I took the Myers-Briggs personality test for the first time the summer before my freshman year of high school. After being placed into the category of “INTJ,” I suddenly began to feel defined by those four letters. I thought it was my whole personality—everything everyone saw about me and everything that must be true about myself. The test results were constantly on my mind: my high school friends and I would point out whenever we acted in a certain way true to our Myers Briggs persona, or I would remark how someone else’s behavior revealed their ESFP-ness.
Myers-Briggs is a personality test that categorizes people into 16 possibilities, made up of 8 letters. The test sorts for extraversion versus introversion, sensing versus intuition, feeling versus thinking, perceiving versus judging. The website “16personalities.com” places your favorite celebrities into these categories, making this method of categorizing people seem more accurate—Barack Obama is an ENFP, Selena Gomez is an ISTJ, and Harry Potter is an ESFP. Every person is unique—although not completely given that there only are 16 personalities. The key appeal of these tests comes from the notion that every person can be understood if considered through this limited lens.
The Myers-Briggs test remains popular but has since been disputed by many sources such as Merve Emre’s “The Personality Brokers,” Annie Murphy Paul’s “The Cult of Personality Testing,” and Louis Menand’s critique. The creators of the test, Katherine Briggs and Isabel Meyers, lacked any sort of background in psychology; the test thus lacks any sort of scientific background or validity. Most test results are self-reported. At the end of the day, Myers-Briggs slots into what we might call “pop psychology.”
Pop psychology consists in the commercialization of psychological ideals that are thought to be backed by scientific findings. Not all pop psychology is certain and true, as the Myers-Briggs test demonstrates. Instead, it attempts to appeal to a mass amount of people and inform them, in general terms, how to improve their lives. These recommendations are based more on popular ideas and concepts that have become normalized by the masses than on legitimate scientific literature. Pop psychology, above all, is a business, one that monopolizes on people’s desire to understand themselves and the world around them. Avenues like Psychology.com or various other personality tests in the same vein as Myers-Briggs market themselves as methods for self-comprehension. In the same vein, pop psychology has also propagated concepts of self-care as people’s only necessary healing method and therapy.
Our acceptance of pop psychology methods of self-introspection and healing needs to be questioned. Are these pop psychology productions effective? Or are they a distraction from necessary healing and real understanding of the self?
Because of the growth in popularity of pop psychology, celebrity therapists such as Dr. Phil grew in popularity as a result, entertaining individual’s deepest fears, misperceptions, interpersonal conflict, and false opinions, as Margaret McCartney has written. Therapy became reduced to a reality TV show, allowing the viewers to feel comfortable about their individual problems in relation to those presented on the TV show. Celebrity therapists and personality tests all represent the commercialization of psychology and the dilution of the practice. Tests like Myers-Briggs are perceived as truthful about personality and indicative of the profession an individual should choose to go into. The patients of celebrity therapists are seen as the “typical” therapy patient. This creates the misperception that one must have as intense or dramatic of issues as Dr. Phil’s patients to see one’s own therapist. It creates more stigma behind getting help and fails to present the reality of what a therapy session looks like.
Why is this important? How can the popularization of personal self-reflection and reflection be negative for society?
The idea that you can solve your mental illness, your intergenerational trauma, and long-term anxieties through the techniques of pop psychology creates a dangerous environment for many individuals. The normalization of mental illnesses and self-introspection is an important start to raising awareness of your individual problems and inherited tendencies. However, what if our societal obsession with pop psychology has engendered an overreliance on pseudo-science to solve mental illness?
It’s important to dig into the root of the problem. Considering the paucity of mental healthcare in the United States, our turn to pop psychology makes sense. Outside of these internet sources, though, support for mental illness is difficult to receive. Out-of-pocket therapy is expensive, and often the best psychotherapists—those who are not just counselors and hold several degrees in psychology—do not take healthcare. There is then an automatic financial barrier to receiving care, aside from the fact that therapy itself can be a daunting task beyond any financial burdens. These pop psychology resources then almost become necessary. Even though they are not fully productive, they are the first and most accessible way to receive care.
Pop psychology, though, exploits the inaccessibility of real mental health care and allows people to feel they are being treated, even though these problems will likely remain. It is both a blessing and an evil—it lets people get some sort of care and raises awareness over psychological conditions, but it hampers people from fully receiving the care they need.
Dr. Phil, personality tests, and self-care tests are the first step in treating ourselves. What comes next, though, cannot be ignored. Medication and real therapy are the most important part of healing one’s brain, and although these pop psychology tests are free and seemingly try to tell you who you are and how to improve your wellbeing, they are not the final step. Their marketing and accessible manner can become a distraction from the process of fully healing, and many in our society, given the traumas and deluge of doomsday information of the 21st century, need to heal first.