WHEN YOU ATTEMPT to follow that timeless advice, “Know thyself,” what words spring to mind? And where do they come from? Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing tells us where some of the most beguilingly straightforward words come from, and much more besides, through the stories of Katharine Cook Briggs, Isabel Briggs Myers, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and other personalities and tests in their orbit. Emre delves into the backstory of personality as an idea, but also considers the meanings of success and failure, 20th-century professional womanhood, and what it would take to be a really good spy. When we find out that the world’s best-selling personality test was not even developed by professional psychologists, it’s natural enough to want to debunk it, to deflate this awful thing that aspires to produce personality as a four-letter brand. What’s refreshing and probably most interesting about The Personality Brokers (published as What’s Your Type? in the United Kingdom) is what we get by largely suspending judgment about the test’s origins and aims, by asking how and why it’s taken hold in American culture in the way that it has.

This history starts with Katharine Cook Briggs, Isabel Briggs Myers’s mother. After graduating at the top of her class at Michigan Agricultural College, above her husband, a physicist, she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue academic research before becoming a homemaker. Briggs found an intellectual outlet early on writing about scientific parenting for magazines — in columns like “The Obedience-Curiosity Child” — and she practiced those techniques on her daughter. Briggs then had something of a religious conversion to the theories of Carl Jung. She corresponded with the famous doctor in Zurich about a family friend’s “case,” and she made a pilgrimage from Washington, DC, to meet with him when he came to Harvard on a speaking tour. Around this time, Briggs wrote literary tributes to the doctor, including a novella about a man who is analyzed by a fictionalized Jung, with strong queer overtones in their relationship. The publisher that sent a rejection letter cited the “undignified” homosexual implications and the dullness of the “digressions into Jungian psychology.” Fiction, apparently, wasn’t the best form for evangelizing this particular idea, so informally but persistently Briggs worked on a questionnaire based on the categories set out in Jung’s Psychological Types (1921): extraverted (E) as opposed to introverted (I); intuitive (I, now N, or inward-focused) and sensing (S, outward-focused); thinking (T) and feeling (F).

Briggs’s daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, had successfully published two novels early in life, inspired in her writing by that great novel of personality, The Great Gatsby (1925). Like her mother, she would turn her own home into a “domestic typology laboratory,” especially after beginning to work for a personality testing consultancy in Philadelphia. Myers added “perception” (P, something like spontaneous) and “judgment” (J, disciplined or controlling), to the end of her mother’s schema, and introduced it to her boss, Edward N. Hay. The initial advantage of this “Briggs-Myers Test” over many of the other tests out there in the early 1940s (such as the IQ test, the Humm-Wadsworth temperament scale, or the F-scale that Theodor Adorno et al administered in search of an “authoritarian personality”) was that it was impossible to fail. It was more straightforward than the Rorschach test and the several like it, and it set out to reveal the major ways people are simply different, in a world that takes all proverbial kinds. It promised to tell employers about the personalities and likely skills of their employees, for making (or justifying) personnel decisions. As a managerial product, it seems not to have made much of a splash, but through a network of personality consultants and psychologists it persisted through the middle of the century.

The Personality Brokers’s account of the MBTI takes many turns, and in a sense the book is the story of the MBTI’s search for a home. We visit the US Office of Strategic Services, the World War II precursor to the CIA, and the scientists who introduce the MBTI as a minor part of a wartime effort to analyze the personalities of prospective spies, ordinary fascists, and, of course, Hitler. In a chapter that follows the psychologist Donald MacKinnon from the OSS to Berkeley, we see Kenneth Burke and Truman Capote shoved together with others into a repurposed Cal frat house for a weekend-long battery of personality tests on the creative mind. (Capote somehow emerged from this session with the germ of Holly Golightly.) The book is framed by Emre’s colorful gonzo-journalistic account of her week-long MBTI training, which had been a condition of her seeing archives (Myers’s papers) that she was then apparently not allowed to see. The mix of settings and characters suits the ideas well here, as the MBTI’s trajectory through the 20th century and through individuals’ lives both enriches the ideas and raises more questions besides. In some of my favorite moments, Emre draws attention to Briggs and Myers as early and mid-20th-century intellectual women: key career breaks for both arrived via important men invited home to dinner; Myers depended on a series of men as guarantors of the test’s quality; and she dealt with the acute frustrations of professional failure in unforgiving workplaces with the ever-looming threat of a career stopping short.

By the early 1960s, when Myers was working as a consultant for the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the publisher of the SAT and other tests, she was in her 60s, virtually the only woman among a bunch of young, male social scientists. Emre reintroduces her roaming “the hallways of ETS, her breath fouled by a homemade energy drink she called ‘tiger’s milk’: brewer’s yeast blended with milk and sweetened by melted Hershey’s bars.” She had the habit of skipping when excited, and, when working from her home-fallout-shelter-turned-office, she would polish her collection of 12 elephant figurines daily (“the rest of the house was a mess”). The quirky vividness of Myers’s character, as Emre presents it, heightens the drama when the ETS pairs her with a 27-year-old statistician who surreptitiously pens a memo set out to discredit her test. Myers would go on to keep a “secret file on his activities titled ‘Larry Stricker, Damn Him.’”

