Don’t confuse silhouettes with x-rays

The other day I was reading Patrick Lencioni enthusing about Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) personality tests. He gave examples of various situations where a clear description of someone’s biases and preferences enabled others to understand them better, and so work with them more successfully. His stories were convincing, but I couldn’t help remembering many friends and colleagues—whose opinions I respect greatly—who regard Myers-Briggs with disdain. Despite claims to the contrary, one psychologist says:

The characteristics measured by the test have almost no predictive power on how happy you’ll be in a situation, how you’ll perform at your job, or how happy you’ll be in your marriage

When I tried to reconcile these two conflicting views I thought they were perhaps treating MBTI in different ways, and thought of the difference between silhouettes and x-rays.

Photo by Victoria Pickering

Silhouettes take something (a shape) we can see very clearly, and simplify it dramatically. Many, many details (what’s inside the shape’s outline) are removed, and other details (the shape’s edges) are clarified. The result is something that was always there but which we had previously not focused on. We see details such as a stoop, a gesture, or a similarity with something else that was previously hidden among all the other detail.

X-rays, on the other hand, take something we can see and look inside it. Details which were previous inaccessible, and which we might not have guessed were there, become visible. X-rays provide entirely new information, and our understanding of the thing is enhanced in a different way to silhouettes.

If we have a large number of data points, then the mean or median figure would act like a silhouette—a simplification of the original data, perhaps offering new insight. If we observe a population acting in a certain way, then a survey of those people—asking individuals direct questions—would act like an x-ray, revealing new information about what motivates or otherwise lies behind their actions.

We can use this to explain how different people regard MBTI.

MBTI acts like a silhouette. An individual is asked questions about their typical behaviour in certain situations, and that results in a summary. It’s four letters that is ascribed to their personality “type”, but it’s still really a summary of their answers, a simplification of how they behave. It is boiling down the complex data that we can already see if we observe their actions (and if they are answering honestly). So it’s not unreasonable to use that as a broad description of them, especially if we can contrast with a different broad description of another individual, or of how we expected them to behave. This is how Patrick Lencioni used it.

On the other hand, it would be misleading to use it as an x-ray. It doesn’t reveal “hidden” information (unless we claim the information was “hidden in plain sight”), and therefore it would be hard to expect it to have strong predictive powers, such as “predicting people’s success in various jobs”, say. Those people who claim such things are likely to be proven wrong.

But none of this is really about Myers-Briggs; this is about using information correctly. Are we dealing with a simplification of information we already have? Or are we dealing with new information previously out of reach? Silhouette or x-ray? As long as we know what we have, and treat it correctly, we should be okay.

Photo by Victoria Pickering

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