How a mistranslation caused MBTI and Keirsey to misread Jung as well as our personalities

by | Oct 2, 2020 | Research & Insights | 0 comments

Carl Jung (1875-1961) in his study in his home on Lake Zürich, Switzerland

The original 1921 German edition of “Psychological Types”

Isabel Briggs-Myers (1897-1980)

Katharine Cook-Briggs (1875-1968)

David Keirsey  (1921-2013)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter are two of the most widely used practical applications of Jungian typology. There are some key ways these two typological systems have been constructed that are important to note. Every system, every interpretation has its limitations. Also, the one proposed in in my book, The Power of Polarities.

To more fully realize the potential that Jungian typology offers, it is important to know what these limitations are. Specifically we will look at the effect that a mistranslation had on the interpretation of Jung’s book “Psychological Types”. To err is human, but this translation error has led to a far reaching misinterpretation of Jung’s work, especially when it comes to the J/P scale.

But before I discuss the limitations, it is important to say something about the enormous positive impact and contribution both systems have made. It far outweighs their limitations.

The first pioneers of the practical application of Jungian typology are Katharine Cook-Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs-Myers. In World War II they wanted to help the war effort by finding a way to assist the women who entered the workforce to find the positions they would be most quickly effective at.

They created their first set of questions in 1943. Isabel Myers found help in constructing and statistically validating her type indicator from an expert, Edward Hay who at the time was a HR manager at a large bank. One can only admire the love, dedication and expertise with which they created their instrument.

Now, almost 75 years later, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) is the most used personality instrument today and has helped millions and millions of people around the world to “recognize and enjoy their gifts”. The book Gifts Differing Isabel Briggs-Myers published in 1980, is to this date one of the best books on the practical application of Jungian typology.

Personally, I like it because it is so pure and original. And the vast number of trainers, coaches and consultants that has applied this instrument, has created a solid body of knowledge on Jungian typology. Carl Jung and society in general owe mother and daughter a great debt in this respect.

How great this gift is, is described so well in the introduction of Please Understand Me II, by professor David Keirsey:

 … Jung’s Psychological Types, gathered dust in college libraries, while psychology came to be dominated by Freudian psychodynamics on the one hand, and Pavlovian conditioning on the other…

  Breakthroughs in the behavioral sciences often come from outside the field, and Jung’s ideas were given new life almost by accident. At mid-century Isabel Myers, a layman, dusted off Jung’s Psychological Types and with her mother, Kathryn Briggs, devised a questionnaire for identifying different kinds of personality. She called it “The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.” Largely inspired by Jung’s book, the questionnaire was designed to identify sixteen patterns of action and attitude, and it caught on so well that in the 1990s over a million individuals were taking it each year. Interest in personality typology was restored in both America and Europe.

 (Keirsey, 1984, Ch.1)

Their work also suffers from a limited perspective in some key areas. As does Jung’s work. There is a critique of Jung in Gifts Differing that I strongly agree with. Isabel Myers critiques Jung in Gifts Differing for not spending more time describing the function pairs since that is so important for the practical application of his work. I could not agree more: 

 Nowhere in Jung’s book does he describe these normal, balanced types with an auxiliary process at their disposal. He portrays each process in sharpest focus and with maximum contrast between its extraverted and introverted forms; consequently, he describes the rare, theoretically “pure” types, who have little or no development of the auxiliary. Jung’s approach has several unfortunate effects. By ignoring the auxiliary, he bypasses the combinations of perception and judgment and their broad categories of interest in business, people, language, and science.  

 (Myers, 1980, Ch. 2) 

There is one important area where my approach and my interpretation of Jungian typology differs from that in Gifts Differing. And the reason I want to address it is not for theoretical purposes, but for practical ones, for making Jung’s work more practical and easy to apply to one’s life. Just like Isabel Myers does in the quote above. 

