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How Katharine Briggs ushered in the era of self-help by formalizing the experience of self-discovery

Whether on a corporate retreat or killing time on the
internet, who among us hasn’t quenched their thirst for
self-knowledge through a Myers-Briggs personality test?

You know the one. (How very ISFJ of you to pretend
otherwise.)

Referenced in everything from elementary schools to dating
apps, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator has been the de facto
personality test for generations. In Merve Emre’s new book, The
Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and
the Birth of Personality Testing, the author goes in-depth on
the fascinating history behind Myers-Briggs.

Emre introduces us to the mother-daughter team of Katharine
Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, a pair of homemakers who made
up for their lack of formal training in psychology by
perceiving an unexpressed desire within human beings for
self-affirming answers to the question of self-knowledge.
Originally designed to popularize the writings of Carl Jung,
the type indicator took on a life of its own, honed by some of
the 20th-century’s greatest creative minds as it traveled
across the world.

In this excerpt from The Personality Brokers, Katharine
Briggs introduces an early version of the Myers-Briggs Type
Indicator, with all its early Jungian influence, to readers of
the New Republic. In offering personality types to a public
fascinated by the idea of self-discovery, Briggs was not only
laying the foundation for Myers-Briggs, she was ushering in the
era of popular psychology.

Katharine Briggs’s first magazine article in nearly a decade,
“Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box,” spoke to
readers of her conversion experience to Jungian psychology. The
article appeared in the New Republic in December 1926,
its title a combination of the profound and the prosaic. One
could hear echoes of the maxim inscribed in gold letters on the
Temple of Apollo at Delphi — “Know thyself” — and the dawning
of a deep and revelatory self-consciousness. One could also
hear an invitation to a children’s game of arts and crafts. To
meet oneself, she explained, was to embark on an epic journey
of self-discovery whose end was not some abstract notion of
truth or freedom but one of Jung’s sixteen personality types —
“sixteen ways of growing from infancy to maturity,” she wrote.
Each type was represented by a different shade in the
“personality paint box” of life. To discover the shade that
best suited you, Katharine urged her reader to write down each
type and its traits on a 3″ x 5″ index card, spread the cards
across a flat surface, and arrange them vertically from most
descriptive to least descriptive.

Later, Isabel Briggs Myers would further standardize the work
of self-discovery with a questionnaire, but for now, Katharine
believed that her readers possessed enough self-awareness to
navigate her descriptions of Jung’s types on their own, sliding
index cards up and down their dining room tables. The
extraverted (E) sensing (S) type was an “extreme realist,” she
summarized, “valuing above all material possession and concrete
enjoyment.” The extraverted (E) intuitive (N) was an impatient
and fickle-hearted “explorer, inventor, organizer, or promoter”
who sought opportunity and adventure. Introverted (I)
intuitives (N) could be found among the world’s “philosophers,
religious leaders and prophets, artists, queer geniuses and
cranks.” Their impulsive attitudes were counterbalanced by the
practicality of the extraverted (E) thinkers (T), the
“reformers, executives, systematists, and men of applied
science.” If her reader recognized himself in one of these
descriptions, he was to move the index card to the very top of
the table, where it would stay until it was displaced by
another, more appropriate type description.

Each type was represented by a different shade in the
‘personality paint box’ of life.

In its insistence on self-discovery as a civilizing form of
self-mastery, “Meet Yourself” modelled a new genre of writing
known as popular psychology: self-help in an era when the
public demand for psychological counsel far outstripped the
number of psychologists available to provide it. In the decade
after Freud had published The Interpretation of Dreams,
hundreds of newspaper columns and radio programs sought to
address the problems they perceived as common to American
society in the Roaring Twenties: inattentive spouses who drank
on the sly; misbehaving children who bobbed their hair and
hemmed their skirts and listened to jazz; professional ennui
and personal paralysis in the face of a rising consumer
culture. For Katharine, such advice might have once come from a
trusted member of her church. But modern people, she observed,
did not want judgment, repentance, or absolution, the rigmarole
of religious instruction. They wanted understanding and they
wanted it on their own terms. “Fortunate are they who can use
the path of prayer,” wrote Joseph Jastrow, president of the
American Psychological Association and author of the nationally
syndicated column Keeping Mentally Fit. “There is little need
to advise that path for those who tread it; for they do so of
their own accord. But the psychologist, like all other men,
knows many who find their codes and creeds in other directions;
so he must speak to and for all.”

To find one’s codes and creeds — this was the promise of
meeting yourself through Jung’s type theory. Type was no
parlour game, no frivolous exercise designed to sort people
into simplistic and overdetermined categories. It was an
opportunity to articulate a grand system of self-governance, a
system beyond conventional notions of good and evil, beyond
God, and beyond the laws of the land. It was a system in which
one’s personality — one’s self — was the ultimate arbiter of
what was right and what was wrong. The only person who could
judge you was you, and you, Katharine reassured her readers,
had little “choice or control” in the matter. She knew from her
observations of her children that type was set at birth, forged
in the dreamlike chaos of infancy. “Every one of us is born
either an extravert or an introvert, and remains extravert and
introvert to the end of his days,” Katharine wrote. To meet
oneself was to cast aside all other codes and creeds and to
acquire a new conception of “wholesome living,” a new basis for
the happy acceptance of one’s life.

