Fiction

The best books on Personality Types

recommended by Merve Emre

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

Since its birth in the early twentieth century, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become the most popular personality test in the world. Here, Merve Emre, author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, recommends five books that reveal how the language of 'type' has seeped into the marrow of American civic institutions and social life—from Fortune 500 companies to Breakfast at Tiffany's.

  • 1

    Psychological Types
    by Carl Jung

  • 2

    The Great Gatsby
    by F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • 3

    Murder Yet To Come
    by Isabel Briggs Myers

  • 4

    Breakfast at Tiffany's
    by Truman Capote

  • 5

    The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life
    by Erving Goffman

Since its birth in the early twentieth century, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has become the most popular personality test in the world. Here, Merve Emre, author of the new book The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, recommends five books that reveal how the language of 'type' has seeped into the marrow of American civic institutions and social life—from Fortune 500 companies to Breakfast at Tiffany's.

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You’ve just written a fascinating book on the history of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, The Personality Brokers (published under alternate title What’s Your Type? in the UK.) Before that, you wrote a startlingly original work of literary criticism called Paraliterary, which explored the making of ‘bad readers’ in post-war America. First, let me ask: how does the genesis of a research question typically come about for you? And what first sparked your interest in the history of personality testing?

When I graduated from college, I worked as a consultant for Bain & Company. In my second week on the job, every associate had to take a Myers Briggs Type Indicator. We walked into a room, sat down, and were given a questionnaire to fill out. A couple of weeks later at a very luxurious company offsite, an executive talent coach was brought in to tell us what our Myers Briggs types were, and to debrief us on them. That debriefing consisted of her showing us the sixteen different MBTI types and telling us what our types’ strengths and weaknesses were, and the different ways we could think of moving up the ranks at this company.

What type were you?

I’m an ENTJ. Which is apparently the type of most dictators and CEOs. [Laughs.]

I remember being incredibly seduced by the language of type (which is what I call it in my book) at 22, in part because I was never the kind of teenager or young adult who had much use for projects of self-discovery. I thought they were indulgences that nobody really deserved, a waste of time. I’d never really stopped to think about myself as a person in the sense that MBTI claimed I was: a set of innate preferences that interacted in predictable and manageable ways.

For me, this was a truly original scene of self-discovery; it produced an unprecedented self-knowledge. I remember going up to the personnel coach afterwards, because I really wanted to talk to her about myself. (I had never been to therapy at that point, so this also seemed like a novel opportunity.) She was charmingly dismissive—she had 300 people to talk to about their types, and no one person justified any individual attention—but she told me I was poised to lead one day, either this company or another one. At 22, having just started this new job, hearing that I was the type who was poised to rise in the ranks quickly—to be a leader and take over—was appealing.

As it turns out, I was a terrible consultant. I left that job after about nine months to go get a PhD in English. I spent most of my final months there reading novels under my desk, and I forgot about the type indicator and personality testing entirely until a half-decade later, when I had finished my first book and was looking for a topic for my second. Initially, I thought I was going to write an academic book about the relationship between the aesthetic construction of literary character and twentieth century discourses of personality. As I started researching that project, I remembered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Then I discovered it had been invented by these two women, a mother and a daughter, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, and that Isabel had written mystery novels. I thought, what a perfect nexus: a project that brings together my interest in personality and literature.

“Then I discovered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator had been invented by these two women, a mother and a daughter.”

I tried to gain access to Isabel’s archives. One of the stories that I tell at the beginning of the book is how I was thwarted by the Center for the Application of Personality Type, which asked me to go through an MBTI “re-education program” before they would allow me to have access to the archives. Which I did—and then denied me access to the archives anyway! It really sparked a fire in me.

Revenge plot!

I will say it did start out with a desire for revenge. I was angry that I’d been denied access after jumping through hoops. But that anger was always tied to a deeper sense of curiosity: what was in the archives that they didn’t want me to see?

As I started researching the book, what became much more interesting to me than the banal scandals of the test—like any other mid-century instrument designed to measure aptitude or personality, it has all kinds of racist, sexist, and classist assumptions baked into it; that it was not statistically valid or reliable—was the biography of the mother and the daughter who created the indicator. That’s how The Personality Brokers ended up emerging as this hybrid work of history and biography and cultural criticism.

What’s the story that The Personality Brokers is trying to tell? I think most readers probably be surprised to learn about how the personality test permeates twentieth-century American history from early decades even through to the Cold War.

