Those four letters are emblazoned on advertisements, interspersed in everyday conversation, featured in computer games and even in Spotify playlists. Stop by a cafe and you can hear couples discussing their first date; Visit a fortune teller and they may be called upon as an example of your future; Open a dating app and about a third of profiles will contain them.
The MBTI is a personality test, formally known as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, that divides people into 16 “types” — each of which is assigned psychological characteristics 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. Gaining popularity in the 1990s as a career counseling tool in colleges and offices, it has gone in and out of fashion ever since.
But the most recent surge in popularity is among hip young South Koreans, for whom knowing your MBTI type has become the latest craze — especially when it comes to dating.
Instead of wasting time on more traditional ways to find a partner, some die-hard believers in this younger generation, mostly in their 20s and 30s, are using the MBTI to pursue — and reject — personalities deemed incompatible.
According to Lim Myeong-ho, professor of psychology at Daengkook University, the MBTI approach to dating appeals to the pragmatism of the “MZ Generation” (a combination of Millennials and Gen Z).
“In this society, if you already know the right type, 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 explain myself. I can save time by saying I’m ENFP (“energetic and friendly”) and they can understand what kind of person I am,” Lee said. “Nowadays everyone knows someone’s type and that type of personality.”
Lee’s experiences have 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 that’s proof that these types are good for each other,” she said.
But not everyone agrees. Some experts — some of whom may remember the MBTI in its previous incarnations — wonder if the younger crowd is ignoring eligible partners in the misguided hope of finding their happily-ever-after in a four-letter combination.
someone like you
Mother-daughter duo Catherine Cook Briggs and Isabelle Briggs Myers created their index — which they based on the theories of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung — in the 1940s, when women were first being encouraged to take up industrial jobs. Male personnel sent to war.
Their test shows that each person tends toward extroversion or introversion; sense or intuition; thoughts or feelings; and to judge or understand.
Each of these “preferences” is represented by a letter, and various 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, 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 merit has caused its popularity in the workplace to decline.
Many psychologists have questioned his methodology, saying there is insufficient evidence to support his claims and that his results are inconsistent. Take the test at two different times and you may get two different results, he says.
“It’s easy to use … but there’s also the error of over-generalization or fixation,” said psychology professor Lim.
Other critics noted that Briggs and Myers had no formal training in psychology; Human qualities exist on a more complex spectrum than test-drawn binaries; And the assigned “type” can influence a person’s behavior and choices, making it a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“Taken as a whole, MBTI makes few unique practical or theoretical contributions to understanding behavior.”
A specific type
Still, young South Koreans are currently willing to ignore the perceived flaws of the test. After all, this isn’t the first time they’ve looked into this sort of thing.
In the early 2000s many South Koreans embraced the trend that blood type was associated with personality traits and thus romantic compatibility — for example, Type O individuals were more outgoing.
And companies have quickly cashed in — racing to launch MBTI-themed products, from computer games to beer and vacations.
“MBTI Blind Date” is a computer game simulator that allows players to chat with characters representing each of the 16 personality types to gauge their compatibility and a number of 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 a simulation of a date so that one can reduce the chance of failure a little more or make the relationship more efficient,” said Lee Su-ji, CEO of Thinkflow.
To the dismay of some, the MBTI is even finding its way back into the workplace.
A scan of Korean job recruitment websites turns up dozens of listings looking for candidates of certain MBTI types; A marketing role, for example, asks for ENFP types, who are believed to be “enthusiastic and innovative.”
Frustrated young people
It’s not just the scientific validity of the MBTI that worries observers, but what this sudden trend might suggest to young people who participate.
The rise of MBTI in the past two to three years coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, said Professor Lim. Part of the appeal lies in group psychology, because people are able to categorize themselves alongside others.
“People have probably become more anxious, so they need a place where they can psychologically lean,” Lim said. “Clearly, people feel less anxious when they’re together in a group.”
Even without the coronavirus, young Koreans have a lot to worry about. An ultra-competitive job market, rising unemployment rates, skyrocketing housing prices and toxic workplace cultures are often blamed for creating a generation of disaffected youth with a pessimistic view of their future.
Those willing to join the rat race have little time or patience for dating — which for some people comes down to the MBTI.
Yoon Ji-hye, a university student in Seoul, doesn’t see “the need to invest a lot of time” in dating someone whose type isn’t a good match.
“I don’t think I’m compatible with T types (“analytical and logical”), but I’m more suited to ESFP types (“friendly, playful, and adaptable”),” said the self-proclaimed Yoon. ENFP.
Love is everywhere
However, many experts say that placing too much emphasis on one’s MBTI result is unhealthy — whether in dating, friendships or work.
Lim, the professor, warned that people “can easily give false answers to this test” and that “avoiding (or omitting) one … is against the original creator’s intent.”
Myers and Briggs hoped their work would help people understand and appreciate their differences, Lim said.
The Myers-Briggs Company, the publisher of the official MBTI test, also issued a note of caution.
Cameron Knott, a psychologist and the firm’s Asia-Pacific managing director, said the company was “very pleased” with the test’s popularity in South Korea — but added that “it wouldn’t be worth it to try and use it to identify compatible partners.”
“While dating someone with similar personality preferences can have its advantages, we’ve all heard of the expression ‘opposites attract’. So someone can miss out on an exciting relationship with someone wonderful to reject a potential partner because of a different MBTI personality type,” Knott said.
Whether young people in South Korea are willing to heed such advice is another matter.
Yun, a student, said, “I value personality more than looks. “I don’t think I’d try to meet someone whose type isn’t compatible with me.”