I’m an ENFP: We’re Confused by Personality Tests
January 6, 2016
“But I like being around people, a lot….”
I was sitting in my boyfriend’s parents’ guest room, contorting my face into a frown, on the phone with a woman who promised to tell me my personality type.
“But introverts speak a certain way,” she said, “and you speak that way.”
“What way?” I asked.
“Well, you think before you respond.”
“I was taught to do that in media training. I’m not sure it comes naturally to me.”
I had thought this session would go very differently. After spending $150 on an online Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator, I expected the “Myers Briggs expert” to walk me through my results and explain what each letter of my “ENFP” result meant. But instead, she had spent the last forty minutes trying to convince me that even though I had scored extremely highly in the extrovert category, I was actually an introvert.
“When you go into a conference, are you excited? Or after three days, are you exhausted?”
“Well, when I think of conferences, I think of being in windowless rooms for ten hours a day….”
“Still, does it sound tiring?”
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator uses a list of ninety-three questions to analyze the taker’s personality along four axes: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving. My results indicated that I was an extroverted, intuitive, feeling perceiver. But Clara (not her real name) didn’t believe it.
“I think you scored so high because it’s your defense mechanism.”
Clara explained that being a journalist indicated an introverted personality. If I were extroverted, she explained, I would never get my writing done. I would sit down at my computer, get up, restlessly pace, and not be able to finish, without the external stimuli of coworkers and teammates.
“Well, it is often like that,” I said. “The actual writing part of writing is the hardest part. But as a journalist, you talk to people a lot. And actually, a lot of my work is on the radio, where I interact with people all the time.”
“Hmm,” she pondered, skeptically. “Are you loyal?”
“I actually think I might be less loyal than other people.”
I didn’t know what loyalty had to do with anything, but I felt her cognitive dissonance clanging against my answers. She had decided that as a writer, I couldn’t possibly be an extrovert, and nothing was going to convince her otherwise.
“Let me describe an extrovert to you,” she continued. Her definition was the typical one: extroverts get their energy from being around others. They enjoy holding parties. They want to hear from their friends unexpectedly. They enjoy performing.
“Yes, I am all of those things,” I replied, becoming more annoyed that we had spent so much time on the first of four measures, and the one on which I had gotten the clearest result. On an extroversion scale of 0-30, I had scored a 25.
Clara exasperatedly accepted my answer “for now” and continued on to the other values. I was an intuitive rather than a sensor, she explained. Sensors take in data and facts from the world around them, analyzing as they go. Intuitives look for deeper meanings and associations. They care about theories and frameworks, more than the details that make up the big picture. Unlike the colloquial definition of “intuitive,” this didn’t mean I was prone to making gut decisions instead of looking at the evidence (which would make me a poor journalist indeed), but that I looked for the big picture and then worked backward, rather than stacking up facts to build a conclusion. This seemed accurate enough.
As a feeler, Clara said, I appreciate people deeply, listen to their feelings readily, have strong interpersonal values and sympathy for others. Thinkers, on the other hand, value logic, reason, and objectivity above these mushy ideals.
“I certainly think I do both of those,” I said, “I think it’s sort of the job of the thoughtful person to balance their feelings with their rationality, right?”
“Yes,” Clara said, “but everyone does one more than the other.”
I began to wonder how valuable this insight was. Sure, each person is going to come down a little stronger on one side or the other in any binary decision, but if a person’s results are close to the center line (as mine were), what was the value of overemphasizing her place on one side of it?
Finally, we got to my fourth dimension: judging and perceiving. I was a perceiver, Clara told me. Flexible, spontaneous, undaunted by surprise, and open to change. Rather than appreciating schedules and routines, I thrived in an atmosphere of change and dynamic action. I wasn’t a natural list-maker, calendar-user, or organizer, unless I had learned to be one. This much is certainly accurate. I have learned to make lists and keep calendars only because I will forget everything if I don’t, but nothing comes less naturally to me than keeping a routine. The P of my ENFP, I felt, was my strongest hit.
As Clara wrapped my results into one, she returned to the problem of my alleged extroversion.
“I just really don’t see you as an ENFP,” she said. “And this is why I can’t just use Myers Briggs. I really need to use the Enneagram too. May I?”
The enneagram is another personality testing system with a more New Age bent. It consists of nine personality types, rather than sixteen, and an intricate system in which the types “grow toward” or “devolve toward” other types. Clara diagnosed me as a Type 7: The Enthusiast. Since The Enthusiast was so outwardly-oriented, friendly, and optimistic, she said, I falsely thought I was an extrovert, but I am not.
“See, the 7 is oriented toward people and so is the extrovert,” she explained, “so it’s confusing you.”
Boy, was it.
No longer eager to stay on the phone for more analysis, I accepted her strange conclusion about my personality: that I am an enthusiastic introvert who loves to be around people but only sort of pretends to like them.
“Whatever,” I thought, “I’ll just read the materials about my type.”
For my $150 fee, I had been given not only this generous ninety-minute session with an expert, but also a book called Looking at Type: The Fundamentals. The book went into depth on each type, describing how each of the four orientations interacts to make sixteen distinct types.
I opened to ENFP and INFP and compared. Although I found some elements of the INFP familiar (“may feel a strong need to contribute something of importance to the world”), several descriptions didn’t fit me at all (“Their deep need and desire for harmony can sometimes show as a concern with keeping peace, and with maturity”). The ENFP felt like a much stronger hit, with statements like “ENFPs are typically intolerant of routine, and they need variety in their work,” and “ENFPs are typically quite independent and tend not to be great upholders of tradition. In fact, it is natural for them to push boundaries and redefine rules.”
