Myers-Briggs Tests and the Scientist

In business, much more than in academia, personality tests are used at different stages of progression.  Additionally they can be used to identify what sort of career one is suited to. One common version is the Myers-Briggs test, which identifies the individual’s characteristics against 4 pairs of traits, to give 16 possible personality types. Recently, Virginia Hughes blogged  about these tests in the context of scientists. Her concluding remark was

In the Myers-Briggs code, you can be either a T (‘Thinking’) or an F (‘Feeling’). When making decisions, Ts prefer to “first look at logic and consistency”. Yup, that sounds like a scientist. Fs, in contrast, “first look at the people and special circumstances”. I’ve never met a scientist who looks at the outliers first.

Most scientists would probably agree with that final sentence, but actually that is a rather extreme version of the T/F split (I’m not sure where her definitions come from). That useful source of information, Wikipedia, gives a rather different emphasis

Thinking and feeling are the decision-making (judging) functions. The thinking and feeling functions are both used to make rational decisions, based on the data received from their information-gathering functions (sensing or intuition). Those who prefer thinking tend to decide things from a more detached standpoint, measuring the decision by what seems reasonable, logical, causal, consistent and matching a given set of rules. Those who prefer feeling tend to come to decisions by associating or empathizing with the situation, looking at it ‘from the inside’ and weighing the situation to achieve, on balance, the greatest harmony, consensus and fit, considering the needs of the people involved.

Put like that, it isn’t so clear to me scientists would be necessarily disbarred from scoring an F rather than a T. I say that with some conviction because carrying out a quick test myself (I used this site; there are plenty out there) I came out as slightly F. I think I can separate out how I look at my data from how I look at people, and the test questions tend to be about social situations rather than what might be found in a test-tube. So I am not surprised to find a ‘feeling’ tendency being recorded. However, I accept that I may be in a minority. That said, I am certainly not going to apologise for being ‘odd’ – we need diversity in science, and that includes people who look at things in different ways in every sense.

I was already thinking about writing a post about some of my recent experiences, which in fact tie neatly in with this analysis. Based on people’s reactions to talks I have given recently, interviews with me which have appeared in print (here and here; interviews in which I hardly recognize the totality of  myself as described, I should say, though factually they are correct) and responses to things I have written elsewhere on my blog, I have realised that I am conveying messages about life as a scientist in ways that perhaps scientists don’t always do. For instance, recently I gave a brief talk at the L’Oreal FWIS  awards, when I was asked to talk for 10 minutes about personal career highlights and some thoughts and aspirations to encourage others for the future.  Afterwards, I was touched by how many people had seemed moved by what I said, frequently using the word ‘inspirational’ – a word which has been tossed in my direction about the interviews and talks too. One woman (and not an early career woman, but a professor) wrote to me after the L’Oreal evening to say

I would like to thank you for speaking and taking the time out for women matters. The night made a huge impact on how I felt, just after yet another major failure. Hearing that other women struggle too gives a strange sense of normality – it is a huge danger to take the ‘I am wrong’ that gets thrown at us so persistently aboard and start sinking.

I am not trying to ‘big myself up’, but that started me thinking. Why, when I have always felt unsure of my own path and believed that others around me knew the rules better than me, sounded more persuasive than me on committees, got more grant income etc, why is it that speaking the truth seems so powerful? And of course, that is the answer. Most of us, most of the time feel constrained and emotional truths are rarely expressed. Scientists are not often given to talking about feelings so much as evidence, theorems and flaws in experimental design, at least in public – exactly the distinction of T/F in the Myers-Brigg analysis. The joke about extrovert physicists looking at other people’s shoes rather than their own is well known, although sometimes varied to refer to extrovert mathematicians, or even used as a way to distinguish physicists from mathematicians. Nevertheless, without going to that extreme of inability to communicate, the conference podium (for instance) is rarely used to express professional anxieties. So it is that the young, and even the not-so-young, may mistakenly believe that those further up the ladder really understand how the world works and always get things right.

I remember that moment of deluded transition, as I progressed from undergraduate to PhD student, that instant when I thought that now I really would understand not only physics but the ‘right’ way of doing things. That rite of passage, of course, amounts to no more than the option of putting letters after one’s name and shaking hands with the vice chancellor (or, in Cambridge, having one’s hand clasped as if in blessing, while Latin is quoted over you). The reality is that scientists are just as human as the rest of the population, just as prone to anxieties and insecurities, but perhaps not always so open to expressing them. It is not simply a woman’s privilege to suffer from a lack of confidence, although some may express it more explicitly or allow it to rule their lives more completely than many men do.

