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‘The Personality Brokers’ Conjures the Mother and Daughter Who Helped Us Think of Ourselves as Types

The indicator owes its existence to two American women, Katharine Briggs and her only daughter, Isabel Myers, who took the ideas of the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and refracted them through their own interpretations of human behavior. Neither one was a trained psychologist. A couple of years after Isabel was born in 1897, Katharine, in a quest to create “civilized adults,” turned her living room into the fantastically named “cosmic laboratory of baby training,” where she could conduct behavioral experiments on Isabel and the neighbors’ children. Katharine dutifully recorded her observations in a notebook she called “The Diary of an Obedience-Curiosity Mother.”

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Merve EmreCreditChristian Nakarado

Even though obedience and curiosity would seem to be at odds with each other, Katharine — a bundle of contradictions herself — succeeded in inculcating her daughter with both traits. Isabel grew up to become inquisitive and well-rounded. As a child, she had a talent for languages, fiction (she would later write a best-selling novel), stenography and, apparently, metal-making. “What a housekeeper that child would make!” a proud Katharine announced in her diary. As it happened, Isabel would later become a doting parent but a stubbornly indifferent homemaker, much to the consternation of her husband, who was jealous of Isabel’s devotion to her indicator and would call her “Mrs. Executive.”

She would always, however, remain unfailingly loyal to her mother, no matter how often Katharine — lovingly, unthinkingly — would undermine her achievements. Obsessed with Jungian typology, Katharine may have created the precursor to the indicator (a “personality paint box”), but Isabel was the one who developed on it