The Personality Brokers tells the story of how an instrument that started off as a domestic tool—a tool for figuring out how to professionalize childcare in the early twentieth century—made its way into the world.

What the reader might be surprised to learn is that not just Myers Briggs, but many, many personality tests or inventories were designed by people who had very idiosyncratic notions of what personality was, and the dimensions along which to measure it. The Personality Brokers begins with Katharine Briggs, a mother who lost two of her three children very early in their infancies. She wanted to figure out a way to preserve the lives of her children and their personalities so they could ultimately find their specialized calling in the world. Through specialization, she believed they could attain salvation—they could discover who they were, what they were good at, and, in the process, pursue the kinds of useful, socially beneficial deeds that would save their souls.

Katharine’s mission struck me as a really interesting marriage of the techno-bureaucratic language of specialization to the language of spiritual awakening. This seems in some ways familiar to us today—it’s not that far off from what we see in Silicon Valley firms. But in 1897, this was an incredibly unusual position to hold, and an incredibly unusual position for a woman to hold, I think. Some of the earliest predecessors of the MBTI were in the questionnaires that Katharine Briggs designed to assess the personalities of her children and the neighborhood children. These tests helped them figure out how they could specialize so they could grow up to become the most powerful and well-adjusted versions of themselves, and contribute to society at large. So The Personality Brokers starts off as a story of domestic responsibility and domestic labor, wedded to a kind of faith in what raising children in a proper way could bear out for society at large.

In 1923, Katharine Briggs discovers Carl Jung’s Psychological Types and becomes utterly obsessed with it and with him. From his writing, she derives a more rigorous vocabulary for understanding the different types of people in the world. Over time, her techno-bureaucratic, spiritual mission turns into a psycho-sexual obsession. She’s desirous of him. She writes long letters to him where she projects an intimate relationship between them. She writes erotic fan fiction about him. She believes he’s contributed to her intellectual renewal, which she understands as a kind of spiritual rebirth.

The second part of The Personality Brokers narrates how her daughter, a more recognizably modern woman and a slightly savvier capitalist than Katharine, realizes after World War II that there’s a tremendous desire in corporations for “people-sorting instruments” that will help fit workers to the jobs that are right for them—that will help them specialize outside the home. She spends some time working for a personnel consultant validating the tests and instruments he uses, and decides she should make her own. Using the theory of type inherited from her mother via Jung, she designs the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. From there, it’s on the backs of various kooky personalities that the MBTI ends up in the university system, the CIA and the military, hospitals, corporations, and wellness centers all over the world.

Before we move onto your five choices, I wanted to ask: The Personality Brokers has received rave reviews so far, everywhere from in The New York Times to the Spectator, but I wanted to flag up one review in the New Yorker, where Louis Menand gives the book a tough reading.

I don’t recognize the book that I wrote anywhere in that review.

Some of the attributions seem a bit clumsy. He writes that you call the MBTI “among the silliest, shallowest products of late capitalism.” But that’s not the thesis of your book, not at all. In asserting The Personality Brokers swings between the poles of judgmental condemnation and excessive empathy with your subjects, what’s Menand missing?

The review was deeply committed to the kind of typological thinking—Emre as professor, Emre as mother—that revealed a lot of what Menand thinks about my professional position, my parental status and my comportment, and very little about what Menand thinks about the argument of my book.

Let’s move on to your five choices. The first is called Personality Types, by the founder of psychology, Carl Jung. In this book, he categorizes people as “introverts” and “extraverts,” “intuitive” and “sensing” types, “thinkers” and “feelers.” Are these Jung’s main contribution to understandings of personality? How do they become the basis for the MBTI test?

Before Jung came out with the book in the earlier twentieth century, there was a lot of skepticism about both psychoanalysis and analytic psychology. This was mostly from behaviorists in the United States (such as John Watson) who thought that psychoanalysis and analytic psychology mystified how we talked about people so that we didn’t have to engage in real observational research. But in 1923, Psychological Types comes out, and it seems to re-up the idea of a psychology that is mystical in nature—the idea that there are human characteristics that are innate and unchanging, that exist somewhere in the soul of mankind. Of course, the soul for someone like Watson is what you can’t see or hear or observe in any way. There’s no way of empirically verifying the activities of the soul. For him, Psychological Types represents a retreat into psychology as the mystical, and it makes the psychologist into a kind of shaman or religious leader.