Some months back, when I was in Edinburgh in order to talk to the engineering graduates about my life experiences, I was taken out to dinner the night before by my hosts who talked about what they hoped I would convey. I came back, with a glass or two of wine inside me, and sat down at my laptop and wrote a blogpost about how I had no idea of what was useful to talk about, and perhaps people could indicate whether what I was going to do would go down well. Knowing full well, what one writes in a mild alcoholic haze may be regretted the next morning, I didn’t publish the post till about 24 hours later, having checked it through for accidental indiscretions. Being content that nothing too untoward was in it I pressed ‘submit’, expecting little interest. It has turned out to be one of my most read posts, although it has been read as if written from a position of strength and knowledge, which was interesting and illuminating for me.  That was when I realised that you folk out there reading this, are prone to look at me as if I have the answers you may sometimes feel you lack, rather than realise that I have been frequently lost in mazes too but have learnt that sometimes good can come out of what looks like a black situation if you just persevere or find out how to duck and weave.

I am honoured and flattered that by speaking honestly about the trials and tribulations that I, like everyone else however successful, have faced people find my thoughts helpful and, yes, inspirational. So, thank you. Maybe the F in my Myers-Brigg personality test has some use after all, because I am sure it has not always facilitated my career path and interactions. Your collective responses encourage me to continue to speak up, not just for women but for all scientists-as-people-with-flaws-and-fears. Some people may be very good at covering up their concerns. Nevertheless, if you could scratch the surface even of those who have just about every prize and honour to their name, I suspect you might well find that they too have their anxieties and moments (or longer) of self-doubt.  It is worth remembering this when fears assault you.



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7 Responses to Myers-Briggs Tests and the Scientist

  1. I think sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling that being a scientist means you should know the answers and that somehow the personal uncertainty you’re talking about gets mixed in with that. I think this comes partly from the pressure we put ourselves under and partly from the perception by others that scientists are brainy and do know everything, we start to think we really ought to know so somehow it doesn’t seem safe to admit we don’t.

  2. Maggi Dawn says:

    I think the “F” and “T” categories in MyersBriggs are the most misunderstood, because people struggle to grasp that it’s not about mental v. emotional. Although I’m involved in humanities and quite a lot of people-oriented work, I score quite highly on “T”, which often surprises people.

  3. Kim Blake says:

    Wonderful piece; I work in the games industry, not science, but I completely recognise and empathise with the feelings expressed.

  4. I am always a bit skeptical of these tests, like IQ tests. I actually took 3 Myres-Briggs tests and my outcomes were vastly different I have been all letters with the exception I am always F not T. I think humans are just way too complex to be able to type easily. I feel amazingly insecure in some situations, but not in others. I do often have that feeling in science that everyone must know more than me, but that has faded some over time. I just got funded for a big competitive fellowship last week, and I am petrified. Not that I can’t do it necessarily, but it’s all a bit daunting. And I think that is perhaps why many women would refer to you as inspirational as you say, oftentimes when I tell people I am scared they either give me faux reassurance or look at me like I am nuts…
    Thanks for this post – it’s a nice read

    • I share your scepticism; I have tried several online versions of the MB test since writing this and,like you, can come up with very different collections of letters (I even got one T, but the others were F). @MariaWolters has taken me to task on twitter for referring to this test at all since she says it is ‘pseudoscience’ and I would hate to be seen supporting that. Nevertheless, accurate or not, I think the basic message is correct that different people approach problems in different ways which can be crudely characterised. My main point is that many people aren’t prepared to admit that they are daunted, scared or whatever, although that may be exactly what they are really feeling. I use your phrases here, whereby you have demonstrated you don’t fit in this category yourself.

  5. cromercrox says:

    I did a psychometric test – different from Myers-Briggs – that said I was a ‘specialist plant’. I.e. a geeky backroom boy without the skills (tact, mainly) to front a project. I found it disarmingly accurate.

  6. Yes, I feel they are abit like horoscopes or something, fun to reinforce what you happen to want to do at the time. But as an aside, I liked your point:

    “Nevertheless, if you could scratch the surface even of those who have just about every prize and honour to their name, I suspect you might well find that they too have their anxieties and moments (or longer) of self-doubt. It is worth remembering this when fears assault you”.

    I was just talking to an insecure school leaver about this very thing this morning. I find it to be almost universally true, in fact, perhaps even more for the greatly admired who often are so thoughtful they are more acutely aware of what they are not.

    It is one of the main things I wish I had known at the start of my career, I thought self-doubts meant I wasn’t really doing it right, whatever ‘it’ was at the time.

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