Long before introvert became a fashionable way to self-identify, long before the concept of a personality "profile" became a norm for realms like online dating, there was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, otherwise known as the world's most popular personality test. 

Through the years, Inc. has devoted a lot of ink to personality tests: their pros and cons, their utility and their misapplication, how to find a personality test that's ideal for your hiring needs. Regardless of its place in the contemporary human resources ecosystem, the Myers-Briggs indicator looms large over our entrepreneurial landscape for its brand alone: It's the one hiring test most non-HR folks have heard of. It also put "introvert" into the mainstream as a personality category decades before Susan Cain championed it. 

Against this backdrop of the test's sociocultural significance, you might think more would be known about the inventor of the test. The histories of comparable pioneers in their particular assessment or testing categories--think of Gallup or Kaplan Test Prep--are fairly well documented. But what about the inventor of the Myers-Briggs indicator? 

Her name is Isabel Briggs Myers. And thanks to the amazing work of Merve Emre, a visiting fellow at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and an assistant professor of English literature at McGill, the world now knows much more about her--and the history of the test--than it did one week ago. 

You can find Emre's fascinating essay on Digg.com. Here are seven tidbits from it. 

1. Myers had no formal training in psychology or sociology. 

She was, in fact, a prizewinning mystery author and mother of two. 

2. Hard copies of the test are hard to find.

To get one, Emre had to spend $1,695 on a weeklong certification program run by the Myers & Briggs Foundation of Gainesville, Florida. 

3. Emre believes that the Myers & Briggs Foundation wants to shield Myers's personal history.

Myers's notebooks, letters, and other documents are kept in the Special Collections division of the University of Florida library. The foundation's for-profit research arm, the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT), has not granted permission for anyone to access them since the papers were donated to the university by Myers's granddaughter 10 years ago. "Twice I was warned by the university librarian, a kind and rueful man, that CAPT was 'very invested in protecting Isabel's image,'" Emre writes.  

4. Myers's mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, revered legendary Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung.

Jung's 654-page study, Psychological Types (1923), inspired the indicator. Briggs found Psychological Types to be "an unwieldy text, part clinical assessment, part romantic meditation on the nature of the human soul, which emphasized the 'creative fantasy' required for psychological thought," Emre writes. Briggs began thinking of her children's personalities as three oppositional axes: extraverted versus introverted, intuitive versus sensory, thinking versus feeling.

5. Myers prizewinning mystery was called Murder Yet to Come

She wrote it while temping at night and taking care of her two kids by day. The novel won $7,500 in cash (what would be $100,000 today) in a contest at New McClure's magazine in 1929. She wrote a second novel, called Give Me Death, which came out in 1934. Here's where Emre believes the Foundation is protecting Myers's image. She writes: 

CAPT's website, where I purchased Murder Yet to Come for $15, claims that the novel was Isabel's "only sojourn into fiction" before she shifted her attention to the type indicator. This is incorrect. The company has not reprinted Isabel's second novel, Give Me Death (1934), which revisits the same trio of detectives half a decade later. Perhaps this is due to the novel's virulently racist plot: One by one, members of a land-owning Southern family begin committing suicide when they are led to believe that "there is in [our] veins a strain of Negro blood." Despite their differences, the detectives agree that it is "better for [the family] to be dead" than for them to be alive, heedlessly reproducing with white people.

Give Me Death is also "saddled with a far more sinister understanding of type: type as racially determined. There is talk of eugenics," Emre writes. "That the novel was written in the years when laws forbidding interracial marriage were increasingly the target of ACLU and NAACP protests makes it all the more reactionary, and thus all the more unsuitable, from an image management perspective, for reissue today."

6. A key partnership helped the Myers-Briggs indicator's early success. 

In the early 1940s, Myers turned to Edward N. Hay, a family friend and one of the first management consultants in the U.S. (The consultancy he founded, Hay Group, based in Philadelphia, today has more than 3,100 employees working in 50 countries.)

In 1947, the 56-year-old Hay promoted the indicator to his high-profile client list, which included General Electric, Standard Oil, Bell Telephone, the National Bureau of Statistics, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and several high ranking U.S. army officials. 

7. Initially, men's and women's results were scored on different scales.

Thinking (T) and feeling (F) functions were assumed to be differently accessible to men versus women. "Isabel was hardly the first person to suggest that women, as a matter of biological destiny, set greater store by 'sympathy' and 'appreciation' than men, who were more logically inclined in their decision making," writes Emre. "She was, however, one of the first to institute this difference in workplace evaluations."

 

Published on: Oct 13, 2015