Friday, December 19, 2014

What Does Your Myers-Briggs Score Say About You?

On today's episode of Let's Ruin Something You Thought Was Fun and Interesting, we examine the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI. Doubtless you've seen these four-letter acronyms flying around, and perhaps you've even taken a version of the test to find out all about yourself. Is it really, useful, though? For anything? Well, yes and no. Mostly no.

The MBTI was developed by a mother-daughter team, Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, over several decades in the early twentieth century. It was originally the brainchild of Katherine Briggs, who was inspired to build on and refine the "psychological types" theory of famous psychologist Carl Jung. The pair's tireless efforts culminated in the introduction of a formal version of the MBTI test in 1962.

The method behind the four-letter type indicators is largely an extension of Jung's theory of introversion vs. extroversion and how that distinction manifests itself in personality preferences. It splits an individual's personality into four dichotomies: Introvert-Extrovert, Sensing-Intuition, Thinking-Feeling, and Judging-Perceiving. The theory supposes that everyone displays a dominant preference in each dichotomy, indicated by one's corresponding four-letter score: ENTJ, ISFP, ESTP, et cetera.

The MBTI has enjoyed uninterrupted success and popularity for decades, mostly because it's a fun test to take, and people love being able to label themselves as something. (Buzzfeed is subsisting almost entirely on this idea.) We humans insist on forcing discontinuity onto our categorically continuous reality, so the idea that every individual can be classified as one of 16 personality types is fantastically appealing. Modern versions of the test even have a heroic-sounding label for each type, like "The Showman" (ESFP) and "The Confidant" (INFJ). (Click here to see which superhero you are!) One wonders how popular the test would be if it labeled people by their stereotypical negative character traits instead, like "The Insufferable Elitist" (INTJ) and "The Oblivious Materialist" (ESTP). Actually, has anybody done that? Let's do that.

Not so excited to add "ENTJ" to your dating profile anymore, are you?

As fun as the MBTI is, there are serious and numerous problems with it. The two women who developed it, for all their enthusiasm and tireless effort, were not psychologists. Neither of them had any formal training in psychology or in any science whatsoever, so the development of the test was patently unscientific. Even though the test has been administered for decades, many psychologists continually question the validity of the MBTI, and for good reasons.

First of all, the test relies on the honest input of the test-taker. Anyone not answering the questions honestly for whatever reason will obtain an "inaccurate" result. Secondly, there's no way to argue with anyone's result, because the test is unfalsifiable. It's impossible to demonstrate that someone isn't an ENFP, for example. Anyone who takes the test is free to agree or disagree with the result, and nobody could possibly argue.

Another reason that experts openly question the validity of the test is its alarmingly high rate of test-retest unreliability. People who take the test and then take it again several weeks later have a significant chance of getting a different score. This is because the test relies heavily on arbitrarily-defined dichotomies, pushing people to one side of the spectrum or another, when most of us are somewhere in the middle. Someone who displays an even mix of introversion and extroversion in different situations is likely to receive different results on retests. For example, two individuals who have nearly identical personalities could receive polar opposite MBTI scores if each one skews just slightly to the ETSJ (totally extroverted) or INFP (totally introverted) side of the line, indicating falsely that these people couldn't be more different.

This is the problem with a test predicated on dichotomies in general: there is no such thing as an introvert or an extrovert. Statistical models of all four indicators consistently demonstrate that the general population fits a bell curve between the two extremes, not a bi-modal (the opposite of a bell curve) distribution. Only a small percentage of people are mainly extroverted or mainly introverted; the majority of people fall in between somewhere, and the MBTI is blind to this reality. Nobody is an INTJ, or an ENFP, or an ISTP. These people do not exist. Every individual is a different mix of EI, SN, TF, JP, and nearly nobody skews heavily to one side of each of those.

There is also no significant data showing that these MBTI scores correlate with vocational performance. The official exam even openly states that the test only measures preferences, not aptitude, so even though one personality type might prefer a certain vocation, there is no guarantee of success or competence in practice. (This is probably why the official test also explicitly states that the MBTI should not be used to screen job applicants.) There is also no significant correlation between MBTI and industry: every vocational field has a more-or-less random sampling of MBTI types. Most actors are not ESTPs, for example, nor are most CEOs ENTJs.
So, what does your MBTI say about you? Well, certainly nothing that you didn't already know about yourself. The test really only needs to be four questions long:
  1. Are you more extroverted or introverted? (I/E)
  2. Do you primarily gather information via your senses or your intuition? (S/N)
  3. Do you make decisions more by thinking or feeling? (T/F)
  4. Which is more important to you, #2 above or #3? (P/J)
If you find some or all of these questions difficult to answer definitively, congratulations! You're a normal person who can't be easily classified by the MBTI. If you have a clear preference in each, then you can easily identify your "type," and most likely so can anybody who's known you for longer than 10 minutes.

The only thing that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator result shows definitively is... that you've taken the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. Any conclusions drawn beyond that should be taken with a football stadium full of salt.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Ignorance or Dishonesty? A Response to a Pastor at Christmas

Christmas is a time for a lot of things - decorating, gathering, singing, giving, eating, shopping, general merriment. It's also a time for slightly more Christian nonsense than usual to waft across my Facebook feed. As disheartening as it is to be reminded of just how many people close to me believe in magical nonsense, it does at least provide blog-fodder.