In writing “Meet Yourself,” Katharine had placed her finger on
the nerve centre of type’s appeal: the promise that, within
each person, there lived a coherent individual who was master
of her own life. This was by no means an original sentiment.
Western philosophy had, for centuries, set forth a similar
argument, from the Socratic dialogues to the writings of the
Cynics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, and even the early
Christians. In 1734, Alexander Pope had started his poem “An
Essay on Man” with the command “Know then thyself, presume not
God to scan, / The proper study of mankind is Man.” In 1750,
Benjamin Franklin, one of Katharine’s heroes, had quipped,
“There are three things extremely hard, Steel, a Diamond, and
to know one’s self.” In 1831, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the poet
whose work had inspired William James’s theory of a personal
religion, urged each person to “know thyself ” so that he might
find the “God in thee.” Katharine’s article was just the most
recent node in a long intellectual tradition that stretched
across the Atlantic and back. But in the pages of the New
Republic,
the idea of meeting yourself was presented in a
tone of definitive, cheerful accessibility that made the
journey to self-discovery seem accessible — fun, even. The
unearthing of one’s personality was no laboratory science, no
serious invitation to navel-gaze. It was a human art of the
most pleasing kind, and it could be practiced by just about
anyone. “We may now assemble our personality paint box,”
Katharine concluded, “and try to discover just how we, our
families, and our friends have managed to mix the colours.”

Every one of us is born either an extravert or an introvert,
and remains extravert and introvert to the end of his days.

Katharine’s personality paint box was literalized in the figure
of a 2 × 2 box — the first and simplest type table, a precursor
to the now famous 4 × 4 grid of the sixteen Myers-Briggs types.
“One need not be a psychologist in order to collect and
identify types any more than one needs to be a botanist to
collect and identify plants,” Katharine comforted her readers,
lest they felt intimidated by the specialized language she had
used to populate her type table. One had only to learn to
recognize the different characteristics of extraverted and
introverted sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking to
determine which function served as “master” over one’s
personality. Once a reader had located her “primary function”
in the personality paint box, then she could identify her
“childish function” in the box directly opposite, the function
that was “sometimes useful, sometimes a liability, sometimes a
revolting anarchist.”

Of all the shades in the personality paint box, one appeared
brighter to Katharine than all the others: intuition. It was a
wholly abstract concept to her. One could not touch or taste or
see intuition at work, she thought, and yet one often heard
people declare with great certainty that intuition was the key
to genius. “A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive
way,” proclaimed Albert Einstein in 1926, the same year
Katharine gathered her courage and wrote the first of many
letters she would send to Jung. The letter did not read like a
conventional fan letter. It was serious, probing. She asked him
to clarify what precisely intuition was and why, on page 547 of
Psychological Types, he had referred to it as “the noblest gift
of man.” His partiality to intuition had struck her as a moment
of unrestrained passion in his writing, a rare slip in his
persona as a clinician.

His lack of restraint had thrilled and puzzled her, she
confessed to him, not because she believed herself to be an
intuitive type, although she suspected they had that in common,
but because she thought she had caught a glimpse of his soul
across the thousands of miles that separated them. Perhaps, she
speculated, it had something to do with his special esteem for
women’s intuition. This was a psychic factor she had started
thinking about in relation to her old project of baby training:
women always seemed to know when the people they loved were in
danger. Perhaps intuition was as evolutionarily encoded as
loving one’s children. Perhaps it was the intuitives, like him
and her, who would inherit the earth.

“We may now assemble our personality paint box, and try to
discover just how we, our families, and our friends have
managed to mix the colours.

She never expected an answer to her questions, so she was
surprised when Jung wrote back, a long letter from his home at
Küsnacht, Switzerland, three pages over owing with his wide,
slanted hand. How different his penmanship was from Lyman’s
cribbed little letters, his perfectly measured lines! And yet
how authoritative, how uncompromising, his words seemed! “Dear
Madam,” he began. “I understand sensation and intuition as
being perceptual ‘functions.’ Sensation would be sense
perception of external processes, intuition would be perception
of internal processes.” These internal processes, he noted,
were partially psychic and partially physical, and they
included all aspects of life that the sensorium had failed to
register: telepathic phenomena and fantasy activity, the mirage
series of the unconscious. “Intuition can see through walls and
round the corners and into the deepest obscurities of the human
heart,” he wrote. It may not have been properly scientific for
him to call intuition a “nobler” function than the others, but
reflecting on his dreams, his fantasies, and all they had made
possible in his life had appealed to his “feeling side.” “And
thus it came that I made that emotional exclamation,” he
explained to her. “I am not yet so dried up that I could not
wonder any more at the amazing facts of human psychology.”

····

To say that Katharine Briggs became obsessed with Carl Jung is
to understate matters. Ordinary obsession — the passion of a
distant admirer — exists in the realm of daydream and wish
fulfillment. Katharine’s obsession with Jung was alive, active,
purposive. It was the stuff of her waking life and her
wandering dreams, and it started innocuously enough. Her next
and final piece for the New Republic, which she titled
“Up from Barbarism,” celebrated Jung’s romantic preference for
intuition with a subtlety that only someone attuned to the
details of their correspondence could discern.

Excerpted from The Personality Brokers: The Strange History
of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Copyright
© 2018 Merve Emre. Reprinted by permission of Random House
Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited.

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