John Clay

Character Forming

What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing


William Collins 336pp £20 order from our bookshop

What’s Your Type? takes us back to 20th-century attempts at personality definition. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) was used extensively for this purpose, mainly by corporations seeking to recruit staff of the most suitable calibre. Its progenitor was Katharine Cook, born in 1875 in Michigan. She was unprepossessing as a child, with thick glasses and tangled hair. When she went to Michigan Agricultural College, she met Lyman Briggs, a farm boy with a similar background to her own. Both were bright, self-reflective and forward-looking. After they married, Katharine, who was determined to bring up their children effectively, devised a programme to this end, calling it her ‘cosmic laboratory of baby training’. Unfortunately, two sons died in infancy, so the focus shifted entirely on to her daughter, Isabel. Born in 1897, Isabel was bright and eager like her mother, and spoke in full sentences by the age of two. She married in 1918, becoming Isabel Briggs Myers. She and her mother were strongly attached to one another and became lifelong collaborators.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Neville never shed his sense of being the junior, and perhaps least-deserving Chamberlain.' From the archive, Mic… ,
    • 'The erecting and immediate destruction of a series of straw men rather detracts from what is for the most part an… ,
    • RT : A magnificent demolition job on this "acid laced tirade...unpleasantly self-obsessed...self pitying… ,
    • 'Seventy years on, the time we have left to gather such first-hand testimony is running out.' John Keay on the sig… ,
    • The author 'seethes with contemptuous indignation at the shiny junk that an unregulated construction industry dumps… ,
    • 'The physical courage he demonstrated as a young man [...] gave way to intellectual power; radical thought, gifted… ,
    • 'While Jane Austen didn’t perhaps achieve the full recognition that she deserved in her lifetime, even then she out… ,