In their discussion of type dynamics, i.e. how the different functions and attitudes interact, Briggs and Myers believe that if a person has an extraverted preference, then the dominant function is extraverted and the auxiliary function introverted. And vice versa for a person with an introverted preference. Many type practitioners struggle with this interpretation. Let me give an example.

A friend and former colleague of mine, Paul Scheffer, has written an article on this that is very interesting (APTi Bulletin of Psychological Type, Vol. 33, No. 4, 2010). In it he explains how as an INFP, his dominant function of introverted Feeling is joined by extraverted Intuition as his second preference. But he (and others) just cannot see his extraverted Intuition as his second function. Introverted Intuition they can. Then he goes on to explain how this interpretation by Briggs and Myers is based on an unfortunate translation error in the English translation of Psychological Types. Below I will dig deeper into this issue than he does in his article.

On page 19 of Gifts Differing Myers writes about the role of the auxiliary in balancing introversion and extraversion:

 The basic principle that the auxiliary provides the needed extraversion for the introverts and needed introversion for the extraverts, is vitally important.

(Myers, 1980, Ch. 2)

Myers continues to explain it is based on the following quote from Jung: 

 For all the types appearing in practice, the principle holds good that besides the conscious main function there is also a relatively unconscious, auxiliary function which is in every respect different from the nature of the main function.

 (Jung, CW 6, § 669)

 Which she then interprets as follows:

 The operative words are “in every respect.” If the auxiliary process differs from the dominant process in every respect, it cannot be introverted where the dominant process is introverted. It has to be extraverted if the dominant process is introverted, and introverted if the dominant process is extraverted.

(Myers, 1980, Ch. 2)

This interpretation would be plausible if the translation had been accurate, but where the English translation says “relatively unconscious,” the German original and the Dutch translation are different. They do not read “relatively unconscious” but “relatively conscious.” See below the original German text by Jung.

 Für alle praktisch vorkommenden Typen nun gilt der Grundsatz, daß sie neben der bewußten Hauptfunktion noch eine relativ bewußte, auxiliäre Funktion besitzen, welche in jeder Hinsicht vom Wesen der Hauptfunktion verschieden ist. 

(Jung, Psychologische Typen, § 669)

The word ”bewußte” was translated as unconscious but means conscious. Unconscious would have been “unbewußte” in German.

There are a few remarks to be made based on closer scrutiny of this interpretation:

  • The subject of the section that this paragraph of Jung is in is called The Principal and Auxiliary Functions. The introverted and extraverted attitudes are not mentioned once. So why draw conclusions on the attitudes of these functions?
  • The only reason to draw such a conclusion from Jung’s writing is if the text had said unconscious instead of conscious. Because that would imply that they are opposite. But in the original German text, it says conscious, not unconscious.
  • When Jung writes “is in every respect different” he means different and not opposite. Like in the following quote from the same section:

  Experience shows that the secondary function is always one whose nature is different from, though not antagonistic to, the primary function.

  (Jung, CW 6, § 668)

Since mother and daughter Briggs were such avid and meticulous students of Jung’s books, I can only imagine that they also struggled with this inconsistency in the English translation, which is absent in the original German text.

Next in Gifts Differing, the Judging/Perceiving scale is introduced as a way to build on this (mistaken) insight. It is used to determine which function is extraverted, the dominant, or the auxiliary. An ESTJ, for example, has extraverted Thinking as dominant function and introverted Sensation as auxiliary. An ISTJ, on the other hand, has introverted Sensation as dominant function, and extraverted Thinking as auxiliary. Apparently, mother Katharine Briggs’ early research influenced the creation of this dimension:

 Inclusion of the JP preference in the theory came about as a result of unpublished personality research by Katharine C. Briggs before Jung’s Psychological Types was published. The type categories she had devised were entirely consistent with Jung’s, but less detailed. Her “meditative type” included all introvert types. Her “spontaneous type” corresponded to the perceptive extraverts, in whom perceptive behavior is at its strongest. Her “executive type” exactly described the extraverted thinkers, and her “sociable type” the extraverted feeling people. When Jung’s theory was published in 1923, she saw that it went far beyond her own, and she made an intensive study of it. Putting together the sentences quoted earlier in this chapter, she interpreted them to mean that the auxiliary process runs the introvert’s outer life. She looked at the outer lives of her “meditative” friends to see if this was true and concluded that it was.

