The Personality Brokers. Merve Emre.

Emre, Merve. The Personality Brokers. Random House Toronto, 2018. NF; 8/22.

This with its subtitle of The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing is a well-researched story of the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory (MBPI), now recognized the world over and in use for both quite serious and completely trivial purposes. Emre is an associate professor of English at Oxford who must if online photographs are any indication improve the scenery in the dark hallowed halls of the place enormously.

Another of her books called Paraliterary with the subtitle The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America looked in my Kindle sample so contrived and disorganized I dropped it and moved on to this present one. I’d read a fascinating and I thought strongly affecting New Yorker critique by Emre of an author called Gerald Munane which focused on reading and writing being a more important reality than the so-called objective world.  Associate Professor Emre looks to me multifaceted in more ways than one.

If you haven’t checked out the MBPI it’s hard for me to say whether you should or shouldn’t. Emre says personality – its focus – boils down to an old and terrible question: Who am I? And modern MBPI answers that question in a tidy 4 x 4 box containing sixteen personalities based on four dichotomies: Introvert vs Extrovert, Sensing vs iNtuition, Thinking vs Feeling, and Judging vs Perceiving. Each of the sixteen personalities is given a name (“Mediator” or “Adventurer” for example) beyond its four-capital-letter designation and its strengths and weaknesses are described in some detail. It’s the thesis of the whole thing that these categories apply to people and are inborn, facts of nature and presumably DNA, and can’t be changed. Criticism over the years on the other hand suggests the sixteen personalities are trivial and elastic, no better than a horoscope, introvert versus extrovert measuring nothing more profound than talkativeness, for example.

There is a list of questions which you answer (you can do this online for free in about eight minutes) and your answers slot you into one of the 16 categories designated with the abbreviations, INFP say. Typical true-false questions: “Seeing other people cry can easily make you feel like you want to cry too”, and “You always stay calm even under very disturbing circumstances”.

Well I did this and I turned out to be ENTJ, an odious pushy little dictator type it seemed to me (but I didn’t mind reading that author Emre confessed to being one of those too.). So I answered the questions again and was ENFJ, quite a bit nicer. It seems the MBPI may be measuring to some extent what you think you are or wish you were and maybe what kind of mood or circumstance you are in. I eventually found the whole thing a bit ridiculous and couldn’t help imagining a sort of inventory not of personalities but of personality disorders: Obsessive Compulsive vs Narcissistic, Antisocial vs Dependent. Typical true-false questions: “When somebody ignores you you have trouble deciding between cutting their throat and shooting their dog.” and “You are always terrified by other people especially if they are friendly and loving toward you.”

Somehow my favourite Steed cartoon came to mind.

Enough. There is here, whichever way you end up seeing the MBPI, a fascinating and detailed description of Kathrine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers developing their instrument based on the personality types identified by famous founding psychologist Carl Jung. Through the mid-20th century sometimes against incredible odds these two women, especially Myers, accumulated credibility I think by being the right thing at the right moment. Subjectively-oriented psychiatric and psychological tests like the Rorsach inkblot and Thematic Apperception Test – which uses a set of ambiguous sinister-looking pictures – were prominent especially during the 1950s, and the heyday of American economic and cultural growth welcomed measurements of productivity that weren’t so much higher or lower scores nor consisting of right and wrong answers but good at pigeonholing people into different types of work activities, and helpful to elite universities choosing potentially successful candidates.

Dr. Emre is properly impressed with the first-wave feminism of this mother-and-daughter team making their mark in a man’s world and field of endeavour. But I think our author ends up critical of a sort of simplistic easy-way-out solution to the big question of Who we Are, as opposed to trailblazing our own path. In the end she refers to MBPI enthusiasts as “true believers” pursuing “more than the possibility of discovering and cultivating one’s true self, more than the possibility of becoming “a more perfect type,” to echo the words of Carl Jung. (It promises) a more perfect world to come—a world made by and for true believers just like them.”

One of the limitations of this kind of category-oriented approach to how we see ourselves is that these dichotomies seem to me to exist in the minds of most of us as opposite sides of a coin both of which are inescapably part of our self-valuation, or the human condition. Orientation toward the outside world (extrovert) or toward your inner self (introvert) for example. You may be more one than the other but it’s hard or impossible to avoid the opposite. And self-discovery seems often hard work and a bit scary because we’re not (I don’t think I am anyway) just like anyone else. We can communicate with and understand one another. Shared insights and characteristics with friends and feeling the warmth of similarity in a family feed our energy for exploring and improving our inner lives.

But in the end I seem to find that as the song goes you’ve got to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.

This is an informative if not fully thrilling read. 8.9/8.0

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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