A few years ago, my work sent me on a training course. It involved the usual things, trust exercises, team bonding, and personality profiles.
I filled in a few forms, answered some questions, and the very professional looking lady marked up my paper and said, "I see that you're a Scorpio. That means you're focused externally, and you deal with things rationally and logically. You do have a tendency to act via your intuition - sometimes to your detriment."
O...k..., I thought, that's a bit of a weird thing to bring up in a business context. Working for a high tech company, I thought we were supposed to use... I dunno... science rather than make-believe. I expressed these concerns to the woman running the course.
"Ah," she said, looking through my results, "I see that you're also Chinese Year of the Goat. That means you tend to value personal considerations above objective criteria. So you often give more weight to social implications than to logic."
I was left rattled and confused. How can my personality be so restricted and codified by something as random as the time of my birth? Was there any research behind this, I ask?
"Oh yes!" She confidently replied, "Astrology has been practised for a long time. And thousands of top companies use it to make important decisions about who to hire and promote. By looking at the stars, your business can gain a competitive edge!"
Let that sink in for a moment. Companies are assessing their workforce and promoting their rising stars based on the planetary alignment at the time of their birth.
Does that even sound plausible? What rational company would do that? Surely no responsible person uses astrology to understand themselves or others.
Gentle reader, I am teasing you! The above conversation did happen but it didn't involve the Zodiac; it involved Myers-Briggs.
For those who don't know, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, the mystery writer Isabel Briggs Myers, invented the Myers-Briggs system during World War Two. There was a growing need to place women in the workforce and, therefore, women needed to be assessed to see what sort of work they were suited to.
The pair undertook no scientific study, looked at no test results, and didn't consult with any qualified psychiatrists, psychologists, or social scientists. Which, considering that they held no qualifications in these fields, didn't bode well for the accuracy of their project.
Despite claims that they based their system on the work of Carl Jung, he rejected the idea of simple stratification out of hand.
"There is such a factor as introversion, there is such a factor as extraversion. The classification of individuals means nothing, nothing at all."
Carl Jung - McGuire, William and R. F. C. Hull, eds., C. G. Jung Speaking (Princeton University Press, 1977).
Today, Myers-Briggs tests are taken by millions of people every year. This nets the private company which owns Myers-Briggs around $20 million per year.
Oh, yes, this isn't a scientific test in any sense. It is a programme specifically designed to make money. If you want to take the test, you need to pay. If you want to administer the test, you need to pay.
Whenever scientists have attempted to study it, the results have been overwhelmingly negative. The most common complaint is that "personality traits" are meant to be fixed - yet when people take the test repeatedly, they often find that their types change radically.
Myers-Briggs is, to put it mildly, bullshit.
People want a pill which will make them thin. A herb to make their hair glossy and their skin clear. One simple trick to make $$$ working from home. A mantra to chant which will just make everything better.
We have magical-thinking-syndrome. That if we just invoke certain incantations, and do a certain course, all our troubles will just vanish into thin air.
Creating a team is hard work. Self improvement is hard work. Communicating with others is hard work. Becoming part of a Cargo Cult is no substitute for deeply examining yourself and your working environment - and then making changes to both.
You can't simply shortcut it by find your secret, magic code.
But that's what we want, apparently. That's what sells. Perhaps businesses love magical thinking like Myers-Briggs and NLP because they want to show that they care but they don't want to do the hard work that will actually make positive changes to their working environments.
People want to have a simple, foolproof method which will allow them to overcome their difficulties. Myers-Briggs, NLP, Astrology, and sacrificing chickens will give us the illusion that we are doing something.
But then, I would say that; I'm a Scorpio.
I welcome all comments and criticisms. I am, however, the evil overlord of this blog. The commenting rules are as follows...
- "MB / NLP works for me therefore" style comments will not be accepted. The plural of anecdote is not data.
- "Studies have shown" comments will be accepted when linked to an actual scientific study.
- "You are so closed minded" is a fair argument - but it is up to you to show me the proof.
- "These major companies / important people use X therefore it is good" is argumentum ad verecundiam. It can also be easily refuted by pointing out that Lehman Brothers was heavily into Myers Briggs.