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The Story of Isabel Briggs Myers

Isabel Briggs Myers, with a bachelor's degree in political science and no academic affiliation, was responsible for the creation of what has become the most widely used and highly respected personality inventory of all time. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) instrument, now taken by at least two million people each year-and translated into sixteen languages-was developed over a period of more than forty years, progressing from Isabel Myers' dining room to a cottage industry, to the prestigious Educational Testing Service, and to its current publisher, CPP, Inc.

Isabel Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, both astute observers of human behavior, were drawn to C. G. Jung's work, which sparked their interest into a passionate devotion to put the theory of psychological type to practical use. With the onset of World War II, Isabel Myers recognized that a psychological instrument that has as its foundation the understanding and appreciation of human differences would be invaluable. She researched and developed the Indicator over the next four decades, until her death in 1980. Following are the tenets of Isabel Myers' philosophy, found among her papers after her death. She was known for her keen intelligence and tenacious curiosity, as well as a deeply held set of values and generosity of spirit. She is remembered for her enormous contribution to the field of psychological testing and to the theory of typology, but also for her strength of character and her tireless pursuit of human understanding.

What Is To Be Desired?
Self-respect: To be part of the solution, not part of the problem
Love: To love the human beings that mean the most to me, and contribute to their lives if I can
Peace of Mind: To avoid mistakes that make me regret the past or fear the future
Involvement: Always to be tremendously interested
Understanding: To incorporate the things, people and ideas that happen to me into a coherent concept of the world
Freedom: To work at what interests me most, with minimum expenditure of time and energy on non-essentials
— Isabel Briggs Myers

Isabel Briggs Myers was born October 18, 1897, to Lyman J. Briggs and Katharine Cook Briggs and spent her childhood in Washington, D.C., where her father worked as a physicist. She was home-schooled by her mother, a tradition carried on from Katharine's own upbringing. Isabel writes about the influence of her parents' ways on what ultimately became her life's work:

The whole Indicator project is the result of four pieces of tremendous luck that I had in my life. The first one was the kind of people that I got born to. My father, Lyman J. Briggs, was a research physicist. At the time that we actually got to making the Type Indicator he was the Director of the Bureau of Standards in Washington. Research was what he cared about most, and so I grew up thinking that the greatest fun in the world was to find out something that nobody knew yet, and maybe you could dig it out.

My mother was a faculty child; her father was on the faculty of Michigan State back when it was Michigan Agricultural College. This was at that time when there was no school on the campus, so faculty kids got taught by their parents. I don't think mother could remember who taught her writing, but she thought they did a very bad job of it. She never went to any school until she went into college which she did at the age of 14. . . . Having been in the habit of doing without formal schooling before the college level, my mother put the same thing into practice, and I went to school very little until I went to Swarthmore College. I grew all the way up to college with the idea that you can do things without having formally studied them. And that is an ingredient in the history of the Type Indicator.

While at Swarthmore College, Isabel Myers encountered what she refers to as a "piece of enormous luck" when she met and fell in love with Clarence "Chief" Myers, who was at that time preparing for a career in law. The love and devotion that began in college continued undiminished over the next sixty-one years.

Here is a brief history of Isabel Myers' life and the development of the MBTI instrument excerpted from an article by Mary McCaulley, Ph.D., president and co-founder of the Center for Applications of Psychological Type (CAPT). This article first appeared in the July 1980 edition of MBTI News.

The difference between Isabel's type preference (INFP) and Clarence's type preference (ISTJ) was an important fact in the history of the MBTI [instrument]. When asked once how she came to create the Indicator, Isabel Myers replied, 'Because I married Chief.' The difference between them was clear to Isabel's mother when Chief was brought home to meet the family one Christmas vacation. Katharine Briggs concluded that her prospective son-in-law was an admirable young man, but not at all like others in their family. Katharine embarked on a project of reading biographies and developed her own typology based on patterns she found. She identified meditative types, spontaneous types, executive types, and sociable types (later identified as Is, EPs, ETJs and EFJs). When Katharine Briggs discovered C. G. Jung's book, Psychological Types, she reported to her daughter, 'This is it!' and proceeded to study the book intensely. Mother and daughter became avid 'type watchers' over the next twenty years.

Clarence and Isabel were married in 1918 and settled in Swarthmore, a suburb of Philadelphia where Clarence practiced law. Two children were born of the marriage. Peter Briggs Myers and Ann Myers Hughes. Ann died unexpectedly after minor surgery in 1972. Isabel and Clarence had four grandchildren, Jonathan and Jennifer Myers, and Kathleen and Douglas Hughes.

When World War II began, Isabel Myers sought a way to help by finding a means for people to understand rather than destroy each other. In addition, she noticed many people taking jobs out of patriotism, but hating the tasks that went against their grain instead of using their gifts. She decided it was time to put Jung's ideas about type to practical use. A type indicator was needed.

In the next twenty years she carried on her activities in a way that was characteristic of her type. An Introvert, she worked alone, taking each of Jung's propositions seriously and finding ways from her own experience to use and extend them. Her Extraverted Intuition was ever alert to new meanings, new patterns, new insights. As she moved further into the intricacies of test construction, she harnessed her less preferred Sensing and Thinking preferences, using them consciously to further the goals of her dominant Feeling. A person who disliked detail in other areas, she would spend weeks and months scoring and analyzing data on thousands of cases to come up with one fact of interest.

Later in her life when she was in her seventies, she described the writing of the Manual and mentioned that she considered the criticisms a person with a Thinking preference would make, and then directed her own thinking to find an answer. An Extravert to whom she was speaking, said that if he wanted to know the criticisms of someone with a Thinking preference, he would not look into his own head. He would go find some thinkers, and ask them. Isabel looked startled and then amused.

