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Reuters/ Robert Galbraith
Employees sell their whole selves to company culture.
SELL YOURSELF

The history of Myers-Briggs shows how personality tests became a capitalist tool

By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

From our Obsession

The Office

How we shape, experience, and define the workplace.

The Myers-Briggs test is unscientific, unreliable, and hugely popular. And so whether or not this personality test “works” is beside the point. Sure, it doesn’t actually tell us anything meaningful about our personalities, but 88% of Fortune 500 companies still ask their employees take the assessment.

The story of how Myers-Briggs became a staple of our professional lives, as explored in Merve Emre’s newly published book The Personality Brokers, reflects the broader evolution of workplace culture. These days, workers must sell not just their skills, but their whole selves.  

The first Myers-Briggs questionnaire, developed by a mother-daughter team, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, was published in 1943. Corporations quickly adopted it. By the mid-1950s, as Emre writes, Briggs Myer’s clients included “the largest utilities and insurance companies in the United States,” who “regularly spent upwards of fifty dollars a year on test booklets and answer sheets.” This period also coincided with a dramatic rise in the white working class. By 1956, there were more white-collar than blue-collar workers in the US for the first time. Simultaneously, Cold War politics meant that Americans were supposed to embrace capitalism with relish. Jobs were portrayed as the path to true freedom and fulfillment.

This created the cultural conditions for employers to focus on hiring employers not just for their labor, but for their ability to enthusiastically celebrate, and be in sync with, company culture.   

“The language of type had helped give rise to a new spirit of capitalism: one in which the worker would be matched to the job that was divinely right for him: the job that would permit him to do his best and most creative work, afford him the greatest sense of personal satisfaction, endear him to his bosses and colleagues, and thus encourage him to lodge his sense of self ever deeper into his nine-to-five occupation,” writes Emre.

As white-collar jobs expanded, American culture increasingly came to see the kind of work a person did as a key feature of their identities. Conversely, bosses want to know not just what their employees can do, but who they are. 

Myers-Briggs was at the forefront of cultural changes that made personality a central part of the workplace.  “The mass testing of personality was partially responsible for the birth of the liberal-humanist figure that [sociologist William] Whyte dubbed ‘the organization man’: the worker who had ‘left home, spiritually as well as physically, to take the vows of organization life,’ believing that work could make them whole,” writes Emre. “They had heard the voice of the organization, echoing loud and clear in the tests they had taken, and they had answered it with a promise of their own: on our backs the fortunes of corporate America will rise and fall.”

We’re accustomed now to the idea that we should perform emotional labor at work, buy into company values, and pour our souls into furthering our boss’s dreams. But it’s easy to forget that there was a time, only decades ago, where it would have made little sense to describe yourself as a “sensing” or “intuitive” type of employee. Work was simply something you did to earn money, and personality nuances had very little to do with your job.