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Pseudoscientific Assessment and Misuse of the Myers-Briggs

April 23, 2011

Although I have written a great deal in this blog about questionable interventions, I have not yet covered the topic of pseudoscientific assessment procedures, which is the topic of a recent book chapter that I co-authored with Bruce Thyer in the latest edition of an edited volume on clinical assessment for social workers. Reference:

Thyer, B. A. & Pignotti, M. (2011).  Science and pseudoscience in clinical assessment. In C. Jordan & C. Franklin (Eds.).  Clinical assessment for social workers:  Quantitative and qualitative approaches (pp 163-178) (third edition).  Chicago, IL:  Lyceum Press.

Among other things, we discuss controversies surrounding the popular personality test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). However, this is not what I am going to discuss in this posting. The chapter discusses controversies about the MBTI even when it is done correctly. In this posting I am going to discuss a particularly insidious misuse of the MBTI that is popular among certain cult experts such as Steven Hassan and others. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard it repeated at cult conferences over the years that this study provides evidence for the existence of a cult personality or mind control when it does no such thing.

Steve Hassan recently brought this up in a radio interview and I was reminded of the need to correct some of the misinformation, which also appears in his two books. Hassan and others claim that a study conducted by Flavil Yeakley (contrary to Hassan’s statement, minor point, Yeakley is not a psychologist, his PhD is in speech communication) is evidence supporting the idea of a “cult personality”. First of all, the study was published in Yeakley’s book, The Discipling Dilemma, not a peer reviewed journal, but more importantly there were serious problems with this study.

To briefly describe the study, Yeakley took people from the Boston Church of Christ, a group which most cult experts consider to be a cult and people from another Christian group that was not considered to be a cult. He had them take the MBTI and answer each question in three ways:

1. How they would have answered it before their conversion to the BCC or the other group.

2. How they answer the question in the present.

3. How they would imagine answering it in the future after being discipled for five or more years.

There is a huge problem with this. The MBTI was never designed to be administered retrospectively (answering something in the present, remembering back to the past) and asking people about how they imagine themselves in the future is even more questionable. The reason that retrospective measures are so questionable is that it has been well-studied that human memory is highly fallible and likely to be influenced by present beliefs and biases. For someone currently involved in a cultic group or even in a religious group that they feel passionately about, that would be even more the case.  Converts to cults typically will remember their past in ways that are at odds with how people who knew the person well remember it, since their memories are typically colored by their conversion. For example, Hasssan himself has discussed how cult members are often indoctrinated to remember their pasts as much worse than it was or will remember themselves outside the group, before getting involved in a negative way.

What Yeakley’s study found was a shifting from the person’s actual four-letter type (supposedly how they would have answered before getting involved in the BCC or other group) to the four-letter type they score as a current member or imagine themselves to be in the future. Although Yeakley himself did not make any claims about this validating Hassan’s cult personality theories, Hassan sees this study as doing so. The study found that the people in the BCC showed a shift toward the type of the leader of the group, whereas those in the comparison group did not show such a shift. It is also important to note, that of course, this was not a control group, as random assignment to BCC or the other group would not have been possible. People were already members of the groups at the time of the study and could not be assigned. There could have been other differences between the two groups that may have made type shifting more likely, having nothing to do with so-called cult personalities.

Another highly questionable aspect to this study is the belief among MBTI proponents that type is fixed and not subject to change. While the MBTI has demonstrated some degree of reliability, the reliability is not as great as proponents would have one believe and actually it is quite common for a person to change types when retested, at least by one letter. This is particularly true if the person was on the borderline between one letter and its opposite.

An additional problem with the MBTI itself is that the types are supposed to be dichotmous — like being pregnant or not. You either are or you aren’t. One is either an introvert (I) or an extrovert (E), for example, not a mixture of the two. However, if that were the case, what one would expect to see would be a bimodal distribution of I and E, for example or any of the other opposing letters. What data more typically show, however is a normal distribution that peaks in the scores that fall between the two, which supports the notion that people can be a mixture of I and E. Another dichotomy is Thinking (T) and Feeling (F). This refers to how one makes decisions. T’s make decisions based on principles and F’s make decisions based on values, supposedly. One is either a Thinker or a Feeler rather than there being degrees of both. MBTI proponents don’t see it as positive for someone to have a middle-of-the-road score on these dimensions but the fact is that many people do.

Where this comes into play for Yeakley’s study is that for the many of us who do fall towards the middle, it would be very easy to shift “type” taking the MBTI at different times, under normal circumstances having nothing to do with cults. I am close to the middle on both the E-I and the T-F dimensions, have taken the test a number of times while not a member of any cult and have come out differently, just depending on my mood at the time. I also have philosophical disagreements with this typology theory, as I don’t think there needs or ought to be a split between principles and values and that to make good decisions we have to employ both thinking and feeling and that a value system has every bit as much to do with thinking as it has to do with feeling, but that is a complex topic for another day.

The upshot of this is, that the way certain cult “experts” have used this study is an example how something can be made to look as if it is scientific and research-based when it is anything but.

One Comment
  1. How does the MBTI differentiate between principles and values, and how are those measured? (Are they measurable in a non-reifable way?)

    And, yes, it is normal to have a shift-type.

    Are there any controls for mood?

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