The Myers & Briggs’ Type Indicator (MBTI): Korea’s new obsession

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Authors: Nathalia Millán Rincón and Marisol Montiel-Cerón

Imagine a friend’s birthday is coming up; if you were to give them a gift, are you the type that a) thinks it is best to ask the birthday person what they want, or b) considers that making the decision is part of the gift? If your answer was “a”, you have a T in your personality, you are analytical and logical: “your mind guides you”. On the other hand, if your answer was “b”, you belong to the F type, you are friendly and adaptable: “you follow your heart”. The MBTI personality indicator, despite having existed for more than 60 years, has returned with greater force, especially in South Korea, where it has positioned itself as a trending topic. It is possible to find it everywhere: you have seen it on variety shows with idols and actors, in interviews, on apps to make friends or find a partner; so what has led it to be so welcomed by the Korean public? Is this something fun and harmless? This blog has been written with the purpose of showing both the bright side and the downside that the obsession with the MBTI has brought to South Korea.

Illustration 1. Made by Millán, N. (2023). [Collage]

It all started with Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs, who in 1942 brought out the renowned MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) personality model. This instrument is an adaptation and transformation of Carl Jung’s conceptual psychological theories outlined in his work, “Psychological Types”. These theories are based on the existence of the essential psychological functions of judgment (thinking and feeling) and perception (sensation and intuition). Carl Jung believed that a combination of these functions is dominant for a person most of the time and that people with different preferences naturally have other interests and points of view, behave differently, and are motivated by distinct things. Therefore, knowing the differences between the types can help us understand and appreciate those who think and act differently.

The MBTI is obtained by answering a test that identifies a person’s personality type and psychological preferences. It consists of four different cognitive functions (also called dimensions) that determine personality:

  1. Extraversion (E) / Introversion (I).
  2. Sensing (S) / Intuition (N).
  3. Thinking (T) / Feeling (F).
  4. Judging (J)/ Perceiving (P).

This test aims to assign individuals to one of four categories based on how they perceive the world, make decisions, and then combine the preferences to determine the personality type. When the categories are combined (E or I, S or N, T or F, J or P), a four-letter code (e.g. ENTJ) determines the personality type. Sixteen possible letter combinations lead to 16 distinct personality types in the MBTI, each emphasizing the individual’s preferences, strengths, weaknesses, and unique ways of perceiving the world and making decisions.

To find out the personality type according to the MBTI, look for the “16 Personalities” website or click here, answer each question, wait for the results, and read about the personality obtained and its main characteristics.

Ilustration 2. mindbodygreen (2022). [Infography]

In the early 2000s, young Koreans began to use blood type as an indicator of personality, verifying compatibility in friendship and romantic relationships. This trend led Korean society to ask about and discuss blood types in private meetings as well as on television programs. The popularity of blood type and its use as a predictor of personality extended for years until the advent of MBTI, which was first introduced in Korea in 1990 by priest Kim Jung-taek. However, it was not until 2020 that it reached a hilarious level of popularity because of the social estrangement caused by COVID-19. That is when Korea’s craze for MBTI started, thanks to the website called “16 Personalities” becoming popular online. Such was the furor, that by March of 2020, it had a total of 464,000 hits and 1.15 million by June of that same year, with the Korean population having taken more personality tests than Europe and the U.S. combined. The spread of the MBTI has mainly occurred massively on social networks, where a wide variety of thematic content began to be shared, including types of jobs, animals, anime characters, products such as clothes, drinks, makeup, and food, types of friends and partners that match the characteristics of each MBTI personality. It was also on public television, within the main programs, and on YouTube, in which idols, actors, influencers, and even political candidates, share their personality types to sympathize with the public, becoming part of pop culture in Korea.

