“It’s so incredible to finally be understood.”
Above reads the header of 16 Personalities’ vibrant teal homepage, encouraging you to take their famed online personality test for a “freakishly accurate” description of “who you are and why you do things the way you do.” To date, more than 606 million people have responded to its call to action.
From college students to educators and corporate organisations—including 89 of Forbes’ Fortune 100 companies—about 2 million people take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality test every year, making it the most widely used personality test in the world. To say nearly every internet user knows their MBTI type would not be an exaggeration.
For those of us who haven’t yet fallen into the MBTI wormhole, each MBTI personality type comprises four letters, each functioning on a binary: I for introversion and E for extraversion, indicative of whether one gains energy from within or without respectively; N for intuitive and S for sensing, with regard to how one processes information; F for feeling and T for thinking, referring to decision-making mechanisms; P for perceiving and J for judging, in how one interacts with their surroundings. There exists a fifth binary indicating whether one is assertive (A) or turbulent (T) in disposition, but the first four letters form the key to understanding each personality type.
Despite reading as a complicated list of alarmingly self-revealing traits at first, the concept of MBTI can in fact be a relatively understandable peek into an individual’s psychological leanings. Promising an “undeniably eerie” description of one’s personal traits with only 60 simply worded questions, 16 Personalities, which is the first Google search result for ‘MBTI’ and arguably the most popular online MBTI test, is a time-efficient and approachable platform to find out one’s MBTI type. Less antiquated than blood types and more scientifically substantiated than astrological zodiacs, it’s easy to see why MBTI makes for a fun icebreaker in a world where most yearn for some form of self-identification, and possibly even affinity with another whose personality type is similar to theirs.
The problem arises, however, when we start to regard ourselves and others solely within the boundaries of four mere letters.
Most prominently as of late, in South Korea, MBTI has rocketed in popularity to become a mainstay of everyday conversation, ostensibly due to general boredom and uncertainty faced by the Korean population since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021. Social media apps, or social networking sites (SNS) as they are better-known in Korea, were the first sign of the national MBTI craze. A businessman figure depicting an ENTJ, saying “Don’t get hurt by what others say. This is business”, would mark a typical Instagram post, accompanied by a heated discussion in the comment section on how social behaviours and thoughts differ by MBTI.
Now, these caricatures of personality types have transcended the digital and started manifesting in the physical world. From food companies, advertising agencies and banks, a rapidly growing number of Korean companies are now mandating MBTI personality test results as a field on job application forms, explicitly stating preferences for E types due to their apparent people skills in service jobs, or barring P types from application because of their ostensible inclination toward completing tasks at the last minute. This has led to job seekers lying about their MBTI personality types in interviews to score better chances at landing a job, and a pervasive scepticism across the Korean workforce as to how far MBTI personality types can be taken in guiding our interpersonal perceptions.
Though the Singaporean interest in MBTI is nowhere as pronounced as its overseas counterparts, local workplaces may already be easing MBTI into our daily lives. MyCareersFuture, a government initiative that helps Singaporeans find jobs, has already set up an online page on how to best utilise each MBTI’s likes and dislikes to navigate team projects in the workplace. Despite the page’s tangibly positive intentions, it may not be entirely helpful for Explorer personality types seeking permanent employment to be viewed by potential employers as “[disliking] monotony and being tied down”—especially when that description has an implicit government-given stamp of approval!
But the real crux of this issue? MBTI is nearly meaningless—it contains so many logical and psychological loopholes, it’s as useful for determining job competency as a tiny needle might be for slicing a pound of steak.
A test’s results are generally considered meaningful if they are consistent and the test is reliable and accurate, as we may have learned in Junior College. However, up to 50% of MBTI test-takers arrive at a different result the second time they take the test, even if they retake the test as soon as five weeks after their first try. This is largely due to the self-directed, and thus volatile, nature of the test’s answers. For example, if in a bad mood, we may indicate that we are less prone to sympathising with others; if we’ve just caught up with a good friend we haven’t seen for a long time, we may likewise feel that we gain energy from social interactions.
Moreover, MBTI is largely unrecognised by psychological professionals. Even Carl Thoresen, a Stanford psychologist and board member of the company that publishes the MBTI test, admitted to the Washington Post that he had never used MBTI in his formal research as it would be questioned by his academic colleagues. The test’s hazy developmental origins don’t help in proving its scientific credibility either—Katharine Briggs, the inventor of the modern MBTI system as we know it today, developed early versions of the test through informal surveys of neighbourhood parents on their children’s behaviour, a procedure that was and is still far from any established scientific protocol.
