by Juliet Archer
Myers-Briggs? Was this another Harris Bigg-Wither, whose proposal of marriage Jane Austen accepted one day and rejected the next?
Actually, no. Myers-Briggs refers to two American women – Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel, whose married name was Myers. They developed a theory of typewatching (classifying people by personality type) based on the work of Carl Jung.
Jung (1875-1961) believed that we are born with a predisposition to certain personality preferences – which we should nurture, not seek to change. At the same time and completely independently, Katharine Briggs – who had no formal psychological training – observed that people’s behaviour was not random, but based on subtle differences in how they approached life. When Jung’s works appeared in English in 1923, Katharine saw how similar their ideas were and became his student.
After marrying and raising a family, Isabel became more closely involved with her mother’s work and in 1942 started to develop and validate a set of questions to measure personality differences. This date was not a coincidence: both women believed that World War II was caused, in part, by people not understanding such differences. They also saw people contributing to the war effort through work that was unsuited to their abilities, and felt that understanding personality types would enable these people to be more effectively employed.
Hampered by the fact that its two creators were women without any relevant training, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator took many years to become accepted by the psychology establishment. During the 1960s, however, several major obstacles were overcome: Isabel was invited to speak to the American Psychological Association, several MBTI-based research projects were conducted and a typology centre was set up at the University of Florida. Since then MBTI has flourished, with millions of people using it worldwide.
But what has this got to do with an English novelist who was born 100 years before Jung and, by her own admission, didn’t get out much into the wider world? Well, it’s uncanny how Austen’s work anticipates that of Jung and Myers-Briggs, with the personality types of her main characters often being the source of their conflict.
Let’s take a look …
The Myers-Briggs theory of typewatching focuses on four personality dimensions, each made up of two opposing traits (see below). Everyone has elements of all these traits, but the MBTI questions establish which four traits a person displays most frequently. There is no right or wrong answer – it’s all about personal preference. By joining the four preferred traits together, we arrive at the personality type, e.g. Extravert-Sensing-Thinking-Judging, or ESTJ. There are sixteen types – basically, all the permutations of the different traits.
Here are the main characteristics of each trait and some of the Austen heroes and heroines who, in my view, embody them.
- EXTRAVERT / INTROVERT – Where do we get our energy?
Extraverts focus on the external world, prefer to communicate by talking, have a range of interests that is broad rather than deep, tend to speak first and reflect later, are sociable and expressive
Introverts are drawn to their inner world, prefer to communicate by writing, have a range of interests that is deep rather than broad, reflect before acting or speaking, are private and contained
Think of Elizabeth and Darcy, especially their early impressions of each other – a reluctant Darcy at the Meryton assembly, refusing to be sociable and dance with strangers, yet gradually finding Elizabeth’s lively conversation irresistible!
- SENSING / INTUITIVE – How do we take in information?
Intuitive types focus on the ‘big picture’, look to the future, jump around to find information, value imaginative insight and trust inspiration
To me, this sums up the different ways in which Knightley and Emma process information about the outside world – for example, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. Knightley is so ‘grounded’, while Emma lets her imagination run away with her.
- THINKING / FEELING – How do we make decisions?
Feelers are sympathetic, guided by personal values, tender-hearted and accepting, with a preference for harmony
Doesn’t this sound like Wentworth and Anne? Wentworth’s success in his profession must have required exactly these Thinking qualities – yet they also prevent him from understanding Anne’s rejection of him. And Anne must be a Feeler to put up with the demands of her awful family!
- JUDGING / PERCEIVING – How do we organise our world?
Perceiving types are spontaneous and flexible, with a preference for things to be open-ended and unconstrained
This is the core conflict in Sense & Sensibility – Elinor is a Judging type, taking charge when her mother and sister are overcome by their emotions, whereas Marianne is much more Perceiving. As the novel progresses, each sister moves towards the other’s personality preference and they become far more rounded people.
Do the above traits remind you of any other Austen characters or situations?
Wishing you all health, happiness and success in 2011!