The MBTI craziness is greater than the blood type trend, particularly among millennials and Generation Z (Generation MZ), who are grappling with an uncertain future in a competitive society while the economy is slowing down and jobs are hard to find. The situation looks even worse as the COVID-19 pandemic fueled Generation MZ’s anxiety for self-improvement but diminished many opportunities to do so. This particular generation also seeks to develop themselves and gain a sense of belonging, for within Korean society, there is a cultural tendency to group and categorize people, where understanding others based on social groups (their origin, age, etc.) is an unspoken rule of the relationship game. Therefore, everyone wants to belong to a group. That is why the MBTI provides a quick understanding of oneself and others, allowing one to relate easily and avoiding uncomfortable questions that can become rude. Connecting with others just by saying your personality type allows you to feel a deeper connection, through the sense of belonging to one of the sixteen personalities, which ends in the relief of seeing that there are more people with whom to share, mitigating loneliness and reducing anxiety. This is because realizing that there are more people with the same personality who have the same advantages and disadvantages, makes it comforting and less overwhelming to think about the future.

Illustration 3. Taken from kimjuncotton (2023). [Photo]

It is well known that everything in excess is bad, and despite what was mentioned earlier, the obsession of Korean society with the MBTI is no exception. For every good thing, there is its counterpart, and while the personality indicator can help people understand each other better, it has also become an excuse to quickly reject others. The dating scene is one that best exemplifies the use of personality types to find your soulmate, reducing the possibility of the relationship failing, and, therefore, avoiding ‘wasting time’ by discarding those whose personalities are considered incompatible. The above-mentioned perfectly describes South Korea’s fast-paced lifestyle, where more and more young adults of the MZ Generation are attracted to the practicality of speed dating because, as psychology professor Lin Myoung-ho explained on CNN, in this society, it is more efficient to know in advance the type of person that best suits oneself. As a result, it is not surprising to find cases such as Yoon Ji-hye’s, a university student in Seoul and an ENFP, who says that she does not think it is necessary to spend much time with someone whose personality is not a good match: “I don’t feel that I’m compatible with a T type, while I’m quite suitable with ESFP types” (Yeung & Seo, 2022). The problem is that building a relationship means taking the time to really get to know someone, but many Koreans have begun to rely on this new method.

Moreover, the scope of the negative implications given the emphasis that has been placed on the MBTI does not end there; it has also reached the workplace. It is common for companies to hire a psychologist when conducting interviews, however, to the alarm of some, the personality indicator has begun to be taken into account when filtering candidates for a position. To illustrate, in January 2022, a vacancy was reported for a part-time job in a café, which read: “We hire by checking your MBTI type. We hope to receive applications from many people with extraversion (E) tendencies. Exceptions: ENTJ, ESFJ types cannot apply”. While it should be noted that most businesses requesting certain types of personalities are cafés and restaurants with the argument that due to having a large flow of customers, extroverted people adapt more easily to the dynamic environment (Yu-jin, 2022), it is clear that the use of MBTI is expanding to other areas, and therefore it is possible to find that for a marketing position, ENFP types are requested since they are “believed to be enthusiastic and innovative” (Yeung & Seo, 2022). Some companies have made taking the test a mandatory step to comply with before being interviewed, and that is why job seekers have found themselves in the position of lying about their results, fearing that companies would hold preferences for particular personalities (Chea, 2022).

For good reason, some Korean job hunters have begun to express their discomfort with this decision, as they do not consider it a reasonable standard for assessing their capabilities. According to a survey conducted by Alba Cheonguk, a website where part-time or short-term jobs are published, statistics indicate that of 1,990 applicants in their 20s, three out of five respondents have negative opinions about the use of MBTI during the recruitment process. This is summarized in 60.6% opposing the use of the indicator (Chea, 2022).

Illustration 4. Taken from YouTube (Zoe's 조에, 2023). [Video]

In short, the MBTI has reached every corner of South Korea and is here to stay as the No. 1 personality indicator. In particular, the MZ generation prefers it because, in addition to determining their personality, it helps them feel part of a group, relieving anxiety and loneliness. Nevertheless, the indicator has also had a negative impact on society, where the excessive use of this has come to influence not only the development of personal relationships, where people have begun to put more value on someone’s MBTI but also in the workplace, where it is beginning to play a key role in getting hired.

Authors’ note: This blog is part of a new initiative to write in pairs, therefore, it has been written by two authors with different personalities: ENFJ and ENTJ. Can you guess who wrote each part? Let us know in the comments! 

Reading pairs: Anna Franco Ucar and Seline Suriel

Reviewed by: Luisa Quintero


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