If you read all 600-plus pages of Psychological Types, you will see that it’s a survey of many different systems of belief—Eastern and Western, theological and aesthetic—from the beginning of recorded human history, to see how they can all be placed into the schema that Jung has set up. Jung argues that there are distinct and differentiable types of people in the world, by which he means that people exhibit certain “habitual attitudes” throughout their lives: there are people who are extroverted and introverted types, sensing types and intuitive types, and feeling and thinking types. Psychological Types is Jung’s grand attempt to re-write every single philosophical system according to those new dimensions.

“Jung argues that there are distinct and differentiable types of people in the world, by which he means that people exhibit certain “habitual attitudes” throughout their lives.”

It’s an extraordinary book not only for how ambitious it is, but also for the extraordinary acts of close reading it provides throughout: extraordinary interpretations of Plato, Aristotle, Goethe, Schiller, Freud, William James. Jung is determined to engage with all these different texts and different characters, real and literary, to try to draw out from their actions and their writing evidence of their souls.

Briggs reads Psychological Types in 1923, and we see how, as you write in your book, Jung’s ideas are “refracted through the hazy prism of Katharine and Isabel’s philosophy of specialization.” What then?

Katharine Briggs originally discovered Watson’s review of Psychological Types in The New Republic in 1923. She ordered it, and read it in the midst of a terrible depression. Her daughter Isabel had just left for college; she was a quintessential empty-nester and didn’t know what to do with herself.

Understanding Psychological Types became her life’s work from then on. She attended to it with a religious devotion: she’d write out passages from it in her notebook, on 3’’ x 5’’ index cards she kept at her bedside table. Eventually, she started sending Jung letters, asking him to clarify what he meant in different parts of the book. Most importantly, she started typing herself and the people around her. She believed that the language of type Jung developed in the book offered her a way of understanding things that had previously seemed inscrutable to her: basic differences between her husband and herself; why it was that she felt so alienated by his cold, logical approach to life; why it was that he often perceived her as hysterical. She believed that Jung’s dynamic of thinking and feeling gave them a language not just to understand but to appreciate their differences without each trying to change the other person.

In a letter to Briggs, Jung wrote this beautiful sentence, which you quote in your book: “Intuition can see through walls and round the corners and into the deepest obscurities of the human heart.” The language of type seems meticulously clinical and scientific, but does a certain mystery enshroud it?

On the one hand, it does seem scientific. It’s beholden to the observation of people’s psychological “mechanisms” or “functions,” according to Jung—it has an empiricist coloring to it. On the other hand, Briggs believes that the point of language of type is to access one’s soul. Her larger aspiration is to figure out how people can speak to and about their souls in a way that will guarantee them salvation. Jung inspires that in her. She transmits that language of type to her daughter, and it becomes the cornerstone of the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Three of the four categories that the MBTI purports to measure today—introversion and extroversion, sensing and intuition, thinking and feeling—are all directly taken from Psychological Types.

To me, what’s interesting is that the definition of those terms have really drifted over time. We see this with extroversion and introversion, which are probably the most well-known of Jung’s dichotomies. Today we tend to think of a preference for extroversion as aligned with behavior like sociability, talkativeness, and we tend to think of a preference for introversion as aligned with being quiet or shy.

But that’s not at all what those categories meant to Jung, and not what they meant to Katharine Briggs either. Initially, an extrovert was somebody who was an extraordinarily chameleonic figure. An extrovert was always shifting their sense of self and self-presentation to align with whatever the demands of their external circumstance were, while the introvert was someone who had such a strong, unyielding sense of their own subjectivity that they refused to change themselves according to external circumstances.

That’s fascinating.

Yes! The example that Jung gives in the book is that on a blustery day, the extrovert is the person who says they’ll put a coat on when they go outside because they don’t want to get cold, and the introvert is the person who says, fuck it, I’ll go outside as I am and let the elements do their worst. But that has very little to do with the way we use the words introvert and extravert today. They’ve taken on the language that is appropriate to their use in corporate environments and hierarchies. The question of whether you’re talkative or withdrawn, sociable or shy is important when you’re assessing people to see how they fit into certain group dynamics, right? It’s very much being part of an institution, being part of a group. But for Jung, that was not the original purpose—it wasn’t for institutional assessment, but for self-discovery.

