The Battle of the Giants: Big Five versus MBTI

April 14, 2013

Carl Jung

Kicks Freud’s ass.

If you’re interested in the subject of personality you’ve probably searched for info about it on the internet, and if so you’ve inevitably bumped into the two major models dominating this field – the Big Five and the MBTI. And then you’ve no doubt wondered: which of these is the better? So here is a head-to-head comparison covering the basics. But first a really short presentation of the contenders (or click the Wiki-links above),

The Big Five

The five factor model popularly known as the Big Five is a taxonomy aimed at covering most aspects of personality. It claims to do so with five major factors – Extraversion, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness and Openness. These traits are pretty much what their names suggest. The Big Five doesn’t theorize about what goes on inside people’s heads; it focuses on actual behaviour. This is reflected in the various measures of the model which features items like, “I enjoy trying new and foreign foods” (a measure of Openness).


The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is the name simultaneously used for a theory and a corresponding measure of personality types, based on a typology introduced by psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s. It characterizes people by their attitude toward the inner and outer world, Extraversion and Introversion (correlates pretty strong with the Big Five Extraversion), and by their cognitive preferences. These preferences are either Perceiving or Judging. The perceiving preferences describe how we take in information either through our senses, called Sensation, or intuiting stuff, called Intuition. The judging preferences describe how we process information using either logic, called Thinking, or a more emotional way through Feeling. The last preferences, called Judgment and Perception, refers to whether we use a judging or perceiving function to deal with the outside world.

Underlying Principles: Cognitive Theory versus Lexical Hypothesis

If you are looking for a way to grasp the organization of personality the MBTI has a clear edge. It’s based on a cognitive theory (outlined above) that explains basic personality traits as arising from differences in how we take in and process information.

The Big Five on the other hand is based on a completely different idea, namely the Lexical Hypothesis, which states that all the important personality traits are encoded in natural language. Proponents of this model have gone through dictionaries and collected all the words describing personality traits and then looked at which are used synonymously, and then applied factor analysis to end up with their five major factors. So it’s a non-theoretical model, a way of sorting traits on a linguistic basis.

In my view, the theoretical basis of the MBTI is a huge advantage, because theories are what we use to understand the world. The Big Five research can only find correlates but not put them into any context – conservatives score high on Conscientiousness, liberals score high on Openness etc. What does it tell us about personality? Not much more can be said because there is no theoretical context. The MBTI on the other hand can note that the liberals score high on intuition and conservatives score high on sensation. And in view of the theory, a liberal attitude can be understood as a way of looking at patterns and possibilities when processing information, a preference that makes for a reformist. In the same way we can understand conservatism as a way of relying more on actual data and for that reason being more interested in building on history and tradition because it contains actual data rather than some scenario of how things might be one day.

You can’t make an analysis like that without a theory and that’s a big win for the MBTI.

Measures: Dimensional versus Typological

The MBTI divides people into types where the Big Five measures traits on a dimensional scale. This is big problem for the MBTI since all existing data suggests that traits are dimensional. The MBTI can’t even produce typological data to reflect their theory, so it uses cut-off points to create types. This sometimes has the consequence that two individuals differing one point on a scale can end up being categorized as different types while two individuals differing 20 points end up as belonging to the same type. This is a huge disadvantage for the MBTI and a reason to be skeptical of your result if you take the test. A measure of the Big Five (or any other dimensional test) will simply show the unadulterated result. Big score for the Big Five.

Research and Development: Science versus Intuition

While the MBTI is commonly used in business, education and Jungian psychology the Big Five dominates in academic research. This may give the impression that this isn’t a contest at all, but rather a matter of whether you appreciate scientific method or not. On closer inspection, this view is false. The reason for this is again the lack of theory. People who have theories – like Marvin Zuckerman, Robert Cloninger and others – reject the Big Five and come up with their own models and measures to test their ideas. They need theoretical models to validate or falsify their theories. Since the Big Five is just a way of sorting traits, the only research that can be done with it is that of listing correlates – like discovering that people scoring high on Conscientiousness clean out their fridges more often than others – if you can call that research. It’s a model for paper-pushers rather than scientists.

