Myers-Briggs Antipathy: Maybe It’s Just My Personality–Part II

Maybe I should try this instead?

Thanks to

Dave Feineman

and Mark Frohnsdorff for replying to yesterday’s post. Dave raises some very good points about why people like MBTI and other such personality tests. When it comes to using such tests to give us a sense of surety about ourselves, why not use whatever works in that way?

But… a story comes to mind in thinking about the use of devices whether stories or tests in ways that may niot match their actual capacities. Curiously, the tale involves both the discoverer of vitamin C and one of the most famous organizational theorists of the last hundred years. I’ll let Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, recount the story around the story and then I will add in my own little moral. This pleasant diversion means that there will be 1/3 part to this exploration of personality tests on the blog — at the least! Here’s Dr. Gelman:

 The lost Hungarian soldiers

Thomas Basbøll (who has the unusual (to me) job of “writing consultant” at the Copenhagen Business School) has been writing in different places about the a story that has been making the rounds over the past few decades among organizational sociologists and management consultants. The story started with a discovery that of plagiarism by the eminent scholar Karl Weick but then moved toward a more general exploration of storytelling and belief. (I learned about this example via an email from Basbøll (who had become aware of my interest in plagiarism); it turns out we also have a common interest in the bases of scientific and scholarly ideas.)

From Basbøll’s latest and most historical telling (linked from here, via Basbøll’s blog), supplemented by Wikipedia, I summarize what happened in time order (which is somewhat ahistorical in that it does not represent the order in which Basbøll, and perhaps Weick, learned about these events):

1916: Albert Szent-Györgyi, a medical student in Budapest, serves in World War 1.

1930: Working in Szeged, Hungary, Szent-Györgyi and his colleagues discover vitamin C. In the next several decades, he continues to make research contributions and becomes a prominent scientist, eventually moving to the U.S. after World War 2. He dies in 1986.

1972: Medical researcher Oscar Hechter reports the following in the proceedings of a “an international conference on cell membrane structure,” published in 1972:

Let me close by sharing with you a story told me by Albert Szent-Györgyi. A small group of Hungarian troops were camped in the Alps during the First World War. Their commander, a young lieutenant, decided to send out a small group of men on a scouting mission. Shortly after the scouting group left it began to snow, and it snowed steadily for two days. The scouting squad did not return, and the young officer, something of an intellectual and an idealist, suffered a paroxysm of guilt over having sent his men to their death. In his torment he questioned not only his decision to send out the scouting mission, but also the war itself and his own role in it. He was a man tormented.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, on the third day the long-overdue scouting squad returned. There was great joy, great relief in the camp, and the young commander questioned his men eagerly. “Where were you?” he asked. “How did you survive, how did you find your way back?” The sergeant who had led the scouts replied, “We were lost in the snow and we had given up hope, had resigned ourselves to die. Then one of the men found a map in his pocket. With its help we knew we could find our way back. We made camp, waited for the snow to stop, and then as soon as we could travel we returned here.” The young commander asked to see this wonderful map. It was a map not of the Alps but of the Pyrenees!

The moral of the story, as given by Hechter and by Bernard Pullman at another symposium a year later, is that the map gave the soldiers the confidence to make good decisions. Basbøll writes:

The map of the Pyrenees is like a controversial paper or a tentative model study in science. Whether or not it turns out to be an accurate representation of the “territory” is less important than the stimulus it may provide to further research, argue both Hechter and Pullman.

1977: Immunologist Miroslav Holub publishes a poem (of the prosy, non-rhyming sort) telling the lost-soldiers story (again, crediting Szent-Györgyi) in the Times Literary Supplement, translated from the Czech. Holub may have actually attended the meeting reported on by Hechter.

1982: Robert Swieringa and Karl Weick publish an article including a nearly word-for-word transcription of Holub’s poem, but not using quotation marks or acknowledging Holub at all, presenting the story as “an incident that happened,” and placing the event (implausibly) in Switzerland.

“Sometime in the mid-1980s”: Weick tells the story to Bob Engel, a “top Wall Street executive” who “was about to take leadership of a new strategic planning group at Morgan Guaranty.” The moral of the story: “When you are lost, any old map will do.”

1995: Weick writes:

What is interesting about Engel’s twist to the story is that he has described a situation that most leaders face. Followers are often lost and even the leader is not sure where to go. All the leaders know is that the plan or the map they have in front of them are not sufficient to get them out. What the leader has to do, when faced with this situation, is instill some confidence in people, get them moving some general direction, and be sure they look closely at cues created by their actions so that they learn where they were and get some better idea of where they are and where they want to be.

2005: Barbara Czarniawska reports on a 1998 talk:

“If any old map will do to help you find your way out of the Alps,” Weick had said, “then surely any old story will do to help you find your way out of puzzles in the human condition.”

As Basbøll notes, the moral of the story keeps changing! In the earliest known tellings (by Hechter and Pullman), the only clear role of the map was to calm the soldiers so they could find their way back to camp on their own. By 1998 (or 2005), the map has an actual instrumental use. What is creepy (to me) is that the story has changed from a story about people using an external device (the map) as a way to calm themselves and make a reasoned course of action, to a parable about savvy managers (“leaders”) who can manipulate their underlings, to the conclusion that “any old story will do,” a claim that makes the original events (or non-events) irrelevant and would seem to me to encourage a form of scholarship that does nothing but confirm people’s preconceptions.

Quite the story, eh?

My little moral but first a disclaimer

There are 6 or 7 theorists and writers who influenced me enormously even shaped my work with organizations over the course of 40 years. Karl Weick is at the front of that happy crowd and I’m still grateful to him no matter what happened in this particular interaction that you just read. Now to the moral. It’s borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous — what works works

If there is some device out there whether it is a test or an anecdote or an astrological chart that then who am I or anyone else to question something that they feel helps them advance or even just survive? There may be methods demonstrated more effective such as CR Snyder’s Six Strategies and Hope scale about which I wrote previously at this link. If MBTI serves a purpose in recognizing something in ourselves or facilitating useful interactions, then that’s a good thing. My point is that we’ve missed an opportunity to use resources that could help people learn more effectively and also identify where they are in their development right now when we spend time, money, and attention on assessments that are neither valid nor reliable. Of course, I’m also against assessments that only some up where someone is at this point. That’s the deal around here: No Tests but for Learning. More in a couple of days on the rest of my story with MBTI. Thanks for reading as always.

2 thoughts on “Myers-Briggs Antipathy: Maybe It’s Just My Personality–Part II

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  2. Pingback: Myers-Briggs Antipathy: Maybe It’s Just My Personality Part IV – Testing: A Personal History

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