The Dangers of Appealing to Personality Types

Morgan Guyton recently posted a piece entitled ‘Why English Majors Make Lousy Fundamentalists,’ which was also crossposted on Jesus Creed. Within it, he begins by arguing that different readings of Scripture ‘may end up boiling down to different personality types.’ As an INFP—‘the personality type of a poet, or an English major, or perhaps a romantic’—Guyton believes that he brings certain instincts to the reading of the Bible that rub ‘fundamentalists’ up the wrong way.

INFPs, Guyton grants, are not unfairly characterized as those who ‘do not like to deal with hard facts and logic’ and ‘don’t understand or believe in the validity of impersonal judgment.’ The first representation certainly makes it easier to account for some of the unannounced yet crucial shifts in his post. The first of these is his conflation of the INFP type with the ‘English major’, a character that frames the rest of Guyton’s analysis in the post. The English major can pull academic privilege over others who lack his training in the reading of literature. Also, as he has associated his personality and sensibilities with that of the English major, the INFP can assume he possesses a sort of natural and peculiar affinity for the reading of Scripture. As God reveals himself in a literary form, and INFPs/English majors have a particular affinity for literature and sensitivity for its quality, they are the ones who should provide the ‘taste test’ of the character of God’s revelation and, by extension, of the sort of God that we find revealed within it:

As an English major, I need for God to be an infinitely better poet than I am, which means that I’m going to be averse to any approach to interpreting the Bible that camps out at a sixth grade level of reading comprehension and assumes God to be straightforward and perfectly clear when he seems to do a far better job of inspiring people with a little subtlety.

A swift swipe of logic to the connections that Guyton draws between English majors, literary reading, and personality type would untangle a significant portion of the knotty mass of his argument. Not all INFPs are English majors and not all INFPs who are English majors are gifted at it. Nor do INFPs have a monopoly on the study of literature: many students of literature have quite different personality types.

We should not accept the fact that INFPs are currently more attracted to the study of English literature as sufficient proof of their greater aptitude in it. The field of literary criticism has undergone a number of significant changes over the last century. INFPs’ supposedly greater likelihood to be English majors may be little more than a result of the fact that they resonate more with the currently prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism and the wider culture of the discipline. A different array of personality types might pursue the subject if these prevailing schools and theories of literary criticism were dislodged and replaced by others. Guyton’s assumptions would then crumble.

I will forgive anyone who feels confused after trying to parse the logic of Guyton’s argument. The rest of his post is a bewildering muddle: he entangles the interpretative supremacy and prerogative of a certain personality type with the eminently sensible notion that we should bring honed literary instincts and tools to the study of the scriptures. Furthermore, he treats the mere invocation of methods of literary analysis as if it validated the inept manner in which they were deployed. ‘He must be a gifted exegete: look at all of the fancy tools in his toolbox!’

Guyton’s post exemplifies the growing popularity of personality typing in many Christian circles (I’ve been surprised to see how widely used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator [MBTI] is in the Church of England, for instance). Rather than presenting a comprehensive response to Guyton’s post, which will soon be forgotten, I want to highlight this particular feature of it. While many of us have written extensively about orientation and identity in the context of sexuality and gender, personality typing has quietly established a new form of identity and orientation discourse. It is high time that we paid closer attention to it.

We should recognize certain analogies between personality typing and many of the other forms of orientation and identity discourse with which we are more familiar. Many Christians have started to treat personality type as a sort of ‘orientation’ within the world whose equality—or contextual superiority—must be recognized and for which various accommodations must be made. The personality type is fixed and integral to who we are as persons. The fundamental impulses, sensibilities, and instincts of the personality type cannot be called into question: they have the status of an untouchable sensitivity. We are tempted to treat our personality type as justification and explanation for our behaviour, rather than discerning appropriate forms of behaviour and desire from their relation to fitting objective ends. We should observe the measure of circularity that can be present here: in using our personality types as justification for our patterns of behaviour we can forget that our personality typing was derived in large measure from those same patterns.

