Why bad science sells better

When it comes to psychology, good science can be hard to sell. People often prefer theories that make them feel good over theories that are backed up by hard research.

Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) for example. Around 2 million people take this personality test each year, and a reported 88 of the Fortune 100 companies use it in recruitment and training. In the US, around 200 federal agencies use it, including the State Department and the CIA. And yet there is no scientific evidence to say it works.

The MBTI was invented by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, in the 1930s and 40s. Neither had any training in psychology and they based their ideas on the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung. These ideas were themselves largely speculative and not based on any controlled scientific studies. Today, almost a century after the publication of Jung’s book Psychological Types, there is still no solid science behind the MBTI.

Contrast this with the five-factor theory of personality. This analyses personality in terms of five broad dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (or emotional stability). Unlike the MBTI, this model has been validated by hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies. And yet it is much less popular outside academia. Why is this so?

The answer may have something to do with the fact that the MBTI is a commercial product, while the five-factor model is not. This means that the company that owns the intellectual property, CPP, has an incentive to pump lots of resources into marketing it. CPP makes an estimated $20 million annually, with the MBTI as its flagship product. The tests are professionally marketed, with a formal accreditation scheme for those who wish to become certified practitioners.

Nothing like this exists for the five-factor model. Just as nobody “owns” relativity theory, nobody owns the five-factor model. As a result, any company is free to use it and make products based on it. But it would make no sense to spend marketing dollars on a product that anyone else would be free to copy.

There’s more to the success of the MBTI than just marketing. Unlike the five-factor model, which just gives you a score for each of its five dimensions, the MBTI assigns users to a category; you are an ENTJ, or an ISTP, or one of the other types. This is comforting and easy to interpret. It’s hard for the human mind to grasp a smooth continuum of possibility and so it helps if we divide things up into discrete categories. But this user-friendliness comes at the expense of scientific validity.

Here at Mindlab, we believe you don’t have to choose between the two. We deliver research that our clients can understand and use but without sacrificing scientific principles. Our tests are based on established theories that nobody “owns”. Our edge lies in crafting new ways to apply these theories in online environments. For example, we have devised tests based on the theory of change blindness that allow us to identify which designs are good at attracting attention. The theory of change blindness has been validated in hundreds of experiments and the finer details can be hard to grasp.

It’s our job to take care of those details and present the results in a way that clients can grasp quickly and intuitively. Our effort is invested both in ensuring that the research is done well, and in communicating the results.

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