I mentally compared the system to astrology, wherein people are grouped into twelve personality types based solely on the day (and sometimes the hour) they were born. Astrology only seems to work by virtue of the Forer Effect, also known as the Barnum Effect, whereby statements are worded just generally enough to apply to almost everyone, but just specifically enough to feel insightful. Statements such as, “You can throw yourself into a project with gusto, but sometimes you feel tired and withdrawn and can’t be motivated” or “You don’t always live up to your potential,” are typical Forer statements. They slyly go both ways, confirming and disconfirming at the same time. But Myers-Briggs, to its credit, picked a lane.
As I compared my results to others in the booklet, I found little in common with most other types. The INTJ, for example, is called “quietly innovative,” and may “neglect to attend to feeling and relationship issues, and forget to express appreciation or empathy when these are needed.” Such statements are as foreign to me as “You are made of cake.”
Still, where astrology’s weakness is in being so general as to be useless, Myers-Briggs’ weakness may be being so rigid as to pigeonhole. Various practitioners warn not to be too restrictive in one’s use of the system, but in practice this is exactly what happens. The tests are used to evaluate job applicants, adjudicate disputes, and better understand teammates. In some ways, these may be useful, but the more institutional the system becomes, the more potential it has to cause systemic hurt.
After I had reviewed my results, I texted my friend and podcast cohost, Ross Blocher. Ross had taken the same test and had his own phone consultation with another MBTI expert, and we were both going to report on our findings on our show. Ross had been pegged as an ESTP, though he was close to the middle on both middle aspects, the S and T.
I opened my book to ESTP and began reading. Ross and I have known each other for almost six years, and worked closely together for five of those six. Of all the people in my life, Ross is one of the friends I know best, and I believe I understand both his strengths and weaknesses (weakness #1: Does not like avocado).
As I paged through the description for ESTP, I wrinkled my nose and scratched up the margin. “No!” “ROSS?!” “Not at all,” I was scribbling. After being impressed with my own results, my marginal faith in the system was coming crashing down within a few paragraphs of Ross’s. Nothing fit! This was the nail in the coffin for the Myers-Briggs, and I picked up the phone to tell Ross as much, when I glance at the top.
I had been reading the wrong description. This one was for ENTJ, not ESTP.
I flipped to ESTP. It sounded perfectly like Ross. There were a few exceptions, but for the most part, it described him in ways that were insightful and helped me rethink arguments we had had and ways we are different. As far as confirmation bias goes, it had been working against Myers-Briggs, and Myers-Briggs had won. I was impressed.
But is impressive enough to make it useful? After all, everything in the Myers-Briggs is self-reported. The results are not an objective look at a person’s behavior, but a rehashing of how the test-taker sees herself. All I can really say of Ross’s results is that I agree with Ross’s assessment of himself. And, no surprise here: I agree with my own assessment of myself, restated to me in new words.
The Myers-Briggs has always suffered from these limitations. Developed by a mother-daughter team (neither of whom had a psychology degree) nearly a century ago, the inventory was based on the insights of Carl Jung, who believed everyone thinks and behaves along three axes: extroversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, and thinking/feeling. Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers added the judging/perceiving axis and used their new inventory to better understand the people in their lives.
As for scientific validation, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is not a scientific test. The ninety-three–question “inventory” (administrators prefer not to call it a test) ranges from the straightforward (“When you go somewhere for the day, would you rather plan what you will do and when, or just go?”) to the bizarrely vague (“Which word appeals to you more: create or make?”). As a result, the test’s repeatability leaves much to be desired. As psychology reporter Annie Murphy Paul writes in the singular book, The Cult of Personality,
“One investigation (conducted by Indicator proponents, no less) found that the percentage of people who achieved the same four-part type across two administrations was only 47 percent. In other words, more than half of those who took the Myers-Briggs were given a different type when they took the same questionnaire a short time later.”
Few scientific tests have such low repeatability, and a pregnancy test that was only right half the time would be considered worse than useless (though, to be fair, a pregnancy test has only two potential results). Murphy goes on,
“One of the most thorough appraisals of the Myers-Briggs… notes that a variety of studies have found that 24 to 61 percent of test takers receive the same Myers-Briggs type when reexamined at intervals ranging from five weeks to six years. That means, of course, that 39 to 76 percent are assigned a different type.”1
I am one of the lucky 24 to 61 percent; my type has stayed the same since I first took the Myers-Briggs in twelfth grade, now fourteen years ago. I have taken the test a few times (usually for free, and without the guidance of an “expert”) since then, especially as 1990s questionnaire madness was at its peak, and recall only once getting a different result, off by one letter (I was in a very thinking, rather than feeling, mood that day). For those who do get different results years later, so be it. Many of us wouldn’t want to know our teenage selves, for example. But for those who got a different result at five weeks, they would be reasonable to question the efficacy and utility of the test. And the many MBTI proponents who argue that your personality type, like IQ, never changes have a problem.
As this ENFP closed her personality materials, it was easy to see that the Myers-Briggs was handier than I anticipated, but it was useful in the way a profound book or thoughtful poem might give me insight into a person or situation. The most serviceable thing the MBTI gave me was a new way to understand the people I love—the ones who have different ways of viewing the world than I do. In simple terms, it’s an art not a science. But unfortunately, it is often presented as a science, and job applicants, employees, and cast-off lovers are worse off for it.
So go ahead: Take the MBTI. But don’t hire, fire, or love anyone on the basis of their results.
And for God’s sake, if someone tells you they’re an extrovert, believe them.
1 Paul, Annie Murphy. 2004. The Cult of Personality. New York: Simon & Schuster.