The problem here is not so much with personality typing per se as it is the entitlement, privilege, and weight of identification that is increasingly coming with it. Personality typing such as the MBTI can be amusing and harmless and can even occasionally serve a heuristic purpose, provided that we do not take it too seriously. Although it is a fairly inexact tool—it arbitrarily splits spectrums of behaviour into binary categories and doesn’t adequately account for such things as the inextricable relation between thinking and ‘feeling’—it can occasionally help to illumine significant patterns and tendencies.

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed. ‘English major’ may not yet be one of Keirsey’s temperaments, but Guyton employs it as if it were. When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect.

Nevertheless, personality typing can easily become powerfully constitutive of people’s sense of identity, as they start to think of themselves as their personality type in a fairly uncritical manner. The appeal of such tests is quite explicable: they offer a measure of resolution to the existential discomfort of the question ‘who am I?’, a question which is probably pressed upon us with greater urgency than ever before. While such a test may be an improvement on diverting online quizzes promising to reveal which characters I might be in various fictional universes, at least I do not go through life believing that Gandalf-likeness is a crucial key to my identity.

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.

With its overemphasis upon healthy natural personality, this new pop psychology that is entering our vocabularies can subtly squeeze out Christian language of fallenness, sin, flesh, and separation from God, slowly dulling us to the extent of our brokenness. In addition to this, I fear that our new focus upon ‘personality’ will lead to a neglect of the category of ‘character’. ‘Personality’ is typically understood to be an innate given and a matter of self-expression, operating largely outside of the realm of morality, chiefly measured by its individuality, and possessing its own prerogative. ‘Character’, by contrast, must be formed and is a decidedly moral mode of regarding the individual subject. Rather than telling us that we are naturally and fairly indelibly what is revealed in the patterns of our behaviour, ‘character’ is something that is gradually formed in us as we faithfully devote ourselves to modes of behaviour that do not spring naturally from our personalities.

Guyton’s argument is a good example of the chaos that can result when personality usurps character in the area of scriptural interpretation. Contrary to Guyton’s emphasis upon personality, we become skilful readers of Scripture as the Spirit conforms us to the word he inspired through the dedicated and faithful practice of scriptural study. No one enjoys this skill merely by virtue of an innate aptitude of personality, nor does our possession of a particular personality type entitle us to approach God’s revelation on our own terms. God’s truth transforms its readers, it identifies expressions of our personality types as ‘sin’, and it makes demands of us that call us to act outside of type. It breaks us down and it builds us up again. I will not discover my true self through taking a personality test, but as I am conformed by God’s Spirit to the image of his Son: not as an act of analysis, but through a historical process of transformation. This is the truth in terms of which all other self-understanding must proceed. When viewed in this light, the personality test has a decidedly diminished capacity for determining my identity.

Alastair Roberts writes.  You can follow him on Twitter

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  • Betsy Childs

    As an English major and INTJ, I found Guyton’s post hollow. Some of us love grammar more than we love Byron!
    You make some very good points about personality types. I have found them most helpful in interpersonal communication, as a way to put language to our differences. However, there is an inevitable tendency to reduce people to the type that has been assigned to them, making it a wooden label rather than a series of categories that describe preferences.

    • Alastair J Roberts

      I agree. Reading through the post, I was also occasionally reminded of this recent article on the Dead Poets Society.

      When we place so much emphasis upon type, we can dull ourselves to the many ways in which we defy or exceed type. I will generally test as a fairly pronounced INT and borderline J, but some who know this have been surprised by the ways that I will use non-dominant functions on occasions. When people are less pronounced in their typing, the test is considerably less useful and can often prove obfuscating, especially as its binaries tend to make a division at the fattest part of a Bell curve. Held lightly and treated as a heuristic device, I find such typing diverting, intermittently illuminating, and occasionally a helpful starting point for closer analysis. However, employed as a ‘wooden label’ it can be very dangerous.

  • tteague

    I agree that personality typing is, or can be, dangerous and lead to negative, perhaps unintentional consequences – and not only in Christianity, but I see it in business as well.

