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Malcolm Gladwell and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Part One

A friend and colleague recently forwarded to me a September 2004 article Malcolm Gladwell did for The New Yorker on the MBTI and other personality tests that employers may use (Personality Plus: Employers Love Personality Tests. But What Do They Really Reveal?). I respect and use the MBTI as a tool in my law and mediation practices. Indeed, I am a “qualified administrator” of the instrument, which is a “controlled instrument” whose access and use is regulated as further defined by its publisher:

Certain assessments published by CPP are available only to users who have appropriate training and credentials, and who adhere to the principals of proper use, including knowledge of assessments and their applications.
The classifications are based on The Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing (published by APA, AERA, and NCME and available here). The Standards is written for the professional and for the educated layperson and addresses professional and technical issues of instrument development and use in education, psychology, and employment.

I believe understanding and using concepts and tools relating to the MBTI benefits attorneys, mediators and other conflict specialists. I posted here about a workshop I gave last year for the New Mexico Mediation Association on using the principles in communication. Other uses include helping clients get through misunderstandings based on type differences, identifying blind spots in the problem-solving process based on type, using type concepts to bridge cultural and gender differences by focusing on type similarities, and understanding one’s own type to better identify the kind of practice one wants.

Use of this psychological type analysis is better studied in the legal field than in the mediation practice context. The most notable law-related works are University of Florida Law Professor Don Peters’ article, Forever Jung: Psychological Type Theory, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and Learning Negotiation, 42 DRAKE LAW REVIEW 1 (1993); and Florida Coastal School of Law Professor Susan Swaim Daicoff’s book, Lawyer, Know Theyself: A Psychological Analysis of Personality Strengths and Weaknesses, American Psychological Association (2004). Direct works are slowly showing up in the mediation practice context, such as with Sondra S. VanSant’s Wired For Conflict: The Role of Personality in Resolving Differences, Center for Application of Psychological Type, Inc. (2003).

Gladwell, whose work I generally very much enjoy, makes good points, and I agree with much that he says. I’ll discuss his points as I continue this series exploring MBTI applications. At the same time as I appreciate his points I would reframe this discussion somewhat differently. Hence, this series. My thoughts, which I will expand on over the upcoming weeks, include:

  1. No one field can explain human behavior to the exclusion of other considerations. I started out focused on sociological explanations (my BA and MA studies). Later, I got interested in psychology. Later, I got interested in the neurosciences. It’s no one of them. It’s all of them (and more, most likely).
  2. Each field that has a role, it’s explanations are also affected by the other fields — it’s not additive, it’s complex, and synergistic.
  3. Most people don’t want to deal with complexity, or don’t have the education or time to deal with complexity, and end up (over)simplifying, especially for explanations of how and why humans act as they do.
  4. Every tool (whether sociological, psychological, or a theory about neuroscience) can be used by people who are not the most skilled or wise about its use, and can be misused.
  5. Any explanation, or explainer, that/who doesn’t recognize the above, is suspect.

My thoughts also include, about MBTI:

  1. Gladwell doesn’t discuss scientific principles of validity and reliability, as applied to the various instruments. I know the MBTI purports to be statistically valid and reliable, and I know it is characterized as a “controlled instrument” by the American Psychology Association, I think it is. You have to be “qualified” (includes some training in statistics) in order to administer the instrument.
  2. I believe many who administer and/or give the workshops on the instrument have not done the more in depth study and followed the evolving theory about MBTI. Maybe they got qualified 10 years ago and just got into ruts. I had the inclination to study it in some of its more complex forms, because they made the most sense to me. At the same time, most people don’t want the complexity, don’t hear or remember the complexity, and can (rightly for them) conclude the instrument is not valuable, or is of limited value. It’s a tool — you have to practice it and then get not only good, but wise, in using it.
  3. I also believe many who administer and/or give the workshops are wrong and/or are not understood by the participants on some practical points about the MBTI. Many friends have told me they’ve been given it by their employers, and they were not told some of the points I emphasize. I would disagree with some of Gladwell’s characterizations about what the MBTI is supposed to mean. (I also would put some different light on the mother-daughter development of the instrument. It is, to me, a much more interesting story than he reports, with broader implications — it could also be told in a way that makes his telling of it sexist and overly-dismissive of at home, independent researchers, especially women in the first half of the twentieth century.)

And, final thoughts include:

  1. So, explaining or predicting human behavior is complex, a protean mix (hard wired, affected by the physical environment, affected by the social environment of cultures/societies, affected by family, affected by peers, affected by dysfunctionalities in any of them, affected by healthy versions in any of them.
  2. I use the MBTI as a starting point, and when important I look at it/the person/the situation more closely, even very closely. It’s part of the working hypotheses I view the world with, at least some of the time. I don’t say it’s the only or even the best explanatory/predictive tool. It is one of the best for me, as a starting point — but then you have the person in the particular situation, for the particular purpose, etc. I think different people will prefer different tools.
  3. Individuals vary in individual psychological health, experiential wisdom, courage and leadership. No one type is better than the other, there are healthy and unhealthy individuals among all types, wise and not wise among all types, courageous and not, etc.

I intend to post to this series weekly. I will appreciate your thoughts so please write me in the comments or privately!


Gini Nelson

Gini Nelson is a sole practitioner in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her practice emphasizes private dispute resolution, including distance dispute resolution, and domestic, bankruptcy and bankruptcy avoidance law. MORE >

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