When you talk about the Jungian meaning of extroversion as a chameleonic quality, it makes me think of the title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, your second choice. This one seems an unusual pick for a book on personality types—how does it fit in to this list as a story about the creation of personality?

Very early in the book, Fitzgerald writes, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life.” One of the things I love about teaching Gatsby is tracing the ways in which some people get to be personalities in the earlier sense of the term—personality as that which makes someone a human being as opposed to an animal or object. Some people get to be characters, and some people can only be gestures or (as Fitzgerald describes Gatsby) a seismograph: “one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.”

This is one of the great tensions about the different definitions of personality and how they relate to definitions of the self. Is personality an extension of some essential self? Is it the self forcefully expressed, and externally expressed? Or is personality simply a series of performances about selfhood that can vary according to the different contexts that one is in? Does my personality (and sense of self) change when I’m sitting in this room, talking to you, giving this interview, versus when I’m at home with my children? Can I have multiple selves based on what socio-institutional context I inhabit, or is there something truly immutable and unchangeable about personality?

“Is personality an extension of some essential self?…Or is personality simply a series of performances about selfhood that can vary according to the different contexts that one is in?”

To me, these questions map one of the key philosophical tensions of the book. The reason I love teaching Gatsby is because I think it so brilliantly encapsulates that, and so much of reading that book for students is trying to figure out who Jay Gatsby or James Gatz is and, by extension, what it means to exist as a person in the world or a character in a work of fiction.

It seems like just as a novel like Gatsby is about its protagonist weaving and unweaving a personality for wealth and prestige, it’s also equally about the writing practice of its author. How does Fitzgerald think of personality and character?

Fitzgerald’s fictions are filled with performers, with actresses and actors who are highly attentive to the ways in which they’re speaking and gesturing, and the ways in which their performances of self are being perceived by others. Those perceptions, in turn, affect their performances.

Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories track these highly sophisticated feedback loops of personality. The whole plot of Tender is the Night, for instance, can be traced by the moments when people stare at each other’s faces and adjust their faces in response: Dick at Rosemary’s, Rosemary at Dick’s, Rosemary at Nicole’s, all possible permutations of people self-consciously adjusting their visible personalities weaving us in and out of the Diver’s marriage.

The most thrilling moments in Fitzgerald’s fictions are when those performances seem to escape the control of the performer. I think this is why people are so drawn to the scene of piling the shirts in The Great Gatsby, when Gatsby is described as “running down like an overwound clock.” On the one hand, it’s an intense, predictable performance of class and taste, and on the other hand, it’s always on the verge of slipping into something that looks like madness, a “many colored disarray,” or, in the most recent film adaptation, total ecstasy. That seems to me one of the essential tensions of personality that Fitzgerald’s novels do an amazing job expressing.

Your third book is a murder mystery written by one of the creators of the MBTI, Isabel Briggs Myers, called Murder Yet To Come (1930). It’s one of the more minor titles on your list—why did you choose it?

This is what initially got me into writing this book in the first place—Isabella Briggs Myers and the fact that she was a writer of mystery novels.

I read her novels and one of the things I was struck by was their deviance from the character setup of traditional detective fiction, where you have the detective and his sidekick. The detective is the brilliantly perceptive one—the person who can look at you and see immediately that the right side of your cheek is shaved a little less well than the left side of your cheek, which means the window in your bathroom is West-facing instead of East-facing, and the slight limp in your left leg suggests you’ve recently returned from war. The detective can deduce all sorts of things about you from the tiniest details. He’s a virtuosic reader of people and has an incredible hermeneutic capability.

The sidekick is the person who narrates the detective’s adventures. That dyad always seemed to me to work fabulously as a narrative device, but what was so interesting to me, reading Isabel Briggs Myers’s detective fiction, was that they featured trios or quartets of detectives. That seemed like too many cooks in the kitchen until I realized that for her, the detective story was an occasion to model the rational organization of labor according to the language of type that she inherited from her mother. One detective is able to perceive things that others can’t; the other is able to communicate tactfully with different witnesses; the third is able to make really effective decisions.

In her hands, solving a mystery becomes a group effort—a precursor to a show like CSI or Law & Order, which institutionalize the pursuit of justice, rather than the vigilante detective who’s going behind the back of Scotland Yard because he’s such a genius and institutional rules and hierarchies only cramp his style. Isabel Briggs Myers’s detectives function as a well-oiled machine; each of them has a different part to play, and only through cooperation can they solve the case. It exemplifies a certain bureaucratic heroism premised on the logic of type.

