Personality Types: Carl Jung And Limits Of The Myers-Briggs Test

Carl Jung, Personality types and Mysers-Briggs tests
Photo by Jill Burrow:

The psychology of personality and the problem with MBTI personality types

What is your personality type?

If you have ever done a specific personality test, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) then you may even answer that question with a four-letter acronym such as ‘INTJ’, or ‘ESTP’.

The Myers-Briggs psychometric questionnaire, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (or MBTI®) was the first personality test that I came across in my career. It is a very popular tool (the Myers-Briggs Foundation claims that over 2 million people use the system every year), hence it is not uncommon for people in conversation to describe themselves according to their MBTI profile.

When I first used the MBTI tool, I found it informative, but upon repeat use (and further research) I started to discover issues with the system. But to understand these limitations we need to understand a little of this field of psychology and the approach used by Myers-Briggs.

What is personality in psychology? 

Before we explore the idea of types, we first need to clarify what we mean by personality. It is a word that encompasses so much significance and yet we can often struggle to explain it. So let us turn to a couple of definitions. 

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of personality is:

“The combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.”

This is a common understanding of personality, but this definition is worth expanding upon when trying to quantify the psychological elements of character. For example, the American Psychological Society has a slightly fuller definition:

“Personality refers to the enduring characteristics and behaviour that comprise a person’s unique adjustment to life, including major traits, interests, drives, values, self-concept, abilities, and emotional patterns.”

As you can see from the later definition there is an emphasis on behaviour and personality traits. This reflects the current predominant psychological thinking in this field. Traits are aspects of our character, particular qualities, the makeup of which makes us unique. 

The trait theory of personality – from Hippocrates to Jung

The idea of personality traits goes at least as far back as Hippocrates (c.460-377/359BC) who wrote about the Four Humours. The Four Humours or Temperaments can be translated as cheerful (sanguine), sombre(melancholic), enthusiastic (choleric) or calm (phlegmatic), and the idea of identifying these was to assist in the diagnosis of physical medical conditions. 

This thinking on personality did not really change until the late 1800s and this four-element system informed the next person who revolutionised theories about personality, that person being Carl Jung (1875-1961). 

Early in his career, Jung developed a friendship with neurologist Sigmund Freud (founder of psychoanalysis) and for a while, they collaborated in their work. However, these two heavyweights of psychology eventually parted ways as Jung’s theories of personality (and broader psychology) started to diverge from Freud’s. Key to the differences was Jung’s downplaying of the importance of libido (sex drive) on the subconscious, a cornerstone of Freudian psychology. Instead, he started to theorise about personality types and how they reflected the balance of conscious and unconscious thought in human behaviour. 

The (slightly misunderstood) importance of extroversion and introversion 

Jung approached the idea of personality from the perspective of types (or archetypes) rather than traits. As with Hippocrates, his motivation behind identifying types was from a medical perspective, but in Jung’s case (as with Freud) his was primarily concerned with psychological maladies rather than purely physical ones. 

The most widely known concept that Jung introduced was the concept of extraversion (extroversion) and introversion. What many people don’t know is that these two types are primarily concerned with psychic energy (where people get their vitality from) rather than just a way of describing if someone is outgoing or shy. An introvert’s psychic energy is internally focused, whereas an extrovert’s psychic energy is externally directed.

Thus, an extroverted person gets energy from external stimulation, from being around other people and having a large social network. They tend to think out loud, enjoy variety and seek broad experience. They like being the centre of attention.

By contrast, an introverted person dislikes being the centre of attention. They get energy from having less external stimulation and will often withdraw from social interaction to reflect and recharge. They tend towards fewer, deeper relationships, think before speaking and tend towards developing deep knowledge rather than broader experience. 

These two attitudes are foundational to the other personality types that Jung identified. 

Jung’s Four Functional Personality Types

Jung divided his four functional types into the ‘rational’ aspects of thinking and feeling (reflecting preference as to how people make judgements), and the ‘irrational’ elements of sensation and intuition (regarding preferences in how people perceive the world). 