The most recent such example is a blog by a Virginia pastor, who happens to be the brother-in-law of a friend of mine. I've actually met him; he seems a nice enough fellow. His Christmas-inspired blog posts, however, are indicative of the problems inherent in being an apologist for the Christian faith (or any faith, for that matter) - one must be either ignorant of reality or dishonest about representing it. Have a look at this post of his (it's a quick read); what follows is my perspective on what he presents as "truth."

He begins, "One of the many ways we know the Bible is true is through it’s [sic] awe-some [sic] supernatural fulfillment of prophecy."

Ok, no. Stop. There's a major flaw in asserting that any Old Testament prophecy is fulfilled in the New Testament. The writers of the NT were all credulous Christians who had the OT readily at their disposal. They already knew about and believed in the prophecies mentioned in the OT. These prophecies must come true if their religion is to retain any credibility, so the writers of the NT simply confirm them. The writers of the NT had every reason to lie, and there are no independent, non-Christian sources to confirm any of these fulfilled prophecies. Add to this the generally vague wording of prophecies, and there's absolutely no reason to recognize "fulfilled prophecies" as evidence of anything but early Christians being aware of OT prophecies. Of course they came true - failure wasn't an option.

"But the reality is that the Bible is comprised of 66 different “books” composed by 40 different authors, all living in different times and places, speaking different languages, contextualized in different historical situations, many separated by thousands of miles and thousands of years from one another.  The probability of conspiracy and collusion for them to make it all up is nil.  Thus, the only explanation for the Bible’s amazing consistency and coherency is it’s [sic] clear supernatural, divine authorship over and above the abilities of it’s [sic] human scribes."

Now we get to the ignorance vs. dishonesty question. Pastor Matt displays his knowledge of the textual history of the Bible: different authors in different places in different times. This is all true. Then, we have an irrelevant conclusion: The probability of conspiracy and collusion for them to make it all up is nil. Yes, that's basically true, but that statement only matters if the Bible has been passed down to us from its very origins in its original form. It hasn't. Not even slightly. While it's true that the writers of the original texts couldn't have conspired, the early Christians who edited and compiled what we have today as the Bible absolutely did conspire and collude. This isn't up for debate - we know as a matter of historical fact that our current text of the Bible is based on manuscripts which are copies of copies of copies, sometimes centuries removed from the lost originals, changed in innumerable places either by error or by design, and compiled by early Christians with their own theological agendas. The probability of the text of the Bible being a product of conspiracy and collusion isn't zero, it's one. It's unlikely that Pastor Matt is unaware of this, yet it's completely ignored. This is either a failure to reason properly, or a failure to be honest about the reality of the textual history of the Bible.

Step back for a moment and just consider the burden of proof for a statement like this: "thus, the only explanation for [insert anything at all] is supernatural, divine [whatever]." Really? We know that the NT was written by credulous Christians who weren't witnesses to the stories they were reporting, and yet Pastor Matt asserts that the only possible explanation is that it's magic? Not only is that not the only possible explanation, it's easily the least probable explanation.

"So when Isaiah and the other prophets say something would happen 800 years before the New Testament Gospel writers record it’s [sic] actual occurrence, we better take it seriously."

The statement "New Testament Gospel writers record it's [sic] actual occurrence" is extremely misleading. [Side-note, get a handle on its vs. it's, dude.] The New Testament Gospel writers didn't know Jesus. They lived and wrote after he died. Decades after. They did not witness the events they're writing about. They're clearly copying from each other in places and just making shit up in others (looking at you, John). They're Christians reporting stories about Jesus that they've heard from other Christians. The Gospels are not credible, historical accounts of factual events. This is not a controversial statement - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not the names of the writers of those respective gospels, and they were not written during the time of Jesus' life and death. They are not a "record" of anything except what Christians believed at the time. Pastor Matt must know this. To say that "the Bible says that X happened" is not to say that X definitely happened, it's only to say that the Bible says that X happened. You may believe whatever you'd like about the historicity of the Bible, but do not assert as fact that which meets no reasonable burden of proof. A newer religious text confirming the predictions of an older religious text isn't fulfilled prophecy, it's an intertextual circle jerk.

The idea of fulfilled biblical prophecies is a perfect storm of failed reasoning. Believing that an NT passage confirming an OT prophecy equals divine, inerrant truth of scripture is the result of rampant confirmation-bias and the hopeless myopia that religious indoctrination breeds. No skeptically-minded non-believer would look at any "evidence" of fulfilled biblical prophecy and be even slightly impressed. This is the sort of thing that pastors like to parade in front of their flocks around the holidays while everyone vapidly nods along.

The worst part about this is that Pastor Matt should know better. It should be obvious to him, of all people, presumably more educated in these matters than the hapless congregation, that none of this is evidence of the truth of scripture. It's evidence of the existence of people who desperately need to believe in the truth of scripture. Ignorance or dishonesty - in the end it doesn't really matter which one is the culprit. It's shameful behavior, either way.