GUEST POST: The Mythical Land of Psychological Types and Its Impact on Education
By Clemente I. Diaz
Clemente I. Diaz is Associate Director of College Now, a dual enrollment and pre-college program at Baruch College in New York City. Additionally, he is an adjunct faculty member at the CUNY School of Professional Studies where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses related to Industrial/Organizational Psychology. He is also a member of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology. Clemente tweets at @Clem_Diaz.
Since writing my previous guest post on the negative impact learning style theories have on effective student learning, I have been fixated on the many learning myths and misconceptions that seem endemic in education.
This fixation has led me to the mythical land of psychological types, more commonly known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The mythical nature of the MBTI is a result of the widely held misconception that it is an accurate representation of personality and therefore useful in determining learning strategies, among other insights.
What does a personality assessment have to do with learning? In conducting some research on this topic I came across a booklet highlighting the relationship between the MBTI and learning styles. Talk about two detrimental frameworks with their sights simultaneously aimed at education (and society)!
We already know learning style theories aren’t grounded in evidence, therefore any framework that is consonant with this myth should be taken with a grain of salt. In my previous guest post, I highlighted some of the issues with promoting the idea that we have learning styles. An extremely brief summary is below:
- The concept of learning styles is not supported by evidence. As a result, erroneous decisions are made.
- Reliance on learning styles may lead students to believe that they are unable to learn because the way in which information is presented doesn’t match their “style”.
- Additionally, reliance on learning styles can limit students from utilizing a broad range of effective strategies.
What is the MBTI?
The MBTI is an extremely popular assessment, based on Carl G. Jung’s typology of psychological types, designed to identify “one’s natural preferences in four areas of personality” (3). According to CPP (3), the MBTI delivers “powerful perspectives on learning style and career interests, driving better on-campus engagement and educational outcomes”. The dichotomous personality dimensions used by the MBTI include:
- How we direct and receive energy (inner or outward): Extraversion (E) vs. Introversion (I)
- How we take in information: Sensing (S) vs. Intuition (N)
- How we decide and come to conclusions: Thinking (T) vs. Feeling (F)
- How we approach the outside world: Perceiving (P) vs. Judging (J)
Based on these dimensions, individuals are categorized into one of sixteen distinct personality types. According to Donna Dunning (4), each personality type plays a significant part in an individual’s learning style, influencing what and how one prefers to learn. Supposedly, Extraverts prefer to learn by being active and interactive, while Introverts prefer to learn by working on tasks in a quiet space. Sensing types prefer to learn by using visual aids, as opposed to Intuitive types who prefer to learn by exploring concepts and extrapolating data. Thinking types prefer to learn by questioning and critiquing information. Feeling types prefer to learn by connecting with other learners. Judging types prefer to learn by structuring and scheduling tasks and Perceiving types prefer to learn by using a variety of information sources. Accordingly, MBTI advocates encourage educators to understand each student‘s personality type in order to meet their individual learning needs.
Theoretical and Psychometric Flaws of the MBTI
Although extremely popular in higher education, especially career development, the MBTI has various theoretical and psychometric flaws.
Contrary to what MBTI advocates might claim, the dimensions of Thinking and Feeling are not polar opposites; they’re independent factors. Research has demonstrated that individuals who like ideas and data can also like people and emotions (5). Additionally, although the MBTI categorizes Extraverts as drawing energy from other people and Introverts from within, in reality both draw energy from other people to some extent. Introverts are just more easily exhausted by social interactions. Lastly, the MBTI is missing the key element of emotional stability, which has been found to be critical in predicting individual patterns of thought, feeling, and action (5).
Lack of reliability and validity:
Having taken the MBTI multiple times, I am now finding that I am an ESTJ (I used to be an ISTJ). My wife is now an ISTJ (she’s a recovering ISFJ). No we don’t have multiple personality disorder! (I know multiple personality disorder - now known as dissociative identity disorder - isn't actually a personality disorder, but I think you get my point). In addition to the various theoretical flaws which plague the MBTI, several research studies have demonstrated its lack of reliability and validity (2), (5), (6). Within a relatively brief period of time, individuals have a 50 percent chance of being reclassified when retaking the MBTI (6). Subsequent research has demonstrated that roughly 75 percent of individuals who retake the MBTI receive a different personality type classification (5). One of the reasons for this within-test-taker variance is that the MBTI does not use validity scales to assess for socially desirable responses (2).
In addition to issues with reliability, the MBTI also lacks construct validity. This means that it doesn’t assess what it claims to be assessing; dichotomous - either or - factors of personality. Since the MBTI is based on dichotomies, research results should be represented in bimodal distributions. Instead, the majority of MBTI takers fall somewhere in between both extremes, similar to a normal distribution (1, 6). Basically, someone categorized as an Extravert may have scores similar to someone categorized as an Introvert. Yet their categorizations imply varying preferences. This can also explain why people flip-flop between classifications on different days.
Unfortunately, even though there are serious flaws with the MBTI it has become as pervasive in education and society as learning style theories have, if not more so. You can’t surf the web without seeing online versions of the MBTI or articles highlighting how useful the assessment is. Additionally, having previously worked in career development, I know without a doubt that you can’t visit a university career development center without coming across several MBTI certified career counselors. This sweet embrace by the career development field has given the MBTI a false sense of credibility.
Next steps: Becoming a knowledgeable consumer
The concept of personality types is extremely appealing because it focuses on our uniqueness or at the very least our perceived uniqueness (we are more similar than we oftentimes care to admit). If you want to take the assessment for fun go for it! The real issue lies when we begin making important decisions, such as determining suitable learning strategies, based on their results. This only leads to faulty decision making and a negative impact on our learning and the learning of our students.
Since inaccurate information is presented as truth on a daily basis it is crucial that we (educators, students, and professionals alike) become knowledgeable consumers. Below are some strategies to become a more knowledgeable consumer of information (7):
- Beware of overgeneralizations: If it’s too good to be true it probably is. Remember correlations don’t equal causation!
- Always consider where the information is coming from: Do those publishing the information have a vested interest (i.e.: selling products, etc.)? Is the information supported by evidence? Is the evidence published in reputable peer-reviewed journals?
- Look for varying sources: Don’t accept one source of information. What is the scientific community as a whole saying? Does subsequent research support or refute the claims being made.
(1) Bess, T.L, Harvey, R.J. (2001). Bimodal score distributions and the MBTI: Fact or artifact? Paper presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, San Diego.
(2) Boyle, G. J. (1995). Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Some psychometric limitations. Australian Psychologist, 30, 71-74.
(3) CPP (n.d.). MBTI personality preferences.
(4) Dunning, D. (2008). Introduction to Type® and Learning. CPP, Inc.
(5) Grant, A. (2013). Goodbye to MBTI, the fad that won’t die. Psychology Today.
(6) Pittenger, D. J. (2005). Cautionary comments regarding the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 57(3), 210-221.
(7) Quinn, C. N. (2018). Millennials, goldfish & other training misconceptions: Debunking learning. ATD Press.