“You’re too aware of other people’s needs; it can be hard sometimes to put what you like and how you value things above what other people are feeling,” 31-year-old Youtuber Frank James addresses the internet in a video titled ‘INFJ: 10 Reasons why you’re single’, that has reeled in almost 300,000 views since he posted it in May this year.
James is a self-professed member of the most elite slice of the Myers-Briggs personality taxonomy: the rarest type, an INFJ (or ‘mediator’ as it’s labelled by the test). For the uninitiated, this means that he’s introverted (rather than extroverted) and scores higher on ‘intuitive’ (rather than ‘sensing’), ‘feeling’ (rather than ‘thinking’) and ‘judging’ (rather than ‘perceiving’) traits. His exact opposite type would be an ESTP, characterised as an ‘entrepreneur’).
While this short strong of letters may appear inconsequential to most, for James it’s weighted with a great significance. Despite being derided in mainstream science, he’s part of the Myers-Briggs test’s online resurgence.
Those familiar with the Myers-Briggs test will recognise that James’ own personality designation – INFJ – reflects a somewhat paradoxical personality type: a retiring wallflower with a passionate, idealistic streak who’s motivated by success; a creative who loves complex ideas, yet is fiercely critical; who is fascinated by people yet feels at a distinct remove from humanity. So why might an INFJ be single? James lists perfectionism, getting in too deep too quickly, and emotionally blanking out during a relationship as potential candidates. Oh, and a propensity for being incredibly weird.
He’s built a 91,000 strong Youtube following off the back of videos like this. Among his core audience, videos about interpersonal and romantic relationships play especially well. “Some of the recurring comments that I get are ‘are you me?’ or ‘you’re the male version of me’,” he says. “A lot of times, people just express relief that they found something that describes what they’re going through.”
The Myers-Briggs is a psychometric personality test developed in the middle of the last century by mother and daughter pair, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. Based on psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theory of personality, it groups testers into 16 ‘types’ based on their answers to a range of questions designed to assess behaviour and modes of thinking. The test gained widespread popular appeal, and was deployed across enterprise settings in the 80s – something that continues today in some sectors.
In academic circles, however, the test has long been discredited. While the Myers-Briggs test lumps people into “types,” most modern personality tests measure traits on a continuum. Another objection rests on the test’s inability to predict meaningful life outcomes. “Basically, there isn’t an algorithm that translates how people answer into how they’re likely to behave,” explains Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at University College London. Today, this is considered a crucial element of a personality tests. The backlash against the Myers-Briggs test has been powerful – beyond being shunned by academics, a steady drip of articles over the years have condemned its shaky scientific grounding. But this hasn’t stopped diehard Myers-Briggs fans seeing themselves within the test’s categories.
James’ first foray into ‘typology’ (shorthand for the Myers-Briggs personality theory among its fans) took place three years ago. His interest was fuelled by browsing Myers-Briggs content on Youtube, before he decided to chime in himself. “I wanted to start sharing the thoughts that were going around in my head using the INFJ personality as a way of creating a shorthand connection – saying, ‘Hey, we’re similarly built in terms of our psychology, so maybe you’ll relate to what I have to say’.”
But it’s not just on Youtube where communities probing their personalities through the parlance of the Myers-Briggs test. On Reddit, different subreddits are devoted to each of the 16 types. And people take it seriously: “I’m set on finding an INTJ partner” writes one impassioned ENFP. Posts seeking advice on how to manage relationship or personal problems through the prism of typology abound. “As an INTJ, what are the things that I can do to better understand, relate to and communicate with my INFP wife? What are my blind spots with INFP people? What can I do/express to help my wife better understand me as an INTJ?” reads a recent post on the INTJ subreddit.
This kind of question might make a psychologist’s eyes tip perilously far back into their heads, but the answers proffered by MBTI redditors are sage, warm and non-judgmentally formulated. Someone proposes working out each other’s ‘love languages’, while those in same type pairings reflect on their own struggles. There is one clipped suggestion to try asking a type with dominant ‘sensing’ or ‘feeling’ traits, who are ostensibly better suited to dealing with relationships.
“We do get a lot of posts like that seeking advice,” says one of the moderators of the INFJ Reddit subreddit, 20-year-old Mihailo Dilparic. “On our subreddit at least, we try to keep it contained to the discussion of theory, or at least from the viewpoint of the theory and the cognitive functions.” But what might motivate someone to solicit advice on the basis of the personality test?
Dilparic says it’s that people with similar similar personalities have shared outlooks on the world. “Because of our different backgrounds and upbringing, all sorts of things influence what we think,” he says, “but how we think is the same.” He says that the INFJ community on Reddit helped him understand himself a little better. “There are people of various ages, from adolescence up to their 60s, who have gone through a lot in their lives – I can share the wisdom,” he says.
A moderator of the ENTP subreddit (characterised as ‘debaters’) echoes this. “With people who share my cognitive functions, less translation is required,” says Redditor, Gellas, a 23-year-old woman. “With other ENTPs, I don’t have to worry that I’m being too blunt – though I still try to be polite – or that my debater tendencies are ‘too much’.”
Across the forums, memes poking fun at the quirks of each personality type proliferate. On the ENFP subreddit (home to the scatty, offbeat ‘campaigners’) a tweet reading, ‘I’ve got one foot in the darkness and the other in a hello kitty roller skate’ provokes hilarity, while an INFJ meme mocks the type’s supposed fascination with psychology by superimposing the question, ‘Have you said narcissist today?’ over the original Myers-Briggs questionnaire.