By this typology, the thinker tends to be objective and analytic, whereas the feeler is more subjective and gives more weight to emotions. Those who predominantly rely on sensation tend to be practical and look to real-world solutions in the here and now. Someone who is more intuitive tends to use their imagination and speculate about the future. 

By adding these four functions to the base personality types (introverted or extroverted), one can extrapolate sixteen personality types. For example, an introvert can be linked to thinking or feeling, sensation or intuition (creating eight types) and similarly again from extroverts. Thus, you might have an Extraverted Thinking Intuition ET(N) type or an Introverted Feeling Sensation IF(S) type. These sixteen personality types are the basis of the Myers-Briggs profiles.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Tool

The MBTI model was developed by Isabel Briggs Myers, alongside her mother Katherine Briggs, and sought to apply Jung’s theories to understanding behaviour, not just abnormal behaviour, or psychiatric disorders. Thus, the tool aims to identify and clarify individual behavioural preferences in everyday life.

When I first used the tool, I found it helpful in this manner. It introduced me to the psychology of personality. It also helped me to better clarify my own preferences and better understand my strengths and weaknesses.

In my experience, anything that helps us understand ourselves and others better is a good thing. And to that degree, I think MBTI can be useful. However, I soon found some limitations with the methodology. 

Can you have a specific personality type if the results differ?

The first problem I encountered was that when I did the test again, I got a different result. And then again, the next time. From further tests, and from analysing my results, I found that I sat on the cusp of four different personality types. 

For example, I sit at the threshold between introverted and extroverted. I prefer to withdraw to quiet spaces to recharge my energy and I primarily process internally. But, much of my work is done in a social context and I enjoy variety. But this means that I often get seemingly contradictory results in MBTI tests.

Therefore, it was hard to say I was an exact type, as I did not sit neatly into one of the 16 categories. I found that it was hard to define exactly what my personality was, if hard boundaries were enforced between the profiles. 

The problem with putting people into boxes

This leads to the second problem I have with MBTI: at a philosophical level, I don’t like the way it puts people into boxes. 

At first, I didn’t like this on an intuitive level but as I researched more of the psychology of personality this was backed up by not liking this on an empirical level. The increasing evidence is that personality can (and does) change over time. Therefore, it is not helpful to think about ourselves as a fixed ‘type’. 

This philosophical divergence is linked to my belief in one’s ability to change. My roles, both as a leader and as a coach revolve around change. Leaders seek to bring about change, a vision of a better future. Coaches help to facilitate change by helping individuals think more clearly, to achieve goals or change behaviours. 

Bringing about individual evolution is about shifting behaviours and this is hard to do if people have a fixed idea about who they are. The ability to change, at an individual level, is fundamental to the idea of having a growth mindset. The same is true for building better habits. As James Clear highlights in his book Atomic Habits

“It’s hard to change your habits if you never change the underlying beliefs that led to your past behaviour. You have a new goal and a new plan, but you haven’t changed who you are.”

Therefore, it is important to avoid beliefs that fix us to the idea that we must behave in a certain way. It is a wrong assumption to believe we cannot change just because we are constrained by personality type. Personality is just one factor, and though it might evolve slowly, it is not static.

Do you have a personality type or just preferences depending upon certain traits?

Carl Jung changed the way we understand personality today, particularly with his introduction of the concepts of introversion and extroversion. But we must be careful not to see ourselves as fixed types. And therein lies the fundamental problem with the Myers-Briggs interpretation of Jung’s psychology. It is too easy to see ourselves defined by a specific personality type. 

If we want to be better, to improve ourselves, then we should seek to understand our preferences but not be restricted by them. We should identify and play to our strengths, but not consider that we are fixed in our character and behaviour. Don’t put yourself in a box. 

“Know thyself” – Socrates

So, the next time you do a personality test, don’t let that constrain your thinking of who you are. Use it as helpful data to better understand yourself, not a judgment to be constrained by. 

And if you want to do a personality test then I recommend the Big 5 (OCEAN) model rather than MBTI (and no, I am not paid to say that or earn money from Big 5 psychometric tests!). I recommend the Big 5 as it is now the preferred standard test of most psychologists and has better scientific backing, but more about that in my next article. 

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