These four letters are featured in ads, added to everyday conversations, featured in PC games, and even on Spotify playlists. Walk into a coffee shop and you can hear first date couples discussing them; visit a fortune teller, and they can become harbingers of your future; open a dating app and about a third of the profiles will include them.
The MBTI is a personality test, officially known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that divides people into 16 “types”, each of which is assigned psychological traits and a four-letter code.
The test was created by two Americans who saw it as a way to select women for jobs during World War II. It has been in and out of fashion since then, gaining popularity in the 1990s as a career guidance tool in colleges and offices.
But its most recent surge in popularity has been among trendy young South Koreans, for whom knowing their MBTI type has become the latest craze, especially when it comes to dating.
Instead of wasting time on more traditional ways of finding a partner, some stalwarts of this younger generation, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are using the MBTI to get down to business – and eliminate personalities deemed incompatible.
According to Lim Myung-ho, a professor of psychology at Dankook University, the MBTI approach to dating appeals to the practicality of “Generation MZ” (a combination of Millennials and Generation Z).
“In this society, if you know in advance the type that suits you, it is considered more efficient,” Lim said.
That’s why Lee Da Hyun, a 23-year-old university student from Seoul, always tells people about her MBTI type before the first meeting.
“I don’t need to go on and explain about myself. I can save time by saying that I am ENFP (“energetic and friendly”), and they will be able to understand what kind of person I am,” Li said. “These days, everyone knows their type and the personality of that type.”
Lee’s experience only strengthened her faith in the system. Her boyfriend’s type is supposedly compatible with hers – and “we’ve been together for over 1,000 days, so this is proof that these types are a match,” she said.
But not everyone is convinced. Some experts, some of whom may remember the MBTI from its previous incarnations, are wondering if the youth are overlooking the multitude of suitable partners in the misguided hope of finding their happiness in an elusive four-letter combination.
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Mother-daughter duo Katherine Cooke Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers created their indicator, based on the theories of the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, in the 1940s, when women were first being asked to fill vacant industrial jobs. male labor force sent to war.
Their test states that every person leans towards either extraversion or introversion; sensation or intuition; thinking or feeling; and judge or perceive.
Each of these “preferences” is represented by a letter, and various combinations of these four letters make up a total of 16 personality types.
The relative simplicity of the test is part of its enduring appeal. By the 1980s, the MBTI had become ubiquitous in the Western corporate world, where it was often used in hiring decisions and training courses.
But since then, skepticism about the scientific merits of the test has led to a decline in its popularity in the workplace.
Many psychologists question his methodology, saying that there is not enough evidence to support his claims and the inconsistencies in his results. Take the test at two different times and you could get two different results, they say.
“It’s easy to use … but there’s also the fallacy of overgeneralizing or fixing,” said psychology professor Lim.
Other critics point out that Briggs and Myers had no formal psychology training; that human traits exist on a much more complex spectrum than the binary numbers that the test draws; and that the assigned “type” can influence a person’s behavior and choices, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Overall, the MBTI makes few unique practical or theoretical contributions to the understanding of behavior.”
However, young South Koreans seem willing to ignore the test’s perceived shortcomings for now. After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve gravitated towards this sort of thing.
In the early 2000s, many South Koreans picked up on the trend that blood type is correlated with personality traits and therefore with romantic compatibility — for example, people with type O are supposedly more outgoing.
And companies are cashing in fast, looking to launch MBTI-themed products, from PC games to beer to vacations.
There is a computer game simulator “MBTI Blind Date” that allows players to interact with characters representing each of the 16 personality types to gauge their compatibility, and many similar games.
It launched in June and was downloaded 1.2 million times in its first week, according to developer Thinkflow.
“It’s like simulating a date so that you can further reduce the chance of failure or make the relationship more effective,” said Thinkflow CEO Li Suji.
To the dismay of some, MBTI is even returning to the workplace.
Crawling a Korean recruiting website reveals dozens of candidate lists with certain types of MBTIs; one marketing role, for example, requests ENFP types that are considered “enthusiasts and innovators”.
Frustrated young people
Observers are worried not only about the scientific validity of the MBTI, but also about what this sudden trend has to offer to the young people participating in it.
According to Professor Lim, the rise in MBTI over the past two to three years has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic. Part of the attraction lies in group psychology, as people take comfort in being able to categorize themselves along with others.
“People have probably become more anxious, so they need a place they can mentally lean on,” Lim said. “It’s clear that people feel less anxious when they’re in a group.”
Even without the coronavirus, young Koreans have a lot to worry about. A hyper-competitive job market, rising unemployment, skyrocketing housing prices and a toxic workplace culture are often blamed for creating a generation of disgruntled young people with a pessimistic view of their future.
Those willing to join the rat race often don’t have the time or patience to date, and for some, this is where the MBTI comes in.
Yoon Ji Hye, a university student in Seoul, doesn’t see the “necessity to spend a lot of time” dating someone whose type doesn’t fit.
“I don’t feel like I’m compatible with the T type (“analytical and logical”), while I quite fit the ESFP type (“friendly, playful and adaptable”),” said Yoon, a self-proclaimed ENFP.
However, many experts say it’s unhealthy to focus too much on the MBTI result, whether it’s dating, friendships, or work.
Lim, a professor, warned that people can “easily give false answers on this test” and that using it as a tool to “avoid (or exclude) anyone … is contrary to the intent of the original creator.”
Myers and Briggs hoped their work would help people better understand and appreciate their differences, Lim said.
Even The Myers-Briggs Company, publisher of the official MBTI test, expressed caution.
Cameron Knott, a psychologist and the company’s managing director for Asia Pacific, said the company is “very pleased” with the popularity of the test in South Korea, but added that “it would be inappropriate to use it to find a compatible partner.” .”
“While being in a relationship with someone who has similar personality preferences can have its benefits, we’ve all heard the expression, ‘opposites attract’. So excluding a potential partner because they have a different MBTI personality type can lead to someone missing out on an exciting relationship with a wonderful person,” Knott said.
Whether young South Koreans are ready to heed such advice is another matter.
“I consider personality more important than looks (in a relationship),” said Yoon, a student. “I don’t think I will try to date someone whose type is not compatible with mine.”