Book of the week
The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing
The most popular personality test in the world turns out to have been the brainchild of two women who were “true, irreducible weirdos,” said Molly Fischer in Bookforum. In Merve Emre’s “crackling” new history of the questionnaire and its legacy, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, emerge early on as brilliant eccentrics, and their idiosyncrasies are cleverly enlisted in the author’s effort to undermine the very theories their work popularized. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator promises, after all, to be able to sort all people into just 16 personality types, and since 1943, the test has been a boon to employers. Emre eventually mounts a “damningly thorough” critique of the MBTI, but the pleasure of The Personality Brokers lies in its portrait of two women who remain undeniable originals.
The mother made her daughter a test subject at an early age, said Louis Menand in The New Yorker. Katharine, a university valedictorian turned homemaker, treated child rearing as a series of experiments in behavioral psychology, and when Isabel became engaged during her own stellar college years to a man Katharine considered a peculiar match, his future mother-in-law decided to develop a personality quiz to understand such choices. Katharine soon became so enamored of Carl Jung’s pertinent writings that she wrote an erotic novel about the German psychologist. Isabel eventually codified her mother’s ideas and began personally marketing them to government and corporate clients while chugging an odd-smelling energy drink of her own concoction. If these two eccentric amateurs hadn’t been so obsessed for so many years with people-sorting, “there would be no Myers-Briggs today.”
They at least meant well, and Emre acknowledges as much, said Jennifer Szalai in The New York Times. The author never comes to respect the science behind MBTI, a test now taken by 2 million people a year. But she grows sympathetic to her subjects’ intense desire to categorize personality types. Isabel, in particular, believed people would be happier if their different strengths were recognized and we all found our way into work roles that suited those strengths. And Emre learned that the idea of differing personality types, despite its shaky foundations, has been enormously helpful to people in their efforts to better understand themselves and others. Her “beguiling” book is “history that reads like biography that reads like a novel,” and its shape-shifting fits the content. “If there’s a theme to The Personality Brokers, it’s that the self is more slippery than we allow.” ■