February’s Berwins Salon North speaker and author of What’s Your Type talks to Ann Chadwick on the big question – Who do you think you are?

The Myers-Briggs personality test has been used for over a century. It underpins careers, has been adapted into dating forums and personality quizzes. Should we put such faith in the test’s 16 categories to perfectly align our personality?

Author and Oxford University associate professor Merve Emre is one of the speakers in Harrogate at Berwins Salon North – a night out of TED-style talks with three experts presenting stimulating ideas in art, science and psychology. Her new book, What’s Your Type? delves into the bizarre history of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

“I think one of the things I really want to do in my talk in Harrogate is show just how ingrained these ideas of personality being natural, essential and unchanging are in our popular culture and in our individual minds,” Merve said. “What I would very much like to do is show people the benefits of breaking away from that idea. Of starting to see personality as something historically constructed, not something that has been with us through millennia.”

The American, who now lives in Oxford, has a PhD from Yale, a BA from Harvard, and is Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Her book explores the MBTI as the creation of mother-daughter team, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers in the 1920s, after mother Katherine became obsessed with Carl Jung’s Psychological Types.

Mevre wrote the book partly as a ‘project of historical recovery’.

“Many people don’t know the indicator was designed by two women. When they see two names conjoined together attached to a pseudo-scientific instrument, they assume its two men working in a laboratory or psychiatric clinic together. Not two women who had absolutely no training in psychology. So what’s really interesting to me is the stories of those two women, the personal preoccupations of their lives, the way they designed it and the reasons they designed it, and the reasons they believed it would be used, are intimately entwined with their own biographies.”

The pair were housewives.

“To them it was a profession. They wanted to figure out how to take motherhood or being a wife and make that into a professional enterprise. Ultimately managing a household is managing the incredibly disparate and sometimes difficult personalities that all come together around your kitchen table.”

It’s an interesting idea that housewives underpin how the business world runs. Women rule the world, right?

“It is surprising, and the other thing that’s surprising is Catherine and Isabel were both novelists. Both had particular ideas about narrative and the idea of character that they brought to personality too. So one of the arguments that the book makes is taking a personality test is essentially an act of the narrative imagination.”

Personality testing is a growing industry, now worth $2billion. Merve is questioning the concept itself.

“Many people are interested in is whether it’s valid or reliable. To me the more interesting question is why it captures so many people’s imaginations, and why people defend its use with the fervour you’d expect people to defend a set of religious beliefs.”

Merve argues that personality isn’t essential, or innate, but a language compounded by the Western institutions that use it.

“This four letter articulation of your personality type, is in fact the product of 150 years of thinking and talking about personality in very different ways.” A vocabulary she describes as ‘seductive’.

Merve sees the test as ‘a history of capitalism in the Western world.’: “To me it reveals everything that is politically and ethically wrong with capitalism… I’m against personality testing in that it’s an extension of everything unconscionable that capitalism does to individuals and communities.”

“I don’t think the impulse to type oneself, the impulse to know oneself even is something naturally occurring, it requires language and it requires ideology.”

Why has it endured?

“On the one hand it signals out traits that are unique to you and make you feel special, and on the other it gives you a strong sense of belonging. I think that double move towards individuality on the one hand and social belonging on the other is what makes types so powerful.”

Merve will be speaking in Harrogate for the Berwins Salon North event, What Makes You Who You Are? Thursday 28 February | 7.30pm, The Crown Hotel | Harrogate harrogateinternationalfestivals.com Box Office: 01423 562 303.