An Alternative to the Myers-Briggs Test

A few days ago, I met my team of seven University of California, Los Angeles, University Southern California, and fellow Pomona College students with whom I’ll be working in a Ghanaian school this summer. Eager to befriend each other, we sat in a circle and chatted about ourselves: our schools, majors, ethnic backgrounds, pet peeves, and of course, our Myers-Briggs personality types. This last fun fact in particular garnered enthusiastic responses: “You’re an INFJ? I am too!” (To which another piped up, “So we’re Hitler and Jesus.” What?)

Luckily, most people I talk to are aware that Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has no scientific basis whatsoever. Social psychologists have overwhelmingly found that it is a highly unreliable and invalid metric. An introductory psychology course here at the Claremont Colleges reveals that the preferred personality metric in social psychology is the Big Five, which includes the factors openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Yet career development offices and the general student body are obsessed with using MBTI to self-categorize and diagnose others.

I’ve found out from my peers (and personal experience) that the reason why students gravitate toward Myers-Briggs despite its inaccuracy and the availability of research-based alternatives is the utility and excitement in categorizing oneself and instantly communicating information to others about our worldviews, strengths and weaknesses, and even interpersonal attitudes. Thus, I believe that the allure of the infamously inaccurate MBTI in popular culture is the horoscope-like claim to predict someone’s worldview and relational styles.

What most people do not know is that the Big Five can fulfill this predictive role as well. The Big Five has shown significant correlations in psychological research with basic personal values and relationship outcomes in terms of attachment theory.

For example, psychologists Roccas, Sagiv, Schwartz, and Knafo found that the metric of agreeableness corresponds to benevolence and traditional values, while openness to new experiences reflect universalism and self-direction. A high score in conscientiousness could signal achievement and conformity, while extroversion with stimulation and achievement values.

The Big Five also has been shown to have significant correlations with attachment theory as well, which is a popular model used in clinical and developmental psychology settings used to describe the long-term and short-term interpersonal relationship dynamics.

To give you some background information, attachment theory basically poses that there are three primary attachment classifications: secure, anxious, and avoidant attachment. Securely attachment is the healthiest, borne from a developmental parent-child relationship in which the parent was emotionally available and provided a safe haven for a child to return to in times of distress, after some time in which the child could return to exploration. Parents of those with anxious attachment were unreliably available, leading to an attachment that is characterized by overanalyzing or turbulence of emotions. Those with avoidant attachment had a primary caregiver who was unable to engage emotionally and thus tend to want emotional distance interpersonally.

Psychologists Shaver and Brennan demonstrate that the neuroticism factor of the big five has significant correlations with attachment styles. For example, non-neurotic extraversion is associated with secure attachment, while high scores of neuroticism are correlated with insecure attachment including avoidant and anxious attachment styles. In terms of distinguishing the two, avoidant attachment was related to high agreeableness scores as well.

As a psych major, it’s exciting that there is an actual research-based personality metric that has shown significant correlations with how certain people approach relationships or hold personal values. All I’m saying is that while it might seem fun and harmless to talk about ourselves with the MBTI, we may be making holistic judgments of people and ourselves that are completely inaccurate when we do. So if we want to generalize about people based on personality analysis, why not use something that’s research-based?

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