“Solving a mystery becomes a group effort—a precursor to a show like CSI or Law & Order

But Murder Yet To Come is also a genuinely good murder mystery. It’s well-written, it’s entertaining, rapidly-moving, and propulsive. In 1928, it won the largest award ever for a murder mystery, beating out a young Ellery Queen. There’s also just the pleasure of recovering a book that has basically been lost but that was once a huge bestseller in its time—it went through seven or eight printings, and made Isabel a tremendous amount of money which she lost in the depression.

The publisher of the book, the Center for the Application of Psychological Type (CAPT), suggests that the reader try to guess the personality type of each character. Do you find that’s a productive way to read the novel—in other words, do you need to be schooled in MBTI types to enjoy it?

The novel does teach you how to think typologically, so I don’t think you need the specific language of Myers Briggs in order to enjoy it. You can enjoy it based upon the mystery of it alone. But I think it’s very interesting that CAPT wants to make the novel into an occasion for the language of type to invade fiction.

To become a way of reading.

Right. One way to relate this to my first book Paraliterary is to think of reading typologically as a form of bad reading: it’s a way of refusing individuality and always reading for typicality. CAPT is trying to use the novel to teach a form of bad reading, and the novel is perfectly poised to do that.

Your fourth choice is Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Now, many people will have seen the famous film—but in your book, you tell the rather unusual story of its origin. Clue us in?

One of the first places to use the Myers Briggs Type Indicator in the wider world was the Institution for Personality Research and Research (IPAR). It was housed at a fraternity house in Berkeley that had been purchased by a psychologist named Donald MacKinnon, the first person to buy the Myers Briggs Type Indicator from Isabel.

At IPAR, MacKinnon wanted to create what he called a ‘house party approach’ to testing. He’d bring people to live in this fraternity house for long weekends. He’d give them personality tests; he’d have them compete against each other in games; he’d put them in deliberately stressful situations. And he’d have psychology graduate students watching their behavior to see what they could discern about personality from this very strange, immersive testing experience. It was a kind of a proto-Real World.

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MacKinnon was obsessed with the question of what made people creative. This was at the height of the Cold War, when people believed that creativity was what would help the U S win the space race, and researchers were highly preoccupied with figuring out whether creative types could be created, or whether creativity was innate and couldn’t be taught. MacKinnon got a ton of money from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation to investigate creativity. One of his approaches was to bring in creative writers—including Truman Capote, Kenneth Burke, MacKinlay Kantor, and Howard Baker, and on other weekends William Carlos Williams, Norman Mailer, and Marianne Moore—to live in the fraternity house together and submit to his tests.

Why did they all agree to that?

Some of them didn’t! He writes to Katherine Anne Porter and says, will you come and do this? And she tells him it’s ridiculous and that he’ll learn nothing about what he wants to know through this experiment, “even less than the good Doctor Kinsey learned about sex.” Many of these social-psychological projects from the mid-century just seem so utterly ludicrous to us today! It’s hard to imagine how they got off the ground in the first place.

The weekend that Truman Capote comes to live at the house, one of the exercises that they do—in addition to figuring out their MBTI types—is a storytelling exercise. The five writers there for the weekend sit in a circle together. A staff psychologist tells them that they’re all going to tell a story together, and each person gets to introduce a new character. As new characters are introduced, the writers can draw connections between all of them, integrating them into one overarching narrative. One writer introduces a poor but handsome young man, an aspiring writer. Another introduces an older, wealthy gentleman. Another introduces an older waitress at a diner where all of the characters are eating.

Then Truman Capote introduces a character he calls Anna Bouchari, a young girl who has moved from the country to the city. She’s actually much younger than she says she is; she pretends she’s 22. She wants to live in an apartment in New York, be fabulous and independent, throw parties and be wealthy, and she’s trying to decide whether she should be kept by the wealthy gentleman in the diner or whether she should run away with the young, penniless writer.

