Overlooked No More: Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers, Creators of a Personality Test

From a New York Times story by Glenn Rifkin and Benedict Carey headlined “Overlooked No More: Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers, Creators of a Personality Test”:

This article is part of Overlooked, a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.

In the pivotal early months of World War II, as Hitler’s armies tore through Europe, a part-time crime writer and mother of two in Swarthmore, Pa., came across a Reader’s Digest article with the headline, “Fitting the Worker to the Job.”

The article struck a chord. Isabel Briggs Myers had by then volunteered as an aircraft spotter for the Civil Air Patrol and as a nurse with the Red Cross. She had thought long and deeply about the importance of matching the right people with the right jobs, a crucial process in the run-up to U.S. intervention in Europe.

She sensed the need for what she referred to as a “people sorting instrument” and wrote to the one person who she knew would instantly understand: her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, a self-educated magazine writer with a passion for the ideas of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist and mentee of Freud.

Briggs seized on the idea, and mother and daughter threw themselves into the task, fashioning questions intended to identify people as introverts or extroverts, thinkers or feelers, among other categories, while drawing on Jung’s psychological typology.

The resulting questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or M.B.T.I., would become one of the most widely used personality assessments in the world, now a standard at hundreds of corporations and universities and in government. More than two million people take the Myers-Briggs personality test each year.

The enduring popularity of the Myers-Briggs test is rooted not in science — personality tests are notoriously poor predictors of behavior — but in the two women’s ingenuity, commercial instincts and timing. Mid-20th century America was beginning to feel its industrial power and needed measurements for a growing management class. The Rorschach inkblot test was in use, as were the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a 567-item questionnaire, and the Thematic Apperception Test, developed by the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray.

But the Myers-Briggs test had an intrinsic thematic quality that the others lacked. Most existing tests concluded that each personality category had a positive and a negative: An extrovert was good, an introvert was bad, for instance. But Myers felt that each personality type had strengths and weaknesses. Rather than build a test that favored one over another, hers was judgment-free. She and her mother described their personality types in terms of strengths and “gifts” and how those could clarify whether a person was the right “fit” for a job, a career or even a social affair. It felt simultaneously analytic and supportive, giving people a language to describe their best selves.

“We sometimes say that Isabel was the first positive psychologist,” Elizabeth Styron, chairwoman of the nonprofit Center for Applications of Psychological Types, an M.B.T.I. research center, said in a phone interview, referring to a branch of psychology that took off in the 1980s. “It’s about what’s right with a person, not what’s wrong with a person.”

The mother-daughter team became a creative sales force as well. Myers tweaked and promoted her product while searching for guinea pigs. Her son’s high school class took the test, as did incoming students to the George Washington University medical school. Soon dozens of medical schools around the country were added to her list. She wrote all the questions (for instance “Do you prefer to a) eat to live, or b) live to eat?”) and scored all the tests by hand.

All the while she pushed back against skepticism and sexism. Critics pointed out that neither Briggs nor Myers had a background or advanced degree in psychology; they were merely amateur “housewives” with an unusual hobby. And, the critics said, their personality indicator had no scientific foundation, no peer-reviewed research to validate it. Some said it was little more effective than reading someone’s horoscope.

Myers kept going nonetheless, and in 1956 she started working with Henry Chauncey, the president of the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, to publish the M.B.T.I. The tool posited that the four dimensions of personality produced a total of 16 possible types, all noted with initials.

The first dimension is whether an individual is an introvert (I) or extrovert (E). The second is how a person perceives the world, either through “sensing” (S) or through “intuition” (N). A third focused on how an individual makes decisions, either in a “thinking” (T) manner or a “feeling” (F) manner. The final dimension is based on how a person deals with the outside world, either “judging” (J) or “perceiving” (P). Judging is a structured, organized approach, while perceiving means someone has an adaptable, flexible, spontaneous relationship with the outside world.

Myers herself was a proud I.N.F.P., which she described as someone with a “great faithfulness to duty and obligations” who did not pass judgment on others. Her mother was an I.N.F.J.

The test was considered fun, and in subsequent years more institutions began using it. Over recent decades, the M.B.T.I. has become available in 29 languages and has been used in 115 countries by a wide range of businesses, academic institutions and organizations like the U.S. military, the Marriott Corporation, JetBlue and Nokia for recruiting, job placement and even pairing roommates at college.

