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Decoding MBTI® “Scores” – What They Really Mean

Decoding the MBTI

Did your “scores” on the MBTI assessment indicate that you have strong preferences for one of the pair of opposites? Do you find yourself describing yourself and others, as “being off the chart” (or a similar adjective) with regard to a preference? Have you wondered why your report indicated that you have a lot of one preference and not too much of another? Or are you “in the middle” between a preference pair and think that means you “sit on the fence” or are “borderline” and can therefore “do both” equally, depending on the situation?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then read on; in fact, let’s jump to the main point of this article, using a direct quote from the MBTI Technical Manual:

“Quantitative interpretation of MBTI results as an indication that a respondent has ‘more’ or ‘less’ of a preference is incorrect. Such a practice is the most pervasive source of misunderstanding and misinterpretation of the MBTI[emphasis added]…[the] MBTI preference clarity index (PCI) is designed to show only how sure the respondent is that she or he prefers one pole of the dichotomy over its opposite.”

– (MBTI Technical Manual, p. 121)

About the Preference Clarity Index (PCI)

If this quote surprises you, you are not alone. The graph generated with MBTI reports, called the Preference Clarity Index (PCI), intuitively looks like it is reporting the relative strength of your preferences and may therefore cause confusion. However, as the Manual states, the PCI is only reporting the consistency in response patterns of a person’s selection for one preference category over its opposite on four independent preference scales or “dichotomies” ( the opposites of Extraversion (E) and Introversion (I), Sensing (S) and Intuition (N), Thinking (T) and Feeling (F) and Judging (J) and Perceiving (P)). We cannot imply strength, weakness, development, superior use, or anything else from the PCI.

Here is what the MBTI Manual says:

“It is incorrect to assume that a person with a PCI of N30 has a better command of Intuition than a person with N15. A larger number simply means that the respondent, when forced to choose, is more clear about what he or she prefers…the PCI…by itself does not permit us to determine each individual’s inadequacy or excellence in using the [preference].”

– (MBTI Technical Manual, p.121)

Let’s look at why this is true from the perspective of how the MBTI was “constructed” or designed. When someone takes the MBTI assessment, they are forced to make a selection between one of two equally valuable behaviors on four independent scales. This design for a psychological instrument is called “forced-choice” – it forces a respondent to choose one thing over another.

The forced-choice format of the MBTI questionnaire does not allow for you to rate how much or how often you engage in a particular behavior. It does not ask you for example, to select between these choices; “I do this all the time or very regularly” and “I do this rarely or not at all” or “I do this very effectively” and “I do this only with great effort.” Myers did not ask the questions in this way, so we don’t get answers about the frequency with which people believe they engage in the behaviors, or their impression about how well they do, when they engage in them. Instead, people are asked to select the behavior that mostly describes how they usually feel or act (word phrases), and the words which appeal to them the most (word pairs).

Think about the PCI as a reporting mechanism for how many votes a person has cast in one direction versus the other. The more votes cast for behaviors that relate to a preference category on one pole of a dichotomy over its opposite (for example, behaviors that relate to Sensing vs. Intuition), the more we can be confident that the person taking the instrument has selected his or her true preference. The Preference Clarity Category (PCC which ranges from Very Clear to Slight) tells us just how confident we can be that a respondent has selected his or her true preferences.

Straws Blowing in the Wind

Myers selected the forced-choice format for questions on the MBTI assessment to mirror Jung’s theory of Psychological Types which is about opposites. Jung believed that we face the world in certain ways which characterize our Type and that within our psyche, our Type is unconsciously balanced by its opposites. He recognized that our preferences are mental patterns, which if used habitually and consistently, lead to corresponding patterns of behavior. If we recognize our preferences, we can be aware of the opposites outside and inside ourselves and learn to consciously appreciate them, and make more appropriate behavioral choices.

Myers wanted to help people understand themselves in terms of Jung’s theory but she noted that mental patterns (unlike behaviors) are not obvious to the naked eye and they are multi-faceted (many behaviors are associated with each preference). To account for this,she created behavioral statements that she tested and validated through research, as belonging to the eight preference categories. People would select the behaviors that appealed to them the most on each scale in order to find their preferred mental pattern.

Myers likened her sorting instrument to the analogy of “straws blowing in the wind.” If you see one piece of straw blowing in a field, you cannot tell the direction from which the wind is blowing. Yet, if you see a field of straw blowing in the wind, you can more easily identify the direction of the wind. Answers to behavioral statements within the forced-choice format of the Indicator are like the straws in the field, and the preference categories – or mental patterns – are the wind. The more a person answers behavioral questions consistently in the direction of one pole on a dichotomy, the more the person is indicating that the preference category related to that behavior may be true for them, like the straws indicating the wind’s direction.

Why It Matters

When we see ourselves or others as having high, low or medium “scores” on something, we tend to jump to conclusions about aptitude or development, neither of which are “tested” for within the MBTI. A high score could be falsely interpreted as meaning we are good at something (“He must be really intelligent, did you see his high Thinking score?”) or non-use of a preference (“I am all Feeling and no Thinking, so I can’t possibility be analytical”) or somehow we are “skilled” at everything (“I am in the middle between Thinking and Feeling, so I am able to go back and forth much easier than anyone else”). Any interpretation of the PCI that implies the use of the words strength/weakness, skilled/unskilled, developed/undeveloped, good/bad, etc. is incorrect.

As humans, we are tempted to fit people into easily understandable boxes. The conclusions we draw based on a review of the PCI tend not to be true because such things are not measured or accounted for within the instrument. Narrow interpretations and misunderstandings of the Indicator’s purpose lead many to criticize the instrument itself.  What critics don’t see, or can’t recognize, is that beyond the instrument and its results, the theory of Psychological Types is the deepest and richest and most effective “tool” in our tool box of assessments; it is the theory that helps us help people in their development, and to manage differences, most effectively.

So, in conclusion, the MBTI® “scores” are measuring which of two categories you fall into on each of the four dichotomous scales in the form of a 4-letter “Type Code” (there are 16 in total). The Type Codes are descriptive, not quantitative, and explain particular ways of seeing the world. The 4-letter code generated from the MBTI Report gives us a starting point – one hypothesis to begin to explore what our “Best-Fit” Type might be. In this sense, the MBTI “scores” cannot be interpreted in the same way that we normally use the word “score” – as in a game where we say who won and who lost – or a test where someone has a high or low score. With the MBTI inventory, we are not measuring quantity only whether or not you fall into a category that likely comprises your Type. Likewise, the results do not single out one particular type as the best or any particular preferences as “better” which makes it different from other personality measures. For the most part, other instruments give you a conclusion, and often a definite one, that suggest an enduring downside to being who you are.

As I tell our clients, once you have identified your Best-Fit Type – the preferences that are most true for you (which may not be the preferences reported in your PCI) – you can throw away the PCI and never come back to your “scores” because they become irrelevant. And that fact does not at all diminish the use of the MBTI assessment as a valuable tool and starting point to help us orient ourselves, our teams and our leaders to who we are.

Contact us to help you interpret yours and your teams MBTI scores, and put type to work for your organization.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you Cindy! This is very informative and timely information. I love the MBTI and personality type. It has taught me so much about myself. In fact, before I became involved in personality type theory many years ago, I thought something was wrong with me. Understanding my type and all that means has been so enlightening and valuable for me.

    • Pam, thank you for leaving a note on our site! I have had the same experience with Type in that it helped me validate and embrace who I am. I think that is why many of us use the tool in our work with clients! There is a bit of complexity to wade through at the beginning, such as really understanding MBTI results and Best-Fit Type, but very much worth it for the end results!