Anna Bouchari is, in many ways, a prototype for Holly Golightly, who would appear in Breakfast at Tiffany’s in Harper’s a few months later—and which Capote had not actually written until his experiences at IPAR. So much of that novella is about personality, and about the way one is liberated by personality or burdened by it. Here is Capote on Holly Golightly and Mildred Grossman, an oily-haired, bespectacled “grind” the narrator once knew in school:

The average personality reshapes frequently, every few years even our bodies undergo a complete overhaul—desirable or not, it is a natural thing that we should change …. [H]ere were two people who never would. That is what Mildred Grossman had in common with Holly Golightly. They would never change because they’d been given their character too soon; which, like sudden riches, leads to a lack of proportion: the one had splurged herself into a top-heavy realist, the other a lopsided romantic. I imagined them in a restaurant of the future, Mildred still studying the menu for its nutritional values, Holly still gluttonous for everything on it.

I think for Capote, evidence and traces of his experience at IPAR discovering his own personality seem to be knitted throughout the novella. There’s this wonderful moment in the storytelling exercise where one of the other writers there that weekend, the famously stoic literary critic Kenneth Burke, gets into a fight with Capote. Burke is angry that Capote has taken over the story. He isn’t moved by what the staff calls Capote’s ‘Boy Wonder’ affectations, and starts lecturing him very sternly in the language of the serious scholar. Capote is deflecting all of his lecturing with these little quips and comments about the stage, the screen, and his friends. Things get very heated. I suppose this is what happens when writers and critics end up in the same room as each other.

Boot camp!

[Laughs.] When writers go to camp, when they end up in the real world together. It’s funny thinking how you would stage it today.

A theme repeated over and over throughout the book is the shape-shifting personality of Holly: the narrator writes at one point about halfway through she’s “a crude exhibitionist,” “a time waster”, “an utter fake.” It’s like her allure is that she doesn’t slot easily into any ‘type.’ But elsewhere, she does, almost to the point of parody: when she remarks “I suppose I am” after the narrator calls her the “most interesting person,” Capote writes that “she smoothed her tousled hair, and the colors of it glimmered like a shampoo advertisement.”

She’s a personality in a different sense of the word: she’s a playgirl, a “glamor girl,” a “movie starlet,” a mass media personality. That’s why the metaphor of her hair shining like a shampoo ad is so perfect—she’s a consumerist fantasy. She reveals Capote’s dark and more ironic understanding of personality, which was the incessant exhibition of the self so the self could be traded on what Erich Fromm called “the personality market.” He was very aware of how he was operating as a celebrity on that market. As a celebrity, people project personality onto you in so many ways, but they can’t ever have access to anything real. Holly Golightly holds these various understandings of personality in tension.

Truman’s dark idea of personality as commodified performance is a real contrast to the soulful, spiritual undertones of Briggs we talked about earlier.

I think that’s exactly right. The operative term that I don’t think Capote could ever take seriously was the idea of the soul. For Briggs, that’s a very serious term—the revolution of the soul is the ultimate end goal of all her talk of type. But for Capote, there’s a weariness with, even a fear of, the idea of the soul. His interest in personality has much more to do with the way that celebrity and personality are wedded together to create a projection of individuality, whereas Briggs isn’t interested in that at all. She’s interested in personality as being private rather than public; the latter is Capote’s understanding of it.

Your fifth choice is a work of sociology, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman. Tell us about it.

It’s about trying to systematically understand the ways in which people behave in social situations—how they collaborate with others to make and maintain their sense of self by playing certain roles. It’s a way to analyze social interaction without defaulting to the idiosyncrasies of the individual. Rather, Goffman is interested in making sense of everyday interactions between ‘normal’ people in a highly systematic way. To me, that’s what’s so interesting about Goffman’s project: taking what looks like a messy, irreducibly complex assortment of human behavior and trying to suss patterns out of them. For Myers and Briggs, the answer was type. For Goffman, it’s ritual, practice, stigma.

There’s an eight-word, five-star review on Goodreads of this book that makes me laugh: “explains in 250 pages why parties are terrible.” Is this an accurate summation?

I love that quote, in part because it gets at something that’s true about parties as dramaturgical occasions. We go to parties and spend time obsessing over the minutiae of our face-to-face interactions and others’ perceptions of them. Who’s talking to whom? How are they standing? Who brought who a drink? Did they touch or brush their hand as they gave it to them? Who left first? Who left second? All of these unspoken social codes, these mutually sustaining interaction rituals, are precisely what Goffman was interested in. He was concerned with the way that these minute interactions and impressions could accrete, the way they could reflexively inform our future interactions and impressions, forming the sum total of what we understand as social life.

“Goffman is interested in making sense of everyday interactions between ‘normal’ people in a highly systematic way.”