Financially supported by her family, the work progressed for more than twenty years. She did not work entirely alone, however. Edward N. Hay, then head of personnel for a large Philadelphia bank, and later a well-known management consultant, let her work with the bank's personnel tests to familiarize herself with test construction. Friends and family served as sources of items and helped test their validity. She persuaded principals of schools in eastern Pennsylvania to permit her to test thousands of students.

A major change in the development of the Indicator came when her father happened to mention his daughter's work to the Dean of the George Washington School of Medicine, who permitted her to test the freshmen at his school. This was the beginning of a sample that eventually included 5,355 medical students, one of the largest longitudinal studies in medicine. This sample engaged her attention intermittently for years. She obtained data after four years and analyzed dropouts, and over- and under-achievers. She looked up the students after twelve years to see if they had chosen specialties to fit their types; they had. In 1964 she presented a paper on her findings in Los Angeles at the American Psychological Association. She never published her findings, but a monograph bringing together all the work on her medical study was prepared under government contract in 1977 and is available from CAPT.

By the time she presented the Los Angeles paper, she had also become interested in nursing and stopped at cities on her way home to persuade nursing schools to test their students. She ultimately collected a sample of over 10,000 nursing students from 71 diploma nursing schools and 670 of their faculty. The reason Isabel Myers was especially interested in students in the health professions was that she believed accurate perception and informed judgment, i.e., good type development, are especially important in professionals who have others' lives in their hands. She hoped the use of the MBTI [instrument] in training physicians and nurses would lead to programs during medical school for increasing command of perception and judgment for all types, and for helping students choose specialties most suited to their gifts. She returned to the medical sample from time to time over a period of twenty-five years.

In the early days of the medical sample, Educational Testing Service (ETS) heard of the MBTI [instrument] from a medical school dean. Henry Chauncey, then president of ETS, asked a psychologist on the staff, David Saunders, to investigate the MBTI [instrument]. In 1962, ETS published the MBTI [instrument], strictly for research use, against objections of some of the staff. For the first time MBTI data would be on a computer and Isabel could try out more questions.

In the 1960s, several years after publication, Harold Grant, first at Auburn and later at Michigan State University, introduced many students to the MBTI [instrument], and a series of important basic studies were conducted under his guidance. Slowly, the MBTI [instrument] was being discovered.

The 1970s saw increasing appreciation of Isabel Myers' work as faculty and students of the University of Florida began working with the Indicator. For some time she visited the university several times a year, and she and Mary McCaulley, Ph.D., attended other professional meetings together. For the first time, she met and shared ideas with numbers of people who were using her work.

During this period, Isabel Myers and Dr. McCaulley collaborated on developing a program to test a large body of unpublished research whereby Isabel Myers hoped to individualize the Indicator, using MBTI [instrument] response patterns to identify problems in use of perception and judgment; the goal of this work was to suggest next steps to further type development. Individually and together they conducted pilot studies to test their program.

Three national MBTI conferences were held—the first at the University of Florida in 1975, the second at Michigan State University in 1977, and the third in Philadelphia in 1979. Her health did not permit attendance in 1977, but Isabel Myers enjoyed the other two thoroughly, though at times she would be dismayed at the ways researchers treated her data. 'I know Intuitive types will have to change the MBTI [instrument]. That's in their nature, ' she would say. 'But I do hope that before they change it, they will first try to understand what I did. I did have my reasons.'

In 1975, publication of the Indicator was assumed by CPP, Inc. For the first time, the MBTI [instrument] was available as an instrument ready for use in helping people.

Despite failing health, from 1975 to 1979 Isabel re-standardized the MBTI [instrument] and developed the shorter form, Form G, paying attention to every detail, including design of the new scoring keys. She also conducted a study aimed at refining MBTI scoring. She completed her book, Gifts Differing and had the pleasure of seeing the galley proofs in the last month of her life. She remained actively interested in a chapter on the MBTI [instrument] to appear in the next volume of Paul McReynolds' Advances in Personality Assessment. Shortly before her death, she and Harold Grant worked out a plan for validation of her research to individualize the MBTI [instrument], using the longitudinal data at Auburn University, so that her many years of research on type development could be published and put to use.

In the last months of her life, when she spent much time sleeping or fighting fatigue, the sound of a theoretically interesting idea would cause her to sit bolt upright, her eyes sparkling, her incisive mind all curiosity and challenge. Throughout her research life, any mention of a sample in which members had high excellence or demonstrable problems set her off to study their answer sheets in search of response patterns that might predict their behavior. Over the years she completed a number of what she called 'little studies' comparing criterion groups with base populations of hundreds or thousands, without help from computers.

In conversation, she was always appreciative and interested, never critical. It was not wise to be lulled into complacency by her warm approbation, however. If you used a negative adjective to describe a type, she gently substituted another adjective with the same intent, but with a neutral tone. 'You mentioned pig headed. Did you mean firm?' If you assumed she was talking 'arm-chair' philosophy on a point, you found there were months of work and analysis behind her statements. She cared deeply about her work and fought for it against all criticisms. If data showed her wrong, she was all attention. She now had a new problem to solve to improve the Indicator. She never ceased her search for perfection.

"I dream that long after I'm gone, my work will go on helping people." -Isabel Myers, 1979

From small beginnings four decades earlier, through long, solitary years of painstaking research and development, Isabel Myers saw, at the end of her life, acceptance and appreciation of her work. Much more important to her was the certainty that what she had created would indeed go on to enrich millions of lives in the years to come.

   
 
 
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