Searching for self: Inside online personality psychology groups

Philosophers spend their lives asking questions. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? An internet subculture explores those questions using a personality quiz as its jumping off point. Welcome to the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) community.

Ruben Van is a nomadic 33-year-old Dutch man living in Germany who restores and sells antiques. He joined the MBTI community four years ago after researching personality psychology and taking the 16Personalities test.

The MBTI online community has hundreds of groups, some type-specific (ENTP, INFP) and others for memes. Members often create group chats where they can talk more regularly.

For Van, the draw of the online groups was building a network of people to visit when travelling for work. But things soured when a former online friend accused him of being a paedophile.

Van said: “I was stuck in a hostel because of Covid and I was shaking, someone is making up I’m a paedo and people are believing this.

“I was shaking that I was losing my friends and someone was saying this insane sh*t.

“People would log into Facebook, search my name and they’d see ‘paedo’.

“They don’t realise the internet is the real world too, it’s there for everyone to see.”

MBTI is based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological type and was developed by Isabel Briggs-Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs.

They took Jung’s theory and produced a test for people to find their personality type based on different preferences for psychological functions. The result was a four-letter personality type.

What Briggs-Myers and her mother didn’t realise was the huge cultural impact their work would have. MBTI has a surprising global reach, with members from London to Puerto Rico.          

Lila Rae Kaz, a 24-year-old law student from London, was introduced to the community by a friend in 2015.

She said: “The best thing about it has been meeting people throughout the globe who have diverse experiences and are able to contribute to those perspectives.”

The community connects likeminded people who all share the same interest in psychology and provides them with an easier way to socialise.

David Higgins, 34, who work in security services in Indiana, USA, said: “The introverted lifestyle is not really conducive to finding others like yourself.

“An online community offers a bit of anonymity to another individual so they’re able to find each other easily by labels.”

Sian Jones (not her real name), a 29-year-old office worker from London, joined the MBTI online community in the summer of 2016. 

The online groups captured the zeitgeist of the time. Donald Trump was newly elected president of the USA, Brexit loomed, and the internet was full of reactionary politics.

She said: “The MBTI community has given me lots of insights into various internet subcultures and it’s also helped me to refine my debating skills.”

A common worry about posting in the groups is being ‘doxed’ – having your personal details exposed by people online.

Higgins said: “I took precautions, in case anybody doxes me based on what I said, no one would know my real identity.

“I didn’t give them any opportunity – I’m an INTJ, I plan for everything.”

Jones added: “I find something quite insidious about doxing, I find it very emotionally violent.”

The scientific merit of MBTI has been questioned by people inside the online community and psychologists outside of it, like Jordan Peterson.

Nary Hayas, 24, in Iraq, said: “I think people take it way too seriously and box themselves in their type instead of expanding it.”

Van said: “It’s not scientific, it’s bullshit.

“A lot of psychology is based on assumptions, it made me really question lots of pseudo stuff in psychology.”

Members have come to different conclusions about their experiences in the groups.

Higgins said: “I didn’t find what I wanted, which was basically a companion.

“At the same time, I found some interesting people – I probably could do the same thing if I went to Comic-con.”

Van said: “I feel like I wasted time in some way but also all the time I wasted was a learning point.”

The MBTI community is vast, complex and diverse, and the people at the heart of it are still asking those age-old questions: who am I and where do I belong?

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