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Knowers Want to Be Known: Why Myers-Briggs Isn't Just About Self-Knowledge

Image by Unsplash via Pixabay. Image by Unsplash via Pixabay.

Matthew Murphy wrote an insightful article about the Myers-Briggs test and our culture’s thirst for self-knowledge, observing that the test’s popularity indicates a “lost-ness” identified by Walker Percy in his novel, Lost in the Cosmos. We are, as Percy quotes Nietzsche, “strangers to ourselves.”

On the whole, I think Murphy’s is an excellent analysis. It is true that we crave (and could use) better self-knowledge. Our culture generalizes and distorts both personhood and individuality. Modern society reduces humanity solely to our appetitive nature (Murphy cites Huxley’s Brave New World to illustrate this wonderfully). This nature is further presented as uniform across humankind. Somehow we are supposed to be true to ourselves while looking like and wanting the same things as everybody else.

However, Murphy doesn’t get to the heart of our obsession with Myers-Briggs. More than a desire to know, I think the Myers-Briggs craze comes from a desire to be known. As relational beings, we need to be recognized. Whenever I’ve taken the test, I have never thought, “Wow! So that’s who I am!” Instead, I always think, “Hey! They got it right!”

Personality tests themselves don’t actually teach us much about ourselves—they show us that others know who or what we are.

In Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition, Charles Taylor writes about how important recognition is in our modern society. The failure of such recognition jeopardizes societal (and individual) health. Taylor writes, “The projection of an inferior or demeaning image on another can actually distort and oppress, to the extent that the image is internalized.” Today’s world isolates individuals by diminishing their worth.

The need for self-fulfillment, self-gratification, and even self-idolatry governs the standards by which we evaluate the human person. This makes for a very lonely world, in which it can be difficult to find people who really know us. Ironically, we cannot even have self-knowledge without interacting with others. The Myers-Briggs test calculates those four letters based upon questions about how you relate to external situations, many of which concern other people.

Like Murphy, I do not think they Myers-Briggs test adequately captures the scope of the human person. It may offer some helpful clarifications, terms, or general descriptions (an INTJ, I do find myself agreeing tremendously with the test’s results), but it doesn’t tell us who we are. More critically, but for the same reasons, it cannot show that others know who we are.

Yes, I agree: Myers-Briggs reflects the needs and desires of a confused world, but it does not provide an antidote. However, we don't need only self-knowledge. That comes second. What we really want out of these personality tests is proof that we are known.

We want to be recognized as worthwhile and human.

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