Goffman really goes together with Fitzgerald in so far he is also focused on the manifestations of personality in these different, highly contingent social situations. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to him. He appears in The Personality Brokers in a chapter that reveals that the first institution to buy the MBTI from Isabel Briggs Myers was the OSS, the precursor to the CIA. During World War Two, the OSS was interested in how to match spies or covert operatives to the missions that were best suited to them.

One of the ways they did this was by designing high-pressure dramaturgical exercises where each spy was asked to play a role. The scenarios range from incredibly banal ones—for example, a work situation in which one person plays the boss and the other plays the employer—to more dangerous scenarios, like being the leader of a troop that has to send one of its members out on a secret mission that’ll probably result in his death. It was the job of the leader to persuade his officer to take on that mission.

The spies were asked to play these different characters, and the idea was that if you were good enough or adept enough at shifting your personality to suit the situations you found yourself in, then these roles would no longer seem like characters to you—they would somehow become an extension of your self. The interactions would transform from stilted melodramas to recognizable, believable interaction rituals. The audience was supposed to watch and judge the degree to which people actually inhabited the characters they’d been assigned.

To me, this seems like a Goffmanian exercise insofar as it literalizes his metaphor of self-presentation as a performance. The OSS takes everyday face-to-face interactions and asks people to inhabit them in ways that make them feel intensely and unusually self-conscious of what they are doing. It becomes this set-up for the micro-sociological practice of paying attention to the minutiae of tone, gesture, and eye contact that Goffman pursues in Interaction Ritual, Stigma, and my favorite essay of his, “Where the Action Is.” It does so in this institutional context—the military—that puts an immense amount of pressure on people to behave according to certain behavioral rituals, knowing that they’re being scrutinized for it.

To wrap up, what’s the relevance of caring about personality types today? You tell the stories of people who set an enormous amout of store by the MBTI in your book. It’s clear from the introduction that by the end of writing The Personality Brokers, you didn’t traffic in that perspective. Where did you arrive, in the end?

While I don’t personally buy into the idea, one of the motivating questions behind the book was why so many people do. People I don’t think are delusional or crazy or desperate, people who I think are generally really smart and thoughtful people, many of whom are my friends and family members persist in believing in it, even though there’s no scientific basis for it. It was akin to asking the question of why people believe in God or hold onto any kind of spiritual belief when there’s no evidence for it.

Where I now come down on that (and where I feel closer to those subjects than I did at the beginning) is that type offers an incredibly clarifying language for self-understanding. It does an exemplary job making the individual the master and arbiter of her own destiny. It says: look, now that you know who you are, you can embrace your preferences, your habits, your self, without any shame. You can figure out how to live according to those preferences, so you don’t feel like you’re constantly judging or berating yourself for not wanting the things that other people want. For many of the people I spoke with, it provided this incredible sense of liberation.

“Type offers an incredibly clarifying language for self-understanding. It does an exemplary job making the individual the master and arbiter of her own destiny.”

I obviously don’t feel it as strongly, but as I talk about in the book, there are moments when I slip into that language and it doesn’t feel wrong, or I’m not inclined to feel overly critical of it. Parenting seems like one of those areas for me. The utter lack of knowledge that you have about your own children, especially when they’re young and communication is either in early stages or doesn’t exist, and the fact you can only seem to glean anything about them through their preferences—which don’t have to be verbally communicated—made it surprisingly appealing to me. I often find myself slipping into the language of type when I’m talking about my own children. Of course, it’s important to pull back from that for many reasons. But for people who want some kind of clarity in situations where clarity isn’t immediately available, the language of type can be incredibly useful and helpful.

But what you’re also saying is that the idea that type unlocks the key to being master of your own destiny is a fiction, because the language of type has bled into so many institutional settings and personality testing has been threaded into the fabric of our society as a tool of control.

Of course. That’s the dialectic—between the institution and the individual—that the book is always trying to understand. It’s impossible to use that language of introversion and extroversion without that language being informed and weighed down by a certain set of beliefs and ideologies. Those ideologies are set by institutions like corporations and schools that reproduce hierarchies of race, class, and gender by telling us what kinds of people we’re supposed to value in the world, who gets to have a place in the social order, who gets access to the language of individuality. The Personality Brokers is interested in how one can narrate the individual experience of type alongside the institutional experience of type, without dismissing either.

Interview by Stephanie Kelley

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