    What I found most frustrating (perhaps unintentionally humorous) about Guyton’s post and, I think, its fatal flaw came near the beginning when he wrote: “The measure of how good a writer you are is the degree to which you are able to communicate with subtlety. If I know how a sentence is going to end before I’ve gotten there, then it’s a crappy, uncreative sentence. To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer.” Not only is his understanding flawed, but from that point on I couldn’t help but critique his writing according to his rules. After only a couple more paragraphs, when I saw how he broke every one of his “measures” of good writing, I quit reading.

    • Alastair J Roberts

      Indeed. Most writers break their own ‘rules’ to some extent (Stephen King and George Orwell might be examples here), but Guyton’s departures were fairly jarring, especially given the fact that they occurred so shortly after the standards had been described. My greatest issue was with how ridiculous the claim ‘To be unsubtle and completely straightforward is to be a bad writer’ actually is upon a moment’s reflection.

  • Matthew Miller

    This is so helpful, Alistair. I’ve felt uncomfortable with the reductiveness and influence of personality types for some time. Now I’ve got additional reasons for my discomfort.

    • Alastair J Roberts

      Thanks, Matthew!

  • MorganGuyton

    Thanks so much for your engagement, Alistair. I only wish that I had put a better foot forward because I gave you some very easy low-hanging fruit to smack to pieces. I was very surprised when a flippant piece that I wrote in about 45 minutes ended up viralizing on me. Yes, it’s absolutely true that I don’t know what to label the kind of sensibilities I bring to the Biblical text. Does it have anything to do with the space-cadet-ish-ness that is supposedly captured in the NFP combination of the Myers-Brigg profile? Is it because I imagine myself to be a poet? Is it because I was trained to read literature in a certain way due to my English major? Or is it because I’m just generally a messy person who isn’t bothered by putting things out on my blog before I’ve tightened them up to the level of precision that my opponents won’t be able to ridicule?

    There’s something about the persona that I’m describing that resonated intensively with a certain type of Christian and irritated another type of Christian in very predictable ways, which is why I wrote the post. I wanted to offer insight into the source of my snobbishness, rebelliousness, space-cadet-ish-ness and whatever other insulting term you would like to add regarding the way that I find myself responding to the Biblical text (and apparently 40,000 or so other people).

    What’s interesting is that apart from your scorn for my logical clumsiness, I very much agree with the points that your blog post makes about supposed personality types, although I think using the word “danger” is a bit alarmist. I too am very cynical about the usefulness of personality tests or anything that seeks to explain something about you based on a stupid bubble sheet. I actually test as an ENFP every time I take the Myers-Brigg because I can handle myself socially just fine but I’m most comfortable in solitude with God.

    Unfortunately it seems like the pieces that I pull out of my ___ are the only ones that attract any attention. If you’re interested in doing more than scoring some easy points at my expense, which I imagine you are, then let me offer you something that would be more of a challenge to engage with. I was at a conference the other week and a preacher named Mandy Smith made a brilliant metaphorical use of the sword described in Hebrews 4:12-13, asking whether we read the Bible in order to have our hearts cut open by God or if we read the Bible to give ourselves a sword to swing at other people. I would call it the difference between reading the Bible for the sake of ideology or discipleship. I seem to recall that you don’t believe women should be preaching, but I think Mandy had a great insight to offer, so I actually wrote a piece about her sermon that I’d love to hear your thoughts about: http://morganguyton.us/2014/02/28/when-bible-study-becomes-your-personal-bug-collection/.

    • Alastair J Roberts

      Thanks for the comment, Morgan. I can appreciate why you might find it frustrating to read this, knowing that it isn’t an engagement with your position at its best. I can also empathize with your frustration at this unwelcome virality: I have had several similar experiences myself. Our words can be like prodigal sons, escaping our authorial intentions and tarnishing our reputations by keeping questionable company.

      When I first read your piece (when it was posted on your blog last week), I ignored it, presuming that it was a slapdash post that wasn’t to be taken that seriously. The only reason I wrote a response was because your post had been shared and linked so many times and received so much attention. It was the fact that it was reposted and recommended by Scot McKnight five days later that decided me. This suggested to me that you were prepared to give greater weight to your words than I had originally presumed, that you hadn’t chosen to change them in the interim, that many others were giving weight to what you said, and that someone with the influence of McKnight was prepared to go out of his way to associate his name closely with them. If you would like to step back from some of your statements now, I appreciate that. However, given the influence and support that they have received, I trust that you will be able to understand my reasons for engaging with them.

