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).

MBTI

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.


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