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On a trip to the city library, a book on a “new arrivals” shelf with the title The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing got my attention. As the description inside the cover suggested, the four-letter codes said to define “personality types” are familiar to me, even if I’ve never taken a test promised to spell that code out. Signing the book out seemed the simplest way to learn a bit more about the subject at that moment, so I did that and started reading.

Merve Emre’s introduction alluded to the corporations that now control and make money off Myers-Briggs going to lengths to control information about the test’s creators as well. Along with that, though, there was an explanation of the four letter pairs that make up the sixteen type codes. I could suppose where I sat on the “Extraversion-Introversion” scale, but when it came to the brief descriptions of “Sensing-iNtuition,” “Thinking-Feeling,” and “Judging-Perceiving” I couldn’t quite decide what I defaulted to. With that, I started wondering about “artificial boundaries drawn over a fuzzy world,” something I grew inclined to pick up on the questions of others when it comes to scientific subjects less complicated than people. Emre did admit she’d seen anecdote enough to fall between hagiographer and skeptic, and then it was on to the history.

“Myers” and “Briggs” were in fact daughter and mother Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Briggs; Katharine had begun adapting and promoting the ideas of Carl Jung, and Isabel had added more categories and produced the first questionnaire. (It had been the “Briggs-Myers Type Indicator” to start with, until abbreviating that too far had risked sounding risible.) Two women at once stuck in their time and seeking to accomplish “something more” yet “something with” their roles as wives and mothers did make for an interesting narrative. (Katharine’s husband Lyman had been placed in charge of some the earliest efforts of the United States to produce an atomic bomb, although I did remember how Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb had dismissed him in a picture caption as “ineffetual.”) However, I did notice how in Jung’s original ideas “introvert” and “extravert” meant something different than they do now; his example was that an extravert, “governed by pure objective conditions,” would “don his overcoat” on a cold day, while an introvert “wants to get hardened” and would avoid that. Remembering winter days in high school, I can now wonder if I was the sole “extravert” in sight then.

I suppose I finished the book able to keep not knowing what my Myers-Briggs type was, whether “officially” or “unofficially” determined, even if “knowing yourself” ought to be more profound than just drawing conclusions based on what entertainment you take in and, as Emre said, people have found significance in the types. “Entertainment,” though, can get me thinking that so far as humorous takes on classifying characters go, there are “Dungeons and Dragons alignment” groups online, three-by-three grids along the “good to evil” and “chaotic to lawful” axes with “neutral” in the middle. There’s also the old saw “there are two types of people: those who divide everything into two categories, and those who don’t.”

April 2019

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