      Thanks for the link. I don’t believe that women should be pastors over congregations, but don’t have a problem with women preaching as lay persons in appropriate circumstances: I believe that women should be actively engaged in the task of biblical exegesis.

      I have various thoughts on the piece. I think that the distinction between reading the Bible to be cut open or to apply it as a sword on others is getting at something important: we must all come to the Scripture to be cut open by God’s Word. It is worth remembering that the reading of the Scripture in the original historical context of the text is probably that of the public reading in the congregation, where the congregation is cut apart as a living sacrifice by the sword of the Word, wielded by the pastor/priest. The broader context would be that of more communal forms of reading. The power of the sword operates as we prosecute the authority of God’s Word, not merely against ourselves, but against our neighbour—rebuking, correcting, instructing, encouraging, etc.—and as he or she does the same to us.

      Resituating ourselves within the context of private and individual reading, the danger is that most of us are not particularly good at wielding the sword against ourselves and the claim that we shouldn’t use the Bible as a sword to swing at other people all too easily tends to function as a means to rule out any challenges to us. The authority of the Bible over us is far more effective when other faithful persons are using it upon us. This said, however, the warning about motive that Mandy Smith is trying to make is a very important one.

      I share many of your concerns about a Christian faith that is focused upon something akin to detached scientific ‘facts’ that can be ‘prooftexted’. This is a caricature of Scripture, yet one that has far too much currency in many circles (even sometimes in contexts where it is heavily criticized: Galatians 3:28 must be one of the most ‘prooftexted’ verses of all). Nevertheless, I think that your comments about ‘poetry’ badly misrepresent the actual shape that divine authority takes in Scripture. The Bible contains poetry and, even beyond the explicitly poetic sections, is full of literary art and symbolism. However, it isn’t a ‘poem’, nor is it even really like a poem. Even where there is symbolism, God tends to communicate fairly directly for the most part. I am as excited about biblical symbolism and literary art as anyone I have ever met, but your remarks about poetry don’t really seem to match up to the shape that the biblical text actually takes. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that much of what you are saying is more abstract and not sufficiently concretized with specific examples. Maybe if you fleshed out what this means in practice it would be more persuasive to me.

      Blessings.

  • Käthe

    Too few people know this fact: scientifically, the Myers Briggs test has almost exactly as much validity and reliability as a Cosmo quiz or an online “Which Star Trek Captain Are YOU?” quiz. It is meaningless. It was not developed under anything like the conditions psychologists use to create a proper psychometric measure–and even scientifically validated psychological instruments are extremely blunt, to say the least. It was literally created for fun by a couple of hobbyist armchair psychology buffs who admired the thinking of Carl Jung. When I hear people puffing themselves up about being an INTJ or musing on the deep meaning of their Myers Brigg profile score, I want to chime in boasting that I tested as a Picard and that explains why I look so good in deep reds.

  • Derik Flensburg

    While I agree that reliance on MBTI for explaining away behavior is irresponsible, I have consistently seen an uncanny accuracy in the typing system in cases where subjects do not strike balances in their types. I have found it especially interesting to meet people whose MBTI types are the same and to find similarities. A working understanding of MBTI types can help in finding a more effective way to approach specific people and also know which aspects of one’s own personality to work on. After all, MBTI types are an excellent way of understanding certain strengths and weaknesses and then working with them accordingly.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ Dr. Fundystan, Proctologist

    Well, I have no idea what Meyer-Briggs is (sounds like a lawn mower), but I approach the Scripture the way it was intended to be approached – with the tools of literary analysis. And my career consists mostly of statistical analysis, data modeling, and CI projects, so I’m probably on the engineering “facts and logic” side. All that to say that while there may be some correlation between personality and approach to Scripture, I think any reasonably educated individual can see that there are better and worse methods and more and less effective tools depending upon context. And that’s one thing MG nailed in his post – the rigid approach of fundamentalism just doesn’t do justice to the texts.

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