked, but doing a lap dance.

What fascinates, frustrates, and frightens me is that, despite the ease with which the motivational industry can be debunked, millions continue to believe in it. Apparently, the desire for simple answers is so strong that nobody notices that the motivational speakers themselves are as flaky as phyllo.

Read Full Post »

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, in all its official and unofficial forms, is one of the most popular personality tests in the world today. It is widely used in by human resource managers, student counselors, and by just about any other kind of person who needs to assess others. Indirectly, it frequently determines whether people are hired or promoted, or get the break for which they have been waiting. Yet, for all its widespread use, I remain deeply skeptical of the basic concepts behind Myers-Briggs testing. Not only does it seem too simplistic and scientifically unsound, but, if my results are any indications, it fails to give a consistent enough picture of personality to make it reliable.

As you may know, Myers-Briggs testing is based on four axes: Extraversion (E) and Introversion (I); Sensing (S) and Intuition (N); Thinking (T) and Feeling (F), and Judging (J) and Perception (P). The poles you are closest to can be put into a four-letter abbreviation that summarizes your general tendencies, such as INFJ.

But why these four scales, I have to wonder? Does anything in the study of psychology suggest these four dichotomies over any others? Why, is there not a fifth category, such as visual versus written learning methods? Or physical versus mental activity, or types of organization?

While some additional implications are added to the four axes in the less superficial versions of Meyers-Briggs, the basic structure seems largely arbitrary. The categories are clearly not based on anything impartial. If I show people four blue circles and two red squares, those who are not color-blind or altogether sightless will agree on what they are seeing, but I doubt that people unaquainted with Meyers-Briggs will naturally divide personality into four types, or that, if they do, their four types will correspond to Meyers-Briggs. That’s why, for all the popularity of Meyers-Briggs, many psychologists do not give it much credence.

Similarly, when I notice that Meyers-Briggs gives sixteen basic types of personality, my first reaction is that at least that’s four better than horoscopes manage. The comment is unfair, since people can be anywhere along these four scales, which provides for more variety, but the impression of over-simplicity remains. What, I always wonder, is not being measured by Meyers-Briggs? And what is distorted because it registers on the tests but the tests are unable to diagnose it successfully?

As for the either/or questions that make up many forms of Myers-Briggs testing, don’t get me started. For many people, these are false oppositions. Albert Einstein, for example, preferred solitude for work, but could be extremely gregarious when his work was done. I suspect that most people do not think in terms of either/or on many questions of preference, either – I certainly don’t.

Another point that is deeply misleading is the common contention that Myers-Briggs testing is based on the work of Carl Gustav Jung. Being one of the few people I know who has ever read Jung, I strongly suspect that this claim stands only because almost no one is acquainted with Jung.

In fact, the main precursors to Myers-Briggs that you find in Jung are some simple diagrams with two axes (Intuition / Sensation and Feeling / Thinking), and a separate discussion of extraverts and introverts. The addition of Judging/Perception is the work of Myers and Briggs, and so is the codification – Jung was throwing out conceptual ideas rather than ones that could be observed and given a score. These conceptual ideas can be useful – which is why “extrovert” and “introvert” became part of everyday English – but Jung shows no signs of seeing his axes as something that can or should be directly analyzed. In many ways, Myers and Briggs have gone so far beyond anything that Jung intended that the insistence that their work is in any way Jungian seems nothing more than a rather desperate attempt to evoke the name of one of psychology’s great names to bolster a rather dubious theory. In other words, it’s a marketing ploy — and, personally, I tend to mistrust anything with misleading advertising.

However, the real reason I distrust Myers-Briggs testing is that my results can vary widely, not only from test to test, but also from day to day. Looking at the first four online tests I found when searching under “Myers-Briggs,” I received four results when I took them one after the other: ENFJ, ENFP, ESTJ, and INFJ. Similarly, taking the first one on two separate days, my results were ENFJ and INFJ. For the second test, on subsequent days I registered as an ENFP, INFJ, and INFP.

These results do show some general patterns. For example, I definitely register as relying on Intuition more than Sensing, Feeling more than Thinking, and Judging more than Perception. However, Sensing, Thinking, and Perception do show up, depending on the test I take and the day I took it. As for the extravert/introvert distinction, I seem evenly divided, even when other aspects stay the same.

Possibly, I am more mercurial than most people, or my personality is close to being balanced on the four axes. However, the fact that different variants of Myers-Briggs produced only broadly similar results, and none of them could produce consistent results from day to day makes me incline me to suspect that the problem lies either in the tests or their theoretical framework. If Myers-Briggs was an accurate indicator of personality, then surely it would have some way to register people whose temperament varied. Furthermore, if the results corresponded closely to any objective reality, then more consistency should be present.

Of course, none of these tests were the official Myers-Briggs ones, but online ones whose thoroughness and reliability are questionable. However, I have taken Myers-Brigg tests in the past under more formal conditions, and their reliability was no better. So, again, I suspect the tests are the problem.

At any rate, common sense and direct experience both cause me to be highly skeptical of all forms of Myers-Brigg testing. Like I.Q. tests, Myers-Brigg tests seem to be dubiously conceived, and far more influential than their equally dubious results would warrant.

Read Full Post »