Katharine Elizabeth Cook was born on Jan. 3, 1875, in East Lansing, Mich., to Albert and Mary (Baldwin) Cook. Her parents encouraged her to read, think broadly about the world and pursue avenues that were generally unavailable to women at the time.

At 13, Katharine entered Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University), where she was one of nine women among almost 100 men. At 16, she graduated second in her class. Her father, a professor of zoology and entomology at the school, taught the then-disputed theory of evolution and passed on his iconoclastic outlook to his daughter. Katharine, who became a freelance writer for women’s magazines, often considered how to balance societal expectations of her gender with her intellectual ambitions.

She was a “woman ahead of her time, caught in a restraining net woven of sexism, cultural conditioning and her own brilliance,” Frances Wright Saunders wrote in “Katharine and Isabel: Mother’s Light, Daughter’s Journey” (1991).

In 1896, Katharine married a former classmate, Lyman Briggs, an engineer and physicist, and set aside her career aspirations in favor of domestic life.

After the birth of her daughter, Isabel McKelvey Briggs, on Oct. 18, 1897, Briggs turned her living room into a “cosmic laboratory of baby training,” Merve Emre wrote in “The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing” (2018). There she home-schooled Isabel and kept detailed records of her observations in a notebook.

She also wrote essays about child-rearing for The Ladies’ Home Journal and other publications, referring to Isabel as Suzanne and using a pseudonym for herself, Elizabeth Childe. In 1911, she began writing what would become a book-length manuscript, “The Education of Suzanne.”

Briggs’s discovery of Jung in 1923 gave her a structure with which to expand her ideas. She studied his work, corresponded with him and even met him when he visited America. She honed what she called a “personality paint box,” in which she assigned shades of color to each personality type, and in a 1926 article in The New Republic she explained how readers could use the box to learn about themselves.

Her concept, which she detailed on a set of 3-by-5-inch file cards, was the earliest iteration of what would become the M.B.T.I.

Isabel went on to Swarthmore College and graduated at the top of her class. She married Clarence Myers, a lawyer; the couple had a son and daughter, and Isabel became as devoted a mother as her own had been. She also wrote novels, entering her first, “Murder Yet to Come,” in a contest sponsored by New McClure’s magazine in 1929 and winning. She invested her $7,500 grand prize in the stock market but lost it all in the Wall Street Crash later that year.

Nonetheless, “Murder Yet to Come,” which was published the next year, became a best seller. Isabel Myers published a second mystery, “Give Me Death,” in 1934 as well as a play, “Death Calls for Margin,” a murder mystery set in Philadelphia after the 1929 stock market crash. Neither was very successful.

Myers’s devotion to the test deepened when she began working for the Pennsylvania Company for Banking and Trusts as an apprentice to the personnel director, Edward N. Hay, whose knowledge of job performance ratings would inform her framing of her personality test. In 1943, her husband helped her file for a copyright.

In 1975, she signed a contract with a California-based publisher, Consulting Psychologists Press (now the Myers-Briggs Company), which made the M.B.T.I. its best-selling product.

For all its appeal to managers, the Myers-Briggs test has become a target for researchers and cultural historians. A 2021 documentary suggested that it was dangerous to use such personality tests on a widespread scale. The film, “Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests,” posits that test givers may be influenced by systemic unconscious bias and yet are given undue say in who is worthy of a job position.

Emre, an Oxford University professor who is also an executive producer of the film, said in an email that institutions that rely on measures of personality type can “enable structural racism and other forms of discrimination to persist.”

For Myers’s part, she took pains to ensure that her work was inclusive, her granddaughter Kathleen Hughes, a journalist, said, as evidenced by the title of the book that Myers wrote with her son, Peter B. Myers — “Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type” (1980).

Myers would say “that she hoped the indicator could help prevent another Hitler,” Hughes recalled, “by giving as many people as possible a greater understanding and respect for individual differences.”

Benedict Carey has been a science reporter for The Times since 2004. He has also written three books, “How We Learn” about the cognitive science of learning; “Poison Most Vial” and “Island of the Unknowns,” science mysteries for middle schoolers.

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