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Myers-Briggs and Race: Persona Doc Highlights Little-Known Past of Test Creator

Myers-Briggs and Race: Persona Doc Highlights Little-Known Past of Test Creator

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The new documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, goes deep on the history of the famous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality test — and the troubling details of a mystery novel written by one of its creators, Isabel Briggs Myers.
The MBTI was created by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother Katharine Cook Briggs as a way for people to learn more about themselves and their personalities. The test uses four primary categories — introversion or extraversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving — to make up the 16 personality types into which, they believed, everyone could be sorted. After completing the test, each person is assigned a four-letter combination, like ENTJ or INFP, for example.
But Persona, from HBO Max and CNN Films, exposes a piece of information about Isabel Briggs Myers that calls all of her work into question, according to Merve Emre, an associate professor of English literature at Oxford University and author of the book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing.
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Briggs Myers wrote a popular mystery novel, Murder Yet to Come, that was released in 1930. But while researching her book, Emre came across a startling find: Briggs Myers wrote a little-known second installment called Give Me Death that Emre describes as “a really horrifyingly racist novel.”

myers briggs merve emre hbo max

Author Merve Emre in Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests courtesy of HBO Max

“I was completely stunned to realize that Isabel was a successful novelist before she designed the Type Indicator, and in the late 1920s, she had written a mystery novel,” Emre said in Persona. “And then I realize that she had written a second novel, but that novel wasn’t advertised anywhere on the website. It was very difficult to track down in any mainstream library, and when I finally found it and I read it, I understood why — because that novel features the same team of detectives, only this time they’re investigating a series of suicides that take place among an old aristocratic, Southern family. And it turns out that the reason the members of this family are committing suicide is because they believe they have a single drop of African-American blood in their veins.”
Emre felt “betrayed” while reading it, she said.
“Because you have this woman who, on the one hand, is committed to a certain set of progressive ideals, particularly for her time — and on the other hand, everything she’s doing is weighed down by a very, very troubling set of ideologies,” Emre continued.
“It was really telling to me how Isabel’s prejudices, which it would be very easy to dismiss as being of her time, were not of her time. They were of our present, and they continue to be used today to sustain the powers of the dominant classes.”
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But Briggs Myers’ granddaughter, Kathleen Hughes, says her grandmother has been misunderstood.
“Merve Emre came out with a book The Personality Brokers — she made some assumptions and implied some things I don’t even want to repeat because I found them so profoundly offensive,” Hughes said in Persona. “Isabel did care deeply about preventing another Hitler, about intolerance. And I think her primary focus was to appreciate your own uniqueness and being able to appreciate people who are different.”
On the Myers Briggs website, there is a page dedicated to explaining that “All types are equal,” and that no type is better than another: “The goal of knowing about personality type is to understand and appreciate differences between people. As all types are equal, there is no best type.”
Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests is now streaming on HBO Max. Main Image: Four generations of Briggs Myers women, courtesy of HBO Max.

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  1. Oskar says:

    What is the context of the story? Myers-Briggs could have been making a derisive comment on people who are so racist, that they would kill them selves because they were not “racially pure.”
    In other words, she could be. Liberal commenting on people who are so racist they’d rather die than be “tainted”

  2. flora says:

    Give Me Death sounds interesting, and not necessarily racist. Frankly, I’m surprised more of those old Southern families didn’t commit suicide, instead of just being in denial. It depends on how it is treated. I’m going to go ahead and assume the author didn’t treat suicide because of racial ancestry as a GOOD thing.
    And Merve Emre feels “betrayed” by this revelation. Please. This is just a hook to hang her book, and now documentary on, and that’s all. One would think an academic would have more perspective on early 20th century attitudes. But she’s an English, not a history professor

  3. No Thanks says:

    So now people are so “woke” that they can’t even understand anti-racism satire? Goodness. Anyone could see that novel is to highlight the ridiculousness of an adherence to racism. But I guess this Oxford woman wants to make money off of misrepresenting people & sewing hysteria. Okay.

  4. David Scheider says:

    That Emre calls the Meyers Briggs Indicator a “test” belies her lack of serious investigation. It is not a test. It does not test anything. It is an indicator on which the participant selects their own preferred best response to a series of questions. There is no right or wrong response. Nor does the indicator “assign” a type to the participant. It suggests a type–from the responses–with which the participant may agree, or not. The indicator has been widely used worldwide by literally millions of participants–of all races–in business, education, medicine, the military and more to generate understanding between people. Could we use more understanding between people nowadays?
    While I can understand the drive to create drama to sell a show, I also believe the drama should be responsible, not misleading.

  5. Noel P Ryan says:

    FYI, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is NOT a Personality Test, yet it is probably the most misused and misunderstood Personnel Tool. One does not require qualifications or licensing as a Psychologist to administer this protocol.

  6. Geoffrey Balaigh says:

    So bleeping what?? It was just a NOVEL about FICTIONAL Southerners offing themselves because they had Black genes – lots thought that horrendous in those days in Dixie. Those are not the author’s views.
    Even if they were, and author was a charter member of the Klan, it doesn’t in itself discredit Briggs- Myers. These knee jerk 21st Century PC Commissars need to get it that their cultural Marxist standards weren’t on the radar eighty years ago and can’t expect the ancient departed to kowtow to them as these so- called intellectuals do these days. Sheesh!

  7. Kelly Young says:

    So, from this alone, it’s not apparent if the book was supporting that extreme racism, saying the white family’s suicides were justified, or if it was trying to point out the absurdity of such racist beliefs. Were those detectives saying “Oh, no wonder they’re killing themselves,” or were they like “I can’t believe they threw away their lives for such a ridiculous reason”? I’m genuinely not trying to justify racism with cognitive dissonance or anything, I just can’t tell from this article which might be the case. The family’s reaction is so extreme I wonder if the novel is trying to point out to a segregated and racist society that all humans are the same and race is a social construct? Sadly, even in the 21st Century, it must still be said that any belief in white supremacism is not only idiotic BS but truly evil.

  8. Carol says:

    Couldn’t the author have been highlighting how absurd this “southern family” was to kill themselves over the “one drop” of blood? Because it was a plot point doesn’t mean the author was advocating that mentality. It’s pretty important to know *how* it was written and portrayed.
    This article doesn’t enlighten much on that point either. And with the book so “rare” we have to trust Emre’s sole perception? Fwiw, I’m prepared for it to be true, god knows people can be shitty but hope Persona doc has actual excerpts of the book so I can see myself. Otherwise it’s like saying “To Kill a Mockingbird” is pro lynching cause it has characters who threaten it.

  9. Jen says:

    It’s a fictional book just mirroring the time. I am sure it has nothing to do with her personal beliefs. In that case Stephen King would be a messed up human.

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