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Myers, Briggs, and the World's Most Popular Personality Test

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By Avery Hurt

From corporate offices to Internet dating sites, Americans lean on personality tests to make their toughest decisions. But do the results really mean anything?

Have you ever been told that you're an extrovert? An introvert? Those terms come from the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator Test. Psychologists, therapists, personnel directors, guidance counselors, and dating services all use variations of the Myers-Briggs Test.

Big-name companies rely on it, as well. Wachovia Bank, Hewlett-Packard, AstraZeneca pharmaceuticals, and the U.S. Department of Defense all license the personality exam for in-house use. And those quizzes on Facebook—Which type of vampire are you? What color is your personality?—also owe a debt to the legendary exam.

But how exactly did one personality test come to dominate the American cultural landscape? And why do so many psychologists and psychiatrists question the test's validity? Both answers may lie in the fact that Isabel Myers and Katharine Briggs weren't trained scientists.

This is Just a Test

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator goes back to a mother-daughter team working together in the first half of the 20th century. Neither one had any formal training in psychology. Katharine Cook Briggs was married to a physicist; her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, had a bachelor's degree in political science from Swarthmore College. But the two became interested in personality theory in 1923, after reading a book by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung. In Jung's book, Psychological Types, he categorized personalities based on the way people engage in and understand the world. At the time, it was a novel approach to psychology—one that focused not on treating the mentally ill, but rather on guiding ordinary people along a path of self-discovery.

Using a simplified version of Jung's ideas, Briggs and Myers developed a questionnaire and scoring system. This wasn't the first personality test to categorize people by type; Harvard psychologist William Marston (father of the polygraph test) had developed a similar system in the mid-1920s. But Myers and Briggs' version was more detailed.

More importantly, their timing was perfect. Myers and Briggs introduced their system in 1942, just as women were moving into the workforce and filling the job vacancies created by World War II. Specialists in the emerging field of industrial psychology welcomed the Myers-Briggs Test as a way to help sort through the influx of women and steer them toward the jobs that best suited them. Society was quickly redefining itself, and the Myers-Briggs Test was helping to give it shape.

Characters Wanted

The standard Myers-Briggs Type Indicator poses 94 questions specifically designed to classify an individual as one of 16 personality types. Each "type" is a combination of four traits that describes how an individual relates to the world. A person can be introverted or extroverted; intuitive or sensing; feeling or thinking; and perceiving or judging. Career counselors typically use these results to guide clients towards jobs that feel like a personality fit and are likely to be satisfying in the long run. For instance, people who are categorized as introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving are often gentle and empathetic. They tend to make insightful writers and therapists. On the other end of the Myers-Briggs spectrum, the extroverted, sensing, thinking, and judging types tend to be responsible and organized managers. They're pegged as effective teachers and judges.

Part of what's made the test so popular with the general public is that it's impossible to fail. While other psychological tests were designed to diagnose mental illness (or at least screen for it), the Myers-Briggs Test assumes that all 16 types represent shades of normal. Everyone who takes the test will classify as one of the types, and all of the types have a place in society.

Of course, this aspect of the test is also one of the reasons why many experts question its usefulness, placing it only a step or two above astrology. They argue that the results aren't falsifiable, meaning that any of the 16 types could fit any person, given the right interpretational spin. As psychologist David J. Pittenger wrote in 1993, "The descriptions of each type are generally flattering and sufficiently vague so that most people will accept the statements as true of themselves."

Another reason why experts question the scientific credibility of Myers-Briggs is that the answers are entirely self-reported. Analysts can spend hours interpreting the results, but in the end, the test depends on whether test-takers can honestly and accurately answer questions about their own behaviors and preferences.

Ultimately, many psychologists feel that the Myers-Briggs Test can reveal how individuals see themselves, but not much more. That information can prove useful if you're a career counselor trying to help someone find the right job. But is it worth the millions of dollars people spend each year to administer the test? It's tough to say. We live in a culture where people seem willing to spend endless amounts of time and money to find themselves, and in that respect, it doesn't look like Myers-Briggs will be disappearing anytime soon.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you're in a subscribing mood, here are the details. Got an iPad? We also offer digital subscriptions through Zinio.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]