 (Myers, 1980, Ch. 2)

One can understand how Katharine Cook-Briggs came to this conclusion. The J/P preference is strictly an extraverted preference in the personality and is used to determine the dominant and auxiliary functions. It was added to Jung’s theoretical construct based on a translation error and the resulting misinterpretation of his work. The validation of this with “her meditative friends” is not very convincing, because there can be other explanations for this.

The other problem is that since this time there has not been any research that I know of that supports this hypothesis. According to Jung, whether someone has a Perceiving or Judging preference depends on the dominant and inferior function in the personality. If the dominant and inferior functions are Thinking or Feeling, then the personality has a preference for Judging. If the dominant and inferior functions are Sensation or Intuition, the personality has a preference for Perceiving.

I want to stress that for me this does not discredit the MBTI as an instrument. The fourth dimension of the personality (J/P) is a statistically valid one, but the conclusion that in the extraverted personality the auxiliary function is introverted and vice versa does not seem to be grounded in theory or practice.

I have wondered how, besides the translation error, it was possible that this mistake was made? My explanation is that Katherine C. Briggs (the mother) lived in the early days of Jungian psychology. Jung had barely broken up with Freud and had not even published Psychological Types when she was already interested in type and developing her own personality models. She must have been a remarkable woman who was ahead of her time. At the same time, Jungian psychology was not as well developed as it is now. For instance, when Jung uses the conscious-unconscious polarity what he really means is that the conscious tendency is completely opposite to the unconscious one. In other words, conscious Extraversion constellates Introversion in the unconscious. And vice versa.

Another reason is that Briggs and Meyers wanted to know how a person introverts and extraverts, which is a very important and valid question. In Gifts Differing a convincing claim is made that introversion and extraversion have to be balanced.

The basic principle that the auxiliary provides the needed extraversion for the introverts and needed introversion for the extraverts is vitally important.

(Myers, 1980, Ch. 2)

I both agree and I disagree with the way this process is described in Gifts Differing. For me it is a matter of the right thing in the wrong way. I postulate that functions do not operate in isolation, they are processes that work in triangles (function pairs coupled with an attitude). Which is a claim Briggs also makes, but I do not see her follow through on it. And as I have mentioned before, my experience is that people can both introvert and extravert their dominant function. They can do that because that function is relatively conscious. It is like the front door of a house that you can use both to enter and exit.

If I look at my type, ENFP, for example, the order in which the functions are theoretically used is different if you work from the proposition that the functions act in pairs.

Consciousness Gifts Differing Function Pairs
Dominant Ne Ne + Fe
2 Fi Ni + Fi
3 Te Ne + Te
4 Ni Ni + Ti
5 Fe Se + Fe
6 Ti Si + Fi
7 Se Se + Te
Inferior Si Si + Ti

Note: The first four are relatively conscious, the last four unconscious (i.e. difficult to use consciously). Also, note the inferior function pair is Si+Ti and that the inferior function is Sensation.

The consequences of this translation error are pretty huge though. I have been to type conferences in Europe and have met many MBTI practitioners and some tend to hold on to this, well, almost religiously. I understand this since the point is made so convincingly in Gifts Differing, but it has never felt true to me. I needed to evaluate this using my introverted Thinking function which has resulted in this article.

The reason this approach has been used so successfully is because it is not completely false. Someone like me (ENFP) does have introverted Feeling high in consciousness (as the table above shows). But it is coupled with introverted Intuition (as my dominant function). For my type (ENFP), I interpret the P to mean that the Perceiving function of Intuition is my dominant function, Feeling is auxiliary, Thinking is tertiary and Sensation is my inferior function.

