Erin Straza Reviews ‘The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing’ by Merve Emre

Know thyself. This phrase is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which was built in the 4th century B.C. It’s most commonly attributed to Socrates (470–399 B.C.), who often referred to this Delphic aphorism in his teachings. Suffice it to say, this phrase has a long history.

Without knowing its origins, however, one might mistake it for the anthem of our own day. Our society is infused with self: self-discovery, self-help, selfies. Knowing thyself seems to be the root of our daily existence. Yet, for all our self-reflection, few of us would claim success in knowing the depths of our own hearts and souls. If anything, the quest has made us aware of all we don’t know, thereby intensifying our desire to unlock the mysteries within.

The desire to know ourselves is what prompts us, for example, to take those online pop-culture quizzes. We long to know which movie or TV character we most resemble or which Mamma Mia! character would be our BFF. Do you know which Hogwarts house you would be sorted into? Or which iconic ’90s music video you are? We click through the questions, despite doubting the scientific accuracy of the results—perhaps this is the missing knowledge that will finally give us a defining sense of self.

The Quest for the Perfect Personality

Interest in personality testing actually began long before these quizzes. There’s a history here too—not as far back as Socrates, of course, but one full of mystery nonetheless. One test in particular, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is the subject of a new book by Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University. Titled The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, the book traces the development of the Myers-Briggs test, assessing its impact on our culture and examining both the praise and criticism it has garnered.

Why all the fuss about a single personality quiz? As Emre explains, the Myers-Briggs is a lucrative $500 million industry and an influential field of study spanning “twenty-six countries and more than two dozen languages.” The reach of this particular test is unlike any other. Despite its prominent place in personality-profile history—or, perhaps, because of it—the Myers-Briggs receives plenty of scorn for how it was created and developed. And revealing that backstory is where Emre’s book shines.

The Personality Brokers takes us to the beginning, before Myers-Briggs was an assessment tool, and introduces us to its creators: Katherine Cook Briggs (1875–1968) and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers (1897–1980). Development began when Katherine sought to “conduct daily trials in living that would shape the outer and inner worlds of the people she loved best” by making “her home into a laboratory of personality research.” Katherine was a home scientist; her family, the experimental subjects. Over the course of Isabel’s childhood, Katherine took notes and tested theories in her quest to mold Isabel into the picture-perfect child. The results were positive and obvious to all.

Eventually, Katherine opened her home to neighbors and acquaintances who wanted to learn these successful parenting techniques for rearing their own children. Key to parenting success, according to Katherine, was understanding the child’s personality type; the questionnaire she developed was the precursor to the personality test now used by countless corporations, government entities, and universities.

Much transpired between that first home survey and today’s Myers-Briggs. The details unfold novel-like from one chapter to the next in The Personality Brokers. Besides the creators, we meet various influencers (Carl Jung, Edward Hay, Donald MacKinnon, Mary McCaulley, and others) and early adopters (like the US government, Educational Testing Service, and the University of California, Berkeley).

Emre takes readers along for the wild ride as the Myers-Briggs evolves from infancy to youth to maturity—no easy road. From the start, the test had as many fierce critics as champions. The main critique lodged against it was that the questions and results were pieced together over several decades by two people with no formal training in psychoanalysis. In addition, results were often inconsistent for test subjects over time. All things considered, it’s truly a marvel the Myers-Briggs survived its pilgrimage to become such a commonplace assessment tool.

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Source: Christianity Today