The MBTI has a completely different problem. While having the theoretical basis enabling meaningful research, the theory is just too intuitive for its own good. Based on Jung, the godfather of New Age, it has attracted a lot of airy fairy people who have little or no respect for scientific principles and methods. Instead of research and development, the MBTI community has a tradition of epigones adding their own arbitrary twists to the theory. This began when the MBTI added a new dimension (that of Judgment/Perception) to the original theory and it has been followed by much more inferior and convoluted elaborations in the field known as Type Dynamics, which is little more than a modern version of astrology.

While this may seem like a win for the Big Five, I’d call this a draw because listing correlates versus mere speculation are two equally pointless endeavors.

And the Winner Is…

For all its flaws, the winner has to be the MBTI. It all comes back to theory. As a non-theoretical model, the Big Five isn’t inspiring research, only pointless pseudo-research. It doesn’t lead to a better understanding of what personality is about. The MBTI has a comprehensive theory of personality to build on, a theory that has proven validity even in its current form. I believe it can be reformed (or simply replaced by another Jungian model) into something that can inspire more research and a deepened understanding of the workings of personality.

Personality Psychologists Hate Romantics

January 29, 2013

When you read books and articles about personality it becomes very clear that psychologists generally prefer some traits over others. And it seems the trait they dislike the most is something they usually call neuroticism or emotional stability (or lack thereof in this case). Their dislike is obvious in the choice of these names alone but can be further illustrated by looking at the words describing the facets or sub-traits in the Big Five model of personality that is prevailing in academic research,

Openness: Fantasy, Aesthetics Feelings, Actions, Ideas, Values

Conscientiousness: Order, Dutifulness, Competence, Self-discipline, Deliberation

Extraversion:Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Excitement seeking, Activity, Positive emotions, Warmth

Agreeableness: Straightforwardness, Altruism, Compliance, Modesty, Tender-mindedness, Trust

And then the black sheep,

Neuroticism: Angry hostility, Depression, Self-consciousness, Impulsiveness, Anxiety, Vulnerability

Anyone with a hint of critical judgment can see that this choice of words reflects a bias. Openness is the clear favorite, followed by Conscientiousness, both described with exclusively positive words.  Extraversion and Agreeableness are about equal in third place and described with mainly positive words with the exception of excitement seeking and compliance. And then, at the bottom of the order, we have neuroticism described in overall negative words that hint at various psychiatric problems.

Surely, openness can include gullibility and superstition, conscientiousness rigidity and pedantry, both extraversion and agreeableness could include conformism? But no, there is only one black sheep in the family. So what exactly is neuroticism, and does it really deserve to be described like it’s a contagious disease?

Neuroticism involves strength and variety of feelings. The supposedly neurotic person feels things intensely and takes things very seriously. They often have very strong ideals and values. In fact, values would make a great facet of this trait, but since that word is so positively charged it has been reserved for openness instead. I think a more positive and also more accurate name for this trait would be romanticism. That term would convey the notion that people with this trait has made extraordinary contributions to our civilization. Because no one can deny that many of the greatest artists could ever have created their art without the romanticism. Without it Wagner and Verdi would never have written their operas, Charlotte Brontë wouldn’t have written Jane Eyre, and Adele would never have written Someone Like You, let alone been able to sing it.

So why are psychologists so eager to paint such an ugly picture of this noble trait? Because they don’t possess it, that’s why. People are tribal and academics are no exception to the rule. Tribal animosity isn’t just about ethnicity or religion. Just about any quality can form the basis of a tribe or ingroup. There is plenty of evidence of this in forums like Personality Café (great site nonetheless). You can also find it in personality research: people seek out others whose personalities match their own for friendship or love. And the personality psychology researchers have openness – which is largely just a fancy word for intelligence – and conscientiousness. That’s what’s required for designing questionnaires, gathering data, and making calculations. So those traits become defining for their little tribe/ingroup, and romantics become an outgroup of which they have only bad things to say.

This isn’t to say that the romantic is always a good person. The fascist is often a romantic. And conscientious people make this world a better place in many ways. They are a force in technological development and all kinds of logistics that make life more enjoyable for all of us.