This damned Stricker’s debunking was pretty thorough. His report tells us that while extraversion and introversion are reasonable categories, the scale is “overweighted toward talkativeness.” Likewise, “S-N was merely conservatism versus liberalism,” better tested otherwise. Even relative to Jung’s theories, Stricker argued, the indicator took a “complex philosophical explanation for human subjectivity” and “flattened it into unrecognizable caricatures.” Henry Chauncey, Myers’s champion at the ETS, didn’t take Stricker’s report as a reason to dump the test, and his response showed him to be the better manager, salesman, and pragmatist: despite these problems, “the four-dimension system is relatively simple and easily understood. It can be described in words that have meaning to the layman and it isn’t so complex or unusual that he throws his hands up feeling that he just cannot comprehend the whole matter.” The test works because it appears to, and it condenses respondents’ answers to practical questions into a grid that’s just larger than a zodiac. But despite the potential Chauncey saw in it, it never took off in ETS’s portfolio, especially by comparison with their other tests, and they eventually severed their relationship with the MBTI.

And so two-thirds of the book, through the early 1970s, show us the career of an idea that had been firmly ahead of its time. Myers forged ahead after working at the ETS, teaming up with a young psychologist, Mary Hawley McCaulley, to make a reputation for themselves in marriage counseling in Florida with their Typology Lab. In 1975, they found the current publisher for the MBTI, Consulting Psychologists Press (CPP). In a newly revised and more accessible form, the MBTI met the fertile ground of what Tom Wolfe called the “Third Great Awakening,” Americans’ secular search for the self that passed by psychoanalysis and philosophy and ran through EST, Scientology, and eventually a multi-billion-dollar industry in self-actualization and self-help. The MBTI has since become the most popular personality test in the world.

The official line from CPP is that type is “an innate characteristic, something fixed since birth and immutable,” even though, as Emre points out, recent studies “showed that people who take the test more than once” get different results “more than 50 percent of the time.” (I did: INTP, ENTP.) They know, I suspect, that this immutability is part of the magic: the idea that it explains something about you that’s independent of the city you live in or the relationship or workplace you want to get out of. It claims that there’s a nature we can isolate from nurture; disappointingly, it’s a nature in which politics and inequality don’t seem to exist, save for the dubious factoid that “Four of the 16 Myers-Briggs types account for 80% of managers.” But look on the bright side: there’s a “you” in there waiting to be expressed, which is also a “you” that fits in. The MBTI’s chief virtue, as Emre describes it in one of many understanding moments, is its ability “to spark a sudden and ecstatic perception of self-knowledge in its subjects.”

That spark has made the MBTI irreversibly a part of the feedback loops, individual and collective, that make up contemporary American culture. It’s used in college and career guidance sessions, couples counseling, college roommate assignments, and on Tinder profiles (though it’s clearly a certain type of person that includes these four letters). It’s the model, direct or indirect, for dozens of profitable knockoffs, myriad “Which Game of Thrones Character Are You?” Facebook quizzes, and even nefarious quizzes, like Cambridge Analytica’s, designed to fish for passwords or other valuable personal data. If the self has evolved, through history, alongside the vocabularies and technologies available for self-reflection, then the MBTI cannot but be taken seriously as part of contemporary history. It popularized the introversion and extraversion that we claim changes how being around other people affects our energy level. Its popularity has doubtless helped many articulate their difficulties in relationships. This long list of questions and its simple condensation of the self-reported answers might help someone recognize anew an aspect of life that gives them some modicum of joy.

Glimmers of real, and new, self-understanding are so exceedingly difficult to come by that it’s hard to fault someone for fashioning an instrument, however blunt or refined, for revealing them. For all its measured skepticism, The Personality Brokers also makes space for the many who have become evangelists of type, the people the MBTI has met where they were and offered something of real value. Emre announces upfront that she swings between skepticism and belief, and the book’s intellectual and biographical plot twists made me catch myself more than once, to ask just why my own feelings about these figures and ideas kept changing. After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Personality Brokers, though, I’ve come to the following conclusion. In reading a good book, I’ll often find a personality trait I recognize, an illuminating situation, or an idea about the world that helps me understand myself or someone else in a new way. In each of dozens of books I’ve read, I learned more about myself than I did when I took the MBTI. The Personality Brokers was one of those books.

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Scott Selisker is associate professor of English at the University of Arizona and the author of Human Programming: Brainwashing, Automatons, and American Freedom(University of Minnesota Press, 2016).