MBTI: How South Koreans fell in love with an American WWII personality test

These four letters are printed on advertisements, interspersed with daily conversations, featured in computer games and even on Spotify playlists. Stop by a cafe and you might hear couples discussing it on their first date; visit a fortune teller and they can be relied upon as omens of your future; open a dating app and about a third of profiles will include them.

The MBTI is a personality test, officially known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which 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 match women to jobs during World War II. It has since gone and gone out of fashion, gaining popularity in the 1990s as a career guidance tool in colleges and offices.

But its most recent surge in popularity is among young, hip South Koreans, for whom knowing your MBTI type has become the latest craze — especially when it comes to dating.

Rather than wasting time with more traditional ways of finding a mate, some diehard believers of this younger generation, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are using the MBTI to cut to the chase and exclude personalities deemed incompatible.

Speed ​​dating

According to Lim Myoung-ho, a psychology professor at Dankook University, the MBTI approach to dating appeals to the practicality of the “MZ generation” (a combination of Millennials and Gen Z).

“In this society, if you know well in advance which type is right for you, it’s considered more efficient,” Lim said.

That’s why Lee Da-hyun, a 23-year-old university student in Seoul, always lets people know her MBTI type before meeting them for the first time.

“I don’t have to go on and explain myself. I can save time by saying I’m ENFP (energetic and friendly), and they can figure out what kind of person I am,” Lee said. “Everyone knows their type and that type’s personality these days.”

Lee’s experiences only reinforced his belief in the system. Her boyfriend’s type is said to be compatible with hers – and “we’ve been together for over 1,000 days, so that’s proof that these guys are good for each other,” she said. she stated.

But not everyone is convinced. Some pundits — some of whom may remember the MBTI from its previous incarnations — wonder if the younger crowd is overlooking swaths of eligible partners in the misguided hope of finding their forever bliss in some elusive four-letter combination.

Someone like You

The mother-daughter duo of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers created their indicator, based on the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, in the 1940s, when women were first enticed to fill vacant industrial jobs. by male labor that had been sent to war.

Their test posits that each person leans toward either extroversion or introversion; sensation or intuition; think or feel; and judge or perceive.

Each of these “preferences” is represented by a letter, and the different combinations of these four letters make 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 management development courses.

But since then skepticism about the test’s scientific merits has seen its popularity wane in the workplace.

Many psychologists questioned his methodology, saying there was insufficient 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 error of overgeneralization or fixation,” said psychology professor Lim.

Other critics point out that Briggs and Myers had no formal training in psychology; that human traits exist on a much more complex spectrum than the binaries the test draws; and that the assigned “type” can influence a person’s behavior and choices, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Although the test appears to measure several common personality traits, the data patterns do not suggest there is reason to believe that there are 16 unique personality types,” wrote David J. Pittenger, professor of psychology. at Marshall University, in a 1993 paper.

“Taken as a whole, the MBTI makes few unique practical or theoretical contributions to understanding behavior.”

a certain kind

Still, young South Koreans seem set to ignore the test’s perceived flaws for now. After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve turned to this sort of thing.

In the early 2000s, many South Koreans adopted a trend that blood type correlated with personality traits, and therefore love compatibility – Type O individuals, for example, were thought to be more outgoing.

And companies were quick to cash in – rushing to launch MBTI-themed products, from computer games to beer and holidays.

There’s the “MBTI Blind Date” computer game simulator, which allows players to chat 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 its developer Thinkflow.

“It’s like simulating a date so that one can further reduce the probability of failure or make a relationship more effective,” said Lee Su-ji, CEO of Thinkflow.

Then there is the Paradise Group tourism company, offer vacation recommendations based on your MBTI type; or the Jeju Beer Company which released a series of cans decorated with the letter codes of the 16 personality types.

To the chagrin of some, the MBTI is even re-entering the workplace.

A scan of a Korean recruitment website reveals dozens of advertisements seeking candidates of certain MBTI types; a marketing role, for example, calls for ENFP types, who are considered “enthusiastic and innovative.”

Disillusioned young people

It’s not just the scientific validity of the MBTI that worries observers, but what this sudden trend may suggest about the young people who participate in it.

The rise of the MBTI over the past two to three years has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, said Lim, the professor. Part of the appeal was in the group psychology, as people were reassured that they could categorize themselves alongside others.

“People have probably become more anxious, so they need a place to lean on psychologically,” Lim said. “Obviously people feel less anxious when they are united in a group.”

Even without the coronavirus, young Koreans have plenty to worry about. A hyper-competitive job market, rising unemployment rates, skyrocketing house prices and toxic work cultures are often blamed for creating a generation of disgruntled young people with a pessimistic view of their future. .

Exhausted and hopeless, young East Asians 'are on their stomachs'
In the early 2010s, the MZ generation was commonly referred to as the “n-po” generation – a reference to the number of people who were choosing to give up on things to the nth degree, renouncing marriage, children, property and personal friendships.

Those ready to join the rat race often have too little time or patience to date – which for some is where the MBTI comes in.

Seoul University student Yoon Ji-hye doesn’t see the “need to invest a lot of time” in dating someone whose type doesn’t match.

“I don’t feel compatible with a T (‘analytical and logical’) type, whereas I’m quite suited for ESFP (‘friendly, playful, and adaptable’) types,” said Yoon, a self-proclaimed ENFP.

Love is everywhere

However, many experts say that it is unhealthy to place too much importance on one’s MBTI score, whether in romantic relationships, friendships or work.

Lim, the professor, warned that people can “easily give wrong answers in this test” and that using it as a tool to “avoid (or exclude) someone… goes against the intention of the original creator”.

Myers and Briggs had hoped their work could help people better understand and appreciate their differences, Lim said.

Even The Myers-Briggs Company, publisher of the official MBTI test, warned.

Isabel Briggs Myers, left, and her mother Katharine Cook Briggs.

Cameron Nott, the company’s psychologist and general manager for Asia-Pacific, said the company was “very pleased” with the test’s popularity in South Korea, but added “it would not be appropriate to ‘use to try to identify a compatible partner’. .”

“While dating someone who has similar personality preferences can have its benefits, we’ve all heard of the phrase ‘opposites attract.’ different MBTI personality could see someone missing out on an exciting relationship with a wonderful person,” Nott said.

Whether young South Koreans are willing to heed this advice is another matter.

“I consider personality more important than appearances (in a relationship),” Yoon, the college student, said. “I don’t think I will try to meet someone whose type is not compatible with mine.”

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