But don’t believe the concept of neuroticism or any of the other derogatory terms. It’s a negative bias created by people who can’t appreciate romanticism. The fact that the bias comes from people who are supposed to be experts only makes it more insidious. If they can’t see the value in this, then that’s their loss,

Update: Thought I’d share this cover by Sierra Hull as well, really great stuff,

Can You Tell What a Person Is Like Just by Looking at Him?

November 13, 2012

It seems unlikely but there is a lot of research that illustrates that most people can assess someone’s personality based on very little information. A photograph, an office, bedroom, a personal website have all shown to be sufficient to achieve a better than random result in guessing personality as well as sexual orientation.

A German study on this (Borkenau 2009) found that just seeing a headshot of someone for 50 milliseconds was enough to assess extraversion. In order to find out how the participants were able to spot this trait, Borkenau and his colleagues had a second group look for visual characteristics in the headshots. It turns out the people who were rated as extraverted looked more cheerful and smiled more than others. This makes sense since a lot of research has found that extraverts actually are more cheerful than introverts.

While spotting extraversion by looking at a picture for 50 milliseconds may sound impressive, it’s probably not. Thing is, the study looked at all the five traits included in the popular Big Five model of personality – Extraversion, Neuroticism, Agreeability, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness. And the participants only got one right. So why did they get any right at all?

The answer may be found in how they got the others wrong. It turns out that the people with headshots showing cheerful and smiley faces were all considered to be extraverted, low on neuroticism, and high on agreeableness. These traits are all socially desirable. In other words, they attributed socially desirable traits to people who looked cheerful. And as it happens, extraverts generally report feeling happier than introverts so they probably smiled more – but that appears to have been just a happy accident.

This study suggest that people make judgments based largely on wishful thinking. They see a person who is smiling and they assume that he or she is what they consider a pleasant person. Social psychologists have shown this phenomenon numerous times; people look at conspicuous information, like a broad smile and ignore the less obvious information, like that the person in question is being photographed so he may be smiling even if he isn’t that cheerful or he may not be smiling because something caught his eye.

They way to assess someone’s personality is not by “speed reading”, it’s by long-term observation. To look at how people behave when you are familiar with the situation, to gather lots of data and see patterns emerge. If you thinks someone is pleasant because they smile it only means you’re an easy target for sales people.

Schizotypy – Just Very Slightly Mad

September 17, 2012

This kettle is boiling over. I think I’m a banana tree.

About one percent of the population have schizophrenia. We’ve all bumped into them on occasion, talking to themselves in public with no regard to social conventions. And on seeing such a person you may think that there is something really wrong. True that. But you may also think, that guy is nothing like me. That, however, may be a mistake.

Because even though schizophrenia is thought of as a disease of the brain, there is a lot of research to suggest that it’s just the extreme end of normal personality traits. In Big Five terms, those traits would be Introversion, Neuroticism, Openness, and lack of Conscientiousness. Or in terms of the MBTI it would correspond to the INFP  personality type  –  the single most common type at Personality Café.

When a person with these traits show a resemblance to schizophrenia it’s called schizotypy. Typically people with this kind of personality have paranormal experiences, entertain conspiracy theories, are suspicious of others and have a peculiar and disorganized way of thinking.  To others, they come off as odd, but not pathologically so.

Research has confirmed that schizotypy is genetically linked to schizophrenia but how this should be interpreted is a matter of dispute. Some psychiatrists say this means that there is a set of personality traits that make a person vulnerable to the disease of schizophrenia, while others say schizophrenia itself is just the extreme end of normal personality traits and that there is nothing pathological about it. Because having problems and being confused is not necessarily the same as being ill.

Personally I agree with the idea that schizophrenia is just a matter of personality. But regardless of that, one thing is clear: the typical thoughts, ideas, and behaviors of a schizophrenic can be found in a large portion of the general population in the form of schizotypy. This is most likely because of the link between schizotypy and creativity that has been found in many studies.  Humanity needs creative people  like Einstein  and Mozart. And we all need some amount of creativity to solve everyday  problems. That’s why the gene variants that contribute to schizotypy and schizophrenia have not been weeded out.

So remember the next time you see some guy rambling to himself on the side walk: you may have more in common with him than you think.  And when you think about it, he is not a burden to society – he is the guy who is carrying the burden for the rest of us. He is the guy who makes the Einsteins and the Mozarts of this world possible.

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