How Personality Tests Work


Taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
What's your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality type? Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images
What's your Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality type? Ken Faught/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator sorts people into one of 16 different personality types by determining which side of four type pairs ("dichotomies") they fall on. Each attribute is represented by a letter, so someone who's familiar with the MBTI might say she's an ISTJ, and their co-worker is an ENFP.

The four pairs are:

  • extraversion (E) — introversion (I)
  • sensing (S) — intuition (N)
  • thinking (T) — feeling (F)
  • judging (J) — perceiving (P)

Each category, or psychological preference, describes the way a person prefers to interact with the world, and doesn't always match the common definition of the word. We discussed extraversion and introversion earlier, in relation to Jung's psychological types theory. Sensing is a preference for empirical, direct information and data, while intuition is more of a "big picture," go-with-your-gut preference. Thinking people are more focused on logic and objectivity, while feeling people put more value on relationships and social harmony. Judging is a preference for schedules and decisiveness, while perceiving is a preference for a go-with-the-flow, adaptable attitude.

To sort you into the categories, the MBTI asks a series of questions, such as "When you go on a trip, do you want everything planned out in advance, or would you rather take each day as it comes and do whatever you feel like?" It also presents word pairs (i.e., "schedule — freedom" and "compassion — foresight"), and asks test takers to choose which word they like better.

Normally, taking the official MBTI costs about $50, and taking it with an hour of feedback from an MBTI professional will set you back $150. A career report tacks on another $16.95. Attending an MBTI class, having on-site training or being certified in MBTI will cost about $1,500 or more, depending on how far you want to go into the teachings [source: The Myers & Briggs Foundation].

CPP let us take the MBTI for free, and MBTI Certification Programs lead trainer Michael Segovia walked us through our results. Segovia made it clear that the categories simply represent preferences, and that everyone can and does use the opposite category in their lives. In fact, the Myers & Briggs Foundation site states that the person taking the test is the expert, and the only one who truly knows which type fits them. CPP used the metaphor of handedness — it feels more comfortable to sign your name with your dominant hand, but you technically can sign with your nondominant hand if you need to. In fact, Segovia had me do this exercise, signing my name with one hand and then the other, during our phone interview.

The MBTI emphasizes the dynamics between different types, and how they might affect happiness or performance in the workplace. People could also consider the preferred type in their culture, and how that affects their interaction with the world. For instance, the U.S. business world places a lot of value on being a "J" (judging, or favoring schedules and precision), so a lot of American professionals with a natural preference for "P" (perceiving) might struggle to accommodate the demands of their workplace. But the preferences are not hard-and-fast rules. "The Myers-Briggs assessment suggests predisposition, but not predetermination," Segovia said in an email. "Rather than pigeonholing, it empowers individuals to further shape their futures through an understanding of their own preferences and those of others."

But the MBTI has plenty of skeptics and detractors, who cite several well-documented flaws of the assessment.