Furthermore, the test’s Western origins may impede its ability to fully reflect personality traits in people hailing from different cultural backgrounds. Take Singapore for instance: its heritage as a small nation lacking natural resources bred a certain survivalist narrative that was necessary for its development, and that continues to prevail over less pragmatic concerns today. Studies have found that Singapore, and consequently its workforce, had to be “practical, organised, efficient, conventional, and systematic” just to survive, leading its education system to emphasise factual learning and objective problem-solving over imagination and creativity. Singapore’s resultant -STJ inclination stands in contrast to the -NFP majority of the American population, whose education system emphasises individualism. With systemic circumstances bearing more influence on MBTI diagnoses than individual traits, a Western system like the MBTI may not be the best tool for diagnosing personalities in other countries.
Perhaps more significantly, the binary logic that MBTI typology functions upon is in itself flawed. While thinking and feeling are two opposite ends of a continuum in the MBTI system, research has shown that better emotional intelligence is often found in people with stronger thinking and reasoning skills too. Even the defining personality trait a vast majority of us identify ourselves with—introversion or extraversion—is misleadingly typed as either end of the spectrum once our level of introversion or extraversion tips over 50%. In reality, the scale of extraversion across the globe actually resembles a bell curve more than it does a binary, meaning that most people are ambiverts with different levels of comfort in different social situations.
It’s also important to note that personality can change. When we can even intentionally alter our personalities through sustained effort and goal-setting, and personality tests usually serve to predict things like relationship compatibility, career and personal success, how useful can these personality tests be? They risk becoming more prescriptive than predictive.
So that begs the question: Why do we continue to use MBTI in our daily conversations, or, worse, in corporate workspaces?
For one, we all love an “aha!” moment. Pull quotes of test-takers “shocked” at how seen they felt for the first time in their lives litter the front page of 16 Personalities’ website, and understandably so. Personal inclinations like sympathising with others or preferring to stay within set boundaries are ones that we may usually prefer to show, rather than tell and overtly discuss, or even hide away if they are not traits we are proud of. But to associate ourselves with the endearing figures of a green sword-wielding ENFJ or artsy ISFP painter illustrating our ideal selves, telling us it’s okay to be who we are, is more than validating.
For another, put simply, MBTI is honestly pretty fun. Much like how we might tease someone for being “such a Libra” when they can’t make decisions, we could perhaps attribute conflict between two dominant MBTI types (like an ESTJ and ENTJ) to their personalities, adding some levity to our interpersonal interactions by shedding light on why we act the way we do. What the MBTI does well is refraining from demonising any specific personality type, and instead explaining why they may or may not act a certain way. This is especially helpful when we’re first getting to know someone, as the MBTI can be pretty handy in helping us accommodate our differences while utilising any shared preferences and priorities to build a deeper and stronger relationship.
Additionally, while it may not always be true that we know ourselves best, MBTI types often represent the personality type we both identify with and aspire towards the most. They can thus be useful as a compass to help us identify our preferences, so we at least have an idea of our ideal lifestyles and constructed identities, even if that doesn’t always match up with what we can realistically achieve. Specifically, MBTI types’ correlation with career preferences have proven much more consistent than that with actual job performance: ISFJs often gravitate towards educational and civil service sectors, ENFPs find fulfilment in jobs that provide some kind of benefit toward society, and ESFJs thrive in positions that revolve around social interaction, et cetera.
As you may be able to tell by now, the vagueness of MBTI is both its appeal and its undoing. The sheer ambiguity of one type being a leader or another deriving fulfilment from benefitting society—really, don’t most?—says nearly nothing about the intricacies of our thoughts and emotions that make us human. Nevertheless, it’s fun and harmless to ask someone their MBTI type for an illuminating conversation on their beliefs and predilections and how theirs differ from yours, as long as both parties leave room for complexities that the MBTI system doesn’t account for, instead of definitively stamping the other’s personality type on their forehead. MBTI is simply one of the many tools we’ve created to put in words the impossible magic of communication and understanding another being. We just have to use it to further the conversation, instead of ending it.