The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing
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An illuminating dual biography of two women who invented a hugely popular personality test.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is still widely used by businesses, schools, churches, and the military. Although it has no scientific credibility, it incited a vogue for self-assessment questionnaires proliferating in popular magazines, online dating sites, and self-help books, offering a means of “self-discovery as a civilizing form of self-mastery.” Los Angeles Review of Books senior humanities editor Emre (English/Oxford Univ.; Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, 2017, etc.) has dug deeply into published and archival sources to produce a deft, gracefully written account of Katharine Briggs (1875-1968) and her daughter, Isabel Myers (1897-1980), ardent devotees of Carl Jung who created, tested, and promoted a lengthy questionnaire that, they insisted, revealed an individual’s true, innate, unchanging personality type. Influenced by Jung’s Psychological Types (1921), they devised a rubric that identified personality according to four “easy to understand and easily relatable” categories: extravert or introvert, thinking or feeling, sensing or intuiting, judging or perceiving. Katharine’s early interest in personality shaped her “Obedience-Curiosity” method of raising her daughter: Disobedience was punished by slaps and drills, obedience rewarded by stories, and curiosity encouraged—as long as it did not lead to disobedience. Occasionally, Isabel attended school, although Katharine derided the “rapidly democratizing public-school system.” Katharine’s unconventional method attracted enough attention that she was asked to write magazine articles expounding on child-rearing advice. By 1923, with her daughter grown and married, Katharine sank into depression, alleviated by her discovery of Jung, for whom she developed an intense, even erotic, passion. As she delved into his work, she came to believe “that knowing one’s type could save the soul of an individual while prompting him to assume the specialized offices that would help him advance civilization.” Emre traces the intersection of the Briggs-Myers inventory with widespread interest in personality that involved prominent psychologists, sociologists, businessmen, college admissions officers, and researchers eager to find tools for measuring character and capability.

A discerning history of the quest for self-knowledge.

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-385-54190-9
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 2018


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