Introvert,” “extravert,” “sensing,” “perceiving”—odds are you’ve encountered these terms or their source, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). In The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre (a professor of English at Oxford University) provides a frustrating but ultimately thought-provoking account of the MBTI and its creators, Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. Her goal is to “understand . . . the unwavering belief in type’s ability to comprehend who we are” (xvi). While she does not entirely succeed in this, Emre’s analysis weaves together important themes of gender, religion, and personal biography. The mass of information a writer encounters never speaks with a unified voice, and the choice of which voices to privilege is a profound test of the historian’s skills. The story of MBTI, in particular, draws on many themes of twentieth-century American life. Emre recognizes the polyphony of her sources and seeks to do them justice by alternating between several themes.
The dominant theme throughout the first half of the book is the biography of Katharine and then of Isabel. Katharine Briggs was a moody and introspective woman, her life marked by a series of emotional and intellectual crises, from which she developed an interest in the meaningful life. She also encountered Carl Jung’s Psychological Types, from which she constructed her own theory of personality types, a precursor to MBTI. For Katharine, type was explicitly a religion, albeit one divorced from traditional concepts of the supernatural. Her attempts to use type to help those around her, and her growing obsession with Jung himself, form a tragicomic thread in this part of the book.
Isabel, the product of her mother’s restless psychological experimentation, took only mild interest in type. After dabbling in writing and housewifery, she was driven to her own crisis by World War II. She came to the conclusion that what civilization needed was better “specialization” of labor via an understanding of type. Isabel’s role was to adapt her mother’s ideas to a wider audience by designing an indicator of psychological type. This, of course, is the MBTI. After early interest by the OSS during the war, the indicator enjoyed waves of success in educational institutions and the business world. Isabel devoted the rest of her life to type, refining the indicator and defending its usefulness against attempts to criticize or even scientifically validate it.
Both Katharine and Isabel were fascinating women—their quest to save people through type was a product equally of their personalities, background, privilege, and the currents of society around them. They occasionally devolved into absurdity, but what comes through most clearly is their determination, self-assurance, and devotion. Emre, while remaining a skeptic of the MBTI, tells their story sympathetically.
She also identifies a strong religious theme in her story. As noted, Katharine used type as a source of mystical self-discovery and self-mastery, the key to an idiosyncratic personal “salvation.” Though Isabel was never as explicitly mystical as her mother, the underlying spiritual character of type persisted through all of her attempts to apply it to the modern workforce and society.
MBTI is not a traditional religion; it makes no attempt to answer questions about the origin, nature, and purpose of nonhuman reality. It provides a system for categorizing and justifying one’s self, and (at least in Briggs and Myers conception) a moral framework for meaningful life. It’s possible to understand it as one of many attempts to fill the existential gap left by the functional death of God in nineteenth- and twentieth-century life. It is, like most of those attempts, a religion of works; salvation, as Katharine Briggs understood it, is “the reintegration of the adult personality that Jesus coveted for all mankind” (227). Katharine considered this a good in itself, but Isabel emphasized salvation through “specialization”—the person acquires meaning by adopting the work best suited to their type. As Emre points out, it’s a framework well-suited to the hyperspecialization of industrial and post-industrial capitalism.
Emre presents a powerful case for taking Katharine and Isabel as the prophets of a pseudo-scientific religion, bringing out the spiritual significance of seemingly unrelated aspects of type theory. She is content to leave the matter there, without fully exploring the way that type fits under the religious umbrella of secular modernity as a pseudo-scientific system. In addition, she sees in Isabel, Katharine, and other women whose lives intersected with the indicator, a story about gender in twentieth-century America. Unfortunately, this narrative thread is the weakest of the three; profound and nuanced observations about the uneasy role of these women alternate with trivial arguments and tangential anecdotes. But the Christian reader will be left with much to mull over.
For instance, the exploration of Katharine’s attempts to professionalize her motherhood reflects powerfully on the nature of both gender and the organization of labor. In the wake of America’s rapid industrialization, the work-home division, and the prioritization of economic activity, many women struggled to make sense of their role in the world. The dignity of motherhood was everywhere preached, but the reality was that women often found themselves constrained and undervalued in the private sphere. This tension ran headlong into the progressive impulse to systematize and professionalize all areas of life.
The results of these experiments—in Katharine’s case, her “Cosmic Laboratory”—proved disappointing. Emre, however, doesn’t fully explore how this came to be, either for Katharine or for women more generally, instead retreating into amusing anecdotes about Katharine’s childrearing techniques, dream analysis, and obsession with Carl Jung.
The book veers from sympathetic analysis to strained justification when it recounts Isabel’s troubled relationship with Educational Testing Service (ETS), and the lens of gender seems to be the problem. Isabel is an objectively difficult figure for the psychometricians attempting to validate and systematize her indicator. She indulges in crank remedies, violates professional ethics, and refuses to separate her personal crusade from the indicator. Emre’s insinuation that the conflict arose from the reflexive sexism of the ETS staff falls flat in the face of such behavior.
A return to the religious lens would make more sense of this troubled episode, where a clash between two different views of knowledge divided the participants more profoundly than the sexism of the ETS staff. The traits that alienated the scientists from Isabel are not the result of her sex but of her modernist religiosity.
The gender lens also draws Emre into a baffling discursive reasoning on the career of Ravenna Helson, a researcher who made use of the MBTI in the 1960s but who does not seem to have played a major role either in the indicator’s success or in Isabel’s life. This is not the only sidetrack. The latter half of the book, attempting to chart the life of the indicator alongside that of its creator, often doubles back on itself to trace the stories of people whose significance becomes clear only much later or simply to revel in lurid details. The antics of Truman Capote during assessment are undoubtedly entertaining, but these episodes don’t advance understanding.
The Personality Brokers is a fascinating, frustrating book. The story it tells is gripping and significant. The way in which it is told is sometimes confusing, but its explorations of personal biography, modern social organization, and religious impulses provoke reflection. Christians, especially, will find illuminating and unsettling questions about how the theory of type relates to historic Christianity. They may finish the book and decide that MBTI helps them understand the world in ways compatible with their faith—but they’ll do so with an understanding of its history, potential, and pitfalls.
Leslie A. Wicke graduated with a degree in history from Patrick Henry College. She is a writer and artist whose work can be found at www.leslieawicke.com and www.tbjeremiah.com. She and her husband currently live in Virginia.