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The Battle for the MBTI – Why the Constant Butting of Heads?

updated: 9/28/2021

There is a constant battle – a butting of heads – between those of us who understand Jung’s theory, the construction and intent of the Indicator, and Type’s critics. This week yet another,MBTI IS BAD” article appeared in a popular magazine. It moved me to edit and re-post this blog, first published in 2015.

Invariably, the critics’ missing piece is a mischaracterization of Type as a trait instrument. Those of us that know the theory understand that Type is a holistic system of personality that is more than a bundle of traits. The theory of Psychological Types, created by Carl Jung, is about naming the mental processes, or mental tools, that we use to navigate the world, and how we distribute the energy we have for the processes. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is just one way for us to tap into Jung’s holistic system of typology and human development.

What this means:

  • MBTI Type preferences are not singular traits. They are multi-faceted categories; constructs that point to a complex whole (thus the name of the instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).
  • MBTI results give you a 4-letter Type that has a corresponding Type Description, written from research and years of observations of the Types. Our Psychological Type is qualitative, not quantitative.
  • MBTI Type is a starting point, not a diagnostic, for self-discovery, and professional and personal growth and development.

Trait instruments (assessments such as the Big Five, NEO-PI, Hogan, DiSC) are psychometrically different than Type instruments. Results from trait instruments reveal scores that fall along a normally distributed curve. So, for instance, characteristics such as aggressiveness, sociability, talkativeness, and even Extroversion and Introversion (as assessed on the NEO-PI) can be measured on a scale from “high to low”. When interpreting trait-based assessments, being high on one characteristic indicates you are low on the opposite – in other words, it gives you degrees and percentages of possessing the particular trait.

Psychological Type, in contrast to trait psychology, is holistic and interactive. Looking at Extraversion and Introversion from this standpoint (in case you didn’t know, Jung created and defined these terms) all of us engage these processes, but we are more comfortable with, or have more energy for, one over another. Jung did not parse his construct into parts. He created a system of psychological perspectives, defining the different ways in which we engage or express the mental processes. We come whole. In the Jungian system, our work is to become more conscious of, and more comfortable with, those processes that are unconscious or require more psychological energy for us to engage.

In essence, the 16 MBTI Types reveal important patterns about how we take in information and make decisions. Jung’s mental processes make up the patterns as they present themselves within a Type.

And patterns, as they appear in nature, cannot be quantitatively measured. For instance, one cannot quantify or measure the differences in patterns as they appear in a pine tree (produces needles and pine cones) and an oak tree (grows leaves that change colors in the fall). We cannot quantify the description of a lion’s mane or apply measurement to which species of goats have antlers (goats with antlers don’t have 50% antlers, they have antlers).

Bringing the analogy back to Type – as an ENFJ, I am not 90% Feeling and 10% Thinking or 80% Extraverted Feeling and 20% Introverted Intuition. My brain simply processes information by first accessing my Dominant Feeling Function, with help from Introverted Intuition. I am naturally tuned into the interpersonal dynamics and the value systems that emerge within groups or systems (family, work, client teams) while Introverted Intution gives me insight into the nuances of relationships, providing me with information on how to move the system forward.

Our 4-letter Type presents us with a corresponding Type Description, and an implied theoretical map for how we use, and how we distribute the energy we have, for Jung’s eight mental processes. You can’t measure the mental patterns that we use to navigate the world; they are theoretical constructs of how our minds work; our perspectives that frame how we operate and manage our lives. 

Said in a slightly different way, the MBTI assessment leads us to understand that our Type is system of energy (there are 16 systems) that helps us consciously understand how we are hardwired to take in information and make decisions, in our inner and outer worlds. Understanding our Type guides our personal growth and development.

Applying degrees, or percentages to theoretical constructs of how our brains naturally operate, can lead into dangerous territory. Let me share a personal story to highlight the differences between Type and trait:

I was once part of a technology team that participated in an MBTI team building session. The practitioner started by putting our Reported Types on a type table on the screen for all to see (without the opportunity for self-selection and verification). The entire team was in the upper left-hand corner, ISTJ, with one INTP and me, who reported as an ENFJ. He directed us to our “scores” (the preference clarity index) for E and I and told us to line up accordingly. My preference clarity category was Very Clear, with my PCI being E30.
I looked at my colleagues all standing on the other side of the room like we were about to play a very uneven game of tug-of-war. The practitioner said to the group, “Cindy is a strong, very extreme Extravert.” The entire team laughed. Then I heard these comments, “Cindy is that why you can’t stop talking? Is that why you constantly blurt things out in meetings?”.  After we sat down, he said, “Cindy, why are you on this team? You must not like your job very much. I would imagine that it would be really hard for you to produce technical documentation as an ENFJ.” I will never forget those words.

Do I need to highlight the obvious consequences from that scenario? What if the practitioner had explained the nature of preferences as categories, explained to the team that people don’t behave in a certain way because of their preferences, that there are no good or bad types, and it is not a skills-based assessment? What if he had he simply pointed out the gifts, and balancing perspectives that someone with ENFJ preferences might bring to a primarily ISTJ technology team? Or that a preference for Feeling does not mean you can’t produce technical documentation!

This is a classic example of a practitioner not understanding the dynamic nature of Type and treating Type preferences as individual traits disconnected from the whole. He presented Type as trait, lining us up by “strength” of preference, equating specific behaviors to “weakness.” Negative stereotyping and misuse of Type can damage people and their reputations.

Even through Type experts have been writing about the differences between Type and trait psychology for years, the concept that the MBTI® Assessment does not produce a set of stand-alone traits has not taken hold in the public domain. All you have to do is look at, a popular website, that claims the MBTI preferences are traits (attaching a percentage to the amount of a preference we have).

Perhaps the problem stems from the fact that psychology itself is a disciplined field of study of which most people are unfamiliar. Perhaps it is the deceivingly simplistic nature of the 4-letter MBTI type code that leads people to believe they understand the instrument and Type. The thousands of imitation “tests” on the internet don’t help.

The reasons for misunderstanding are many and complex, but what is certain is that among trainers and layman who talk about type as if Types were traits, there is no understanding of the dynamic nature of Jung’s theory of Psychological Types upon which the MBTI was constructed.

In the words of Jung himself:

             “We naturally tend to understand everything in terms of our own Type.” 

So, do we stop trying to get the point across to the world that Type should not be approached like trait psychology? Do we stop trying to defend an instrument that we know has helped people for more than 70 years?

It’s time to turn more of our attention to the theoretical constructs that Jung gave us than the MBTI instrument itself. How useful would it be to know which of Jung’s Eight Functions directs you? How would it help to understand the dominant focus or perspective of your colleagues, your direct reports and your boss? How useful might it be to for your team, your colleagues, your spouse to understand that we need simply to turn our attention to a different, perhaps opposite ways of thinking, or opposite mental processes, for us to all get along and work more effectively together? I know firsthand, when this happens, work, and indeed life, become a bit easier to navigate.


If you are interested in learning more about your Psychological Type and how understanding your typology can help to increase self-awareness, build team trust, strengthen leadership skills, mitigate conflict, decrease stress, and build trusting relationships, contact us to see how we might be able to help. We can help you understand Jung’s theory and apply the model to make a real difference through our easy to understand Jungian Function Card Suite of Products.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Thanks, Cindy! I love your emphasis on type as a system of interactive parts. Maybe one of the reasons people have trouble wrapping their heads around type vs. traits is because it is not clear why that’s important!

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