But some Reddit forums are less receptive to what they see as stereotyping and over-simplification of the taxonomy. “Memeification of typology is like taking a beautiful tree and throwing it into a wood chipper. Yeah it’s fun and all, but you just took this complex thing and reduced it down to meaningless garbage,” says ENTP subreddit moderator, 24-year-old Redditor, Curves, who asked for to be identified by her Reddit username. “Don’t get me wrong, I love memes and ENTP memes can be hilarious. But memes encourage people to reference [Myers-Briggs] without actually learning any of the theory behind it.” The ENTP subreddit actually made the executive decision to ban memes, in the belief that they degraded the quality of discussion. “Conversations about theory and function stacks are replaced with, ‘That’s so me’ and ‘I relate to that’,” explains Curves. Over on the ENFP subreddit, this decision was roundly mocked.
But is all this assumed commonality based on junk science? Or is the Myers-Briggs test actually onto something? “It’s definitely not as anti-scientific as even the strongest critics of it may like to believe, even though it has more limitations than other tools,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. Research has undermined the test as a successful psychometric measurement tool – but also important is the question of the foundational elements the test purports to measure: the building blocks of our innate personalities.
The most dominant model of personality in the field of psychology today is the Five Factor Model, which theorises that the human personality is composed of five key traits, and that an approximate measure of personality can be composed from how we score on each: conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness. “The Myers-Briggs, although it’s a different kind of model, it translates onto the big five,” says Chamorro-Premuzic. “It’s not like it proposes something that is totally alien, or incompatible with how most people describe others.”
Specifically, research carried out by the inventors of the FFA found that if traits measured by the Myers-Briggs were scored continuously rather than discretely – by measuring personality on a continuum rather than by ‘type’ – that the categories used in the Myers-Briggs test strongly correlated with the sliding scales used in the FFA.
But there’s also the question of reliability, and why a given type might resonate for some, while ringing false for others. “If you have an extreme score, you might find that it corresponds with [the Myers-Briggs test],” says Petrides. “If you are extremely introverted, there is a likelihood that you will be classified as an I on the [Myers-Briggs test].” For people with more moderate scores, it’s likely that the types will feel restrictive or that they fluctuate between more than one. Perhaps it makes sense that its those with the most exaggerated scores – and whose Myers-Briggs type resonates most – would use the classification to bolster their identities.
“We are all multi-dimensional beings with many thoughts, feelings, and impulses – some of which are contradictory – and we wonder if there is some stable structure within us, something that sorts out and organizes all of the things that swirl around in our head,” says John Johnson, professor emeritus of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, of the Myers-Briggs’ enduring appeal. “The personality tests out there offer a system for identifying what that stable, ‘true’ self might be.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it “anchored” me, but knowing my type helped me to feel more secure in my weirdness and nerdiness,” says Gellas. “It also helped me connect with other weird nerds in high school and college.” This might explain a quirk innate to the personality factions: in terms of online fervour, the Myers-Briggs test types are not made equal. Paradoxically, some of the rarest types, like INFPs and INFJs have the most popular subreddits and well-stocked troves of Instagram memes, while paragons of practicality, the ISTJs, flounders in a near online obscurity. Advocates of Myers-Briggs would say the reason for this is obvious: those with a predominant ‘sensing’ (S) over ‘intuition’ (N) functions are more attuned to their external environment and less prone to introspection, an effect that would be even more pronounced in extroverts.
James posits another theory for why online culture is liveliest at the introverted and intuitive end of the spectrum. The world is built for sensing and thinking types, and not those that tend towards intuition and feeling. This, he posits, means that NF types can grow up feeling isolated. “I think that’s what it is: you realise, ‘Oh, I’m not broken, I just have a different mind’,” he says. “That’s really where the connection comes from – you finally feel like you found an answer to something.” For those that have navigated the world feeling something of an oddity, there can be a strange comfort in finally finding a box to call your own.
Despite advocates of the Myers-Briggs being described as having an almost cult-like devotion to the surgical dissection of the human populace into 16 personality types, the people I spoke to denied that the Myers-Briggs test had a decisive impact on their lives. “My Myers-Briggs type does not define me at all; it describes me,” says Gellas. “Personality tests are limited but useful tools to name and categorize patterns. We are complex creatures — mind-blowingly, unimaginably complex. That’s exactly why we need to put ourselves into boxes.”
Even the most damning insult levelled against the Myers-Briggs test – that types are akin to horoscopes –doesn’t provoke the ire you might expect. “It is being used as a horoscope,” says Dilparic. “I don’t think the theory can really be scientifically proven, because all it does is give form to our thoughts, our ways of thinking – nothing more. It’s just a way to express something – like how you can express sadness through a painting, or sculpture, or movie, so you can express modes of thinking through this theory or that theory.”
Proponents of the Myers-Briggs test are painted as wilfully pigheaded in the face of science, but might this rigidity also characterise those at the other extreme – who are adamant that absolutely no meaning can be derived from it? For adherents of the Myers-Briggs, scientific credibility seems somewhat immaterial. These concerns are supplanted by a sense that it offers them insight into their ways of thinking in relation to the world and others. Somewhere between a hard science and pseudoscience, the appeal of the Myers-Briggs test lingers on, offering clarity to those who seek it.
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