The practical difficulty I see with the way the MBTI has evolved is in recognizing one’s own true preferences, especially the recognition of the dominant and inferior function. When one takes the MBTI it is hard to determine. Yes, there is an answer, but is it the right one? For example, I have taken the MBTI together with a close friend of mine. We both come out as ENFP which gives a fairly good description of both of our personalities. But my friend’s dominant function is Feeling and mine is Intuition. My inferior function is Sensation and his is Thinking. This is an important difference in our personalities. And yet we get the same result: Intuition dominant and Sensation inferior. My friend actually has Sensation as tertiary preference. To me, this shows the limitation of the J/P scale.

How relevant is this discussion? When we consider that “It is up to each person to recognize his or her true preferences”, as Isabel Briggs-Myers said, it is not that relevant. But it does help to take with a grain of salt the biased paradigm of type dynamics that Gifts Differing contains, and all the subsequent works that are based on it.

There is another reason that the discussion on type dynamics is not so relevant: personality type does not predict or explain all of human behavior. Based on the situation and based on the conscious or unconscious decisions the ego makes, the order and way in which these functions are used can change. And ultimately that is the goal, to use these functions ethically and morally as the situation requires. That is the great challenge that lasts a lifetime and much more important.

I am an equally great fan of the late Professor David Keirsey. I found out after his death in 2013 that we both went to Pomona College in California, which is a small liberal arts college, so quite a coincidence. He did important work, especially working for schools as a “corrective interventionist” to help hyperactive children behave themselves and prevent them from being put on Ritalin, which he considered a very destructive drug. I wish I had had the chance to meet him and maybe I did at one of the alumni weekends on campus, but it is unlikely I will ever find out.

His great contribution is the deduction, formulation, and illustration of temperaments from the MBTI framework. Temperaments are an important and insightful simplification, as he shows in his work Please Understand Me II. About how he came to his four temperaments, he writes:

I soon found it convenient and useful to partition Myers’s sixteen “types” into four groups, which she herself suggested in saying that all four of what she referred to as the “NFs” were alike in many ways and that all four of the “NTs” were alike in many ways — although what she called the “STs” seemed to me to have very little in common, just as the “SFs” had little in common. However, four earlier contributors, Adickes, Spränger, Kretschmer, and Fromm, each having written of four kinds of personality, helped me to see that Myers’s four “SJs” were very much alike, as were her four “SPs.” Bingo! People-watching from then on was a lot easier, the four groups being light years apart in their attitudes and actions.

(Keirsey, 1984, Ch. 2)

My critique here is that he did not base his temperaments on Jung, but on other writers. They were leading, not Jung. I do not find anywhere that he compared their writing with Jung’s. This is a real pity because Jung used the first 9 chapters of Psychological Types to evaluate the “Type Problems” in other schools of thought. Jung actually discusses the work of Plato, Aristotle, Claudius Galen, and Ernst Kretschmer. I can only assume that Keirsey did not study these chapters. The question is, would he have reached a different conclusion if he had? I would think so, but unfortunately, we will never find out since he passed away in 2013.

Also, the descriptions by Isabel Myers were based on the addition of her mother’s J/P construct which I have commented on above. I believe it was for Keirsey a practical and convenient way to use the MBTI framework to identify his temperaments. It adds an unnecessary and incorrect complication. It draws away attention from what Jungian analyst and author of Energies and Patterns in Psychological Type, John Beebe calls the backbone of the personality, the interplay between the dominant and inferior function (which cannot be clearly ascertained using the J/P construct). John Beebe writes:

When there is development of both the superior and the inferior functions, we can speak of a ‘spine’ of consciousness that gives a personality backbone.

(Beebe, 2017, Ch. 8)

One cannot do enough justice to the work of Isabel Myers and David Keirsey, for their contributions have been huge. As Keirsey writes, without Katharine Cook-Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, Jungian typology might be in the archives of humanity.

There is a lot more I could say about this subject, and I am sure that type theory will continue to develop. I am looking forward to a fruitful dialogue with other students of type on this subject.


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