Monday, January 5, 2015

#WellActually issue 02 - Myers-Briggs edition

This issue of #WellActually doesn't focus on an Internet article, it focuses on the subject of the article. I have to switch it up on you now and then to keep you on your toes.

You should probably read this before we begin. It's an article about how the Myers-Briggs test is total and utter bullshit. It is so because it is based off of what I can only assume were the results of a long, relaxing day of Carl Jung smoking the finest marijuana he could find. Carl, who frequently hooked up with Freud in the early, heady, drug-fueled days of psychology, was influential in laying the groundwork for psychology. He and Freud had many, many great and interesting ideas that no one takes seriously anymore. The Id, the Ego, the Super-ego, the universal subconscious, the archetype; these are all crazy ideas that sound cool, but are completely unscientific. I believe in them because 1. it's fun and 2. if you really dig deep into their theories, you know, really roll around in them, you can see the possible truths that lie within. This is fine, this is America and we are all allowed to believe in anything we want. That's what Abraham Lincoln fought that Bear on the top of Mt. Rushmore for (note: I have an incomplete understanding of American History.) Freud and Jung's teachings are to me what Astrology is to others; they make sense in respect to how I view reality, both consensual and personal. Does this make it true? Of course not. Does this greatly influence what I'd tell someone who is going through psychological turmoil? Of course not. But as a psych nerd it's still fun to think about.

Which brings me to the reason I've gathered you all here; the Myers-BriggsTest. It's incredibly popular, and you see people everywhere using its results to define themselves. People often ask if I've taken it or what letters I am, and I have nothing to tell them. I also judge the hell out of them, but that's to be expected. I thought I'd never taken the test because I'm lazy and it's a long damn test but in reading the article above I realized that I've had nagging doubts about the test from when I first heard about it that I never put into words. I went to school for Psychology (twice) and as hard as I apparently tried not to, I did learn some things. As an undergrad at Rutgers I had several professors repeatedly beat me about the head with lectures on what is and is not science. I had to take several classes about quantitative methods, statistics and other utterly horrifying numerical crap. The upside to all of this is I now have a very highly tuned and sensitive bullshit detector. The MB Test sets it off on all levels.
Also, I'm a Sagittarius

The first thing that bothered me was the unnerving lack of statistical data backing up the tests results. Nothing about validity or reliability, no research method, none of that. I thought the thing was a BuzzFeed internet quiz along the same lines as “Which Horsemen of the Apocalypse is Your Mother-in-Law (mine is Plague.) I didn't know it was a thing that people were basing important life decisions on. I was shocked (Shocked!) to learn that corporations are using this test to weed out prospective employees. It's neither reliable in that it does not give the same results with repeated testings, nor is it valid. The number one problem with any self-report test is that we as humans are unwilling and unable to report negatively about ourselves. It's called the Social Desirability Bias and it colors all self reports to some degree. At times people will give more accurate answers under the protection of anonymity, but even then there is no guarantee of transparency. Humans operate under a number of cognitive biases that color how we see ourselves and the world around us. In psychology it is recognized that, whether by design or self-delusion, we are horrible at giving accurate representations of ourselves and equally terrible at accepting representations of ourselves that don't match what we want to believe. That creates Cognitive Dissonance, and we hate dissonance. So right there the MB Test is fucked up, and everything that springs from it thereafter is similarly fucked up.

Why do people believe in this test so much with absolutely no evidence to back it up? Because the people who take this test WANT it to be true. As the article points out, there are no negative outcomes to this test. Look at the comments on the MB Test link I put above; everyone is happy with their results. As a bonus the site shows them which famous people share their type. Everyone likes to be told they have something in common with a famous person they have nothing in common with. Who wants to take a statistically sound personality test that may tell you that you're an antisocial narcissist with sadomasochistic tendencies and a vicious Hentai addiction (this doesn't exist yet, so calm your fears Hentai lovers.) We are far more likely to take a test that tells us that we are what we want to be, which is exactly what the MB Test is; it excels at telling us what we want to hear. Like pop psychologists, talk show doctors, fortune tellers and astrologists, there is plenty of wiggle room in the conclusions these tests make to make us feel better about the decisions we make and the personality traits we display. Not only does having a test tell you that you're an introvert (for example) excuse you from trying harder to interact in social situations, but it also gives you a sense of belonging. Belonging is a basic human need, right after Physiological Needs and Safety (See Maslow's Hierarchy of needs for more details.) If you want to become rich and famous, find a new way to tell people that they belong to a misunderstood group, and that all of their problems are related to being a part of this misunderstood group. Bonus points if you can also make people feel like they are victimized and oppressed by belonging to this group. If you can find a way to make straight White males not seem like the most privileged group in America, you can retire and sleep on a bed made of solid gold helicopters, which is the embodiment of the American Dream.
I'm an Introvert

If you know me you know that I hold Life Coaches and the like in pretty low esteem. As a person who is drowning in student debt in order to give people professional advice, I don't have time for people who one day decide that they're fucking great at fixing people. That would be like me deciding that I'm great at spinal surgery and taking a knife to someone's spinal cord. The results would be just as damaging. That being said, I really can't be mad at people who figured out how to charge exorbitant amounts of money to tell a bunch of high strung executives how to “relax” and be more productive. 

Life Coaches are an extension of the “Everybody Wins” mindset that has taken over child rearing practices. I'm not a “spare the rod spoil the child” type, but I do believe that people need to experience e real disappointment and defeat in order to become stronger individuals. Always being told you're good enough, you're smart enough, and people like you creates a society where everyone feels entitled to more than they've worked for. This is why all of us think our opinions are valid when in reality 90% of people who believe strongly in something need to keep their opinions to their self. They're human Rorschach tests, becoming what the viewer wants to see but not actually providing real direction or intent. It's therapy for those who really don't have problems; what we call First World problems. You never see people in the hood employing life coaches, and not just because of the exorbitant prices they charge for their services. A life coach has no answers for institutionalized racism and inter-generational poverty. No, these people excel at selling people what they want to hear. The Myers-Briggs Test is a personality assessment form of the Life Coach. Pretty, but ultimately meaningless.
As well.

People are putting faith in a test that it's creator said was basically spitballing some new ideas. Briggs and Myers were basically life coaches who hooked up with an HR Manager to make a predictive test with none of the tools one would need to create a predictive test. The results change according to what mood you're in. Pseudoscience is the greatest way to describe this test; sounds good enough to be science so people run with it. Also you can take it on your lunch break at work. 

Pseudoscience works well because it has great promotion by people who have an air of authority. Real science is promoted by people who are so bad at interacting with the general populace that they became scientists. It's fine to take this test and tell everyone the results as if they're the truth; people do it with astrology all the time, and it's more or less harmless. It may be a good way of explaining yourself to others, which is also fine. When people use this test to make employment or relationship decisions, that's when the crazy hits the fan. There are plenty of more reliable ways to create order out of the chaos of human behavior. 


Yael said...

My biggest issues with the MBTI are a) the descriptions it gives are so vague and abstract that they are essentially meaningless, and b) it divides people into binaries, which isn't realistic.

I have a good friend who is training to be a life coach. It's not really my place to say anything, but if it makes her happy and rich parents are willing to pay her to mentor their kids, then why not?

Jesse said...

Well said, John!

This is my problem with 95% of the shit that floats around the internet. It's just a bunch of hollow words designed to make people feel special and get free compliments from official-sounding hugboxes. Honestly, I wish people spent their free time building interesting personalities by doing things or thinking about things instead of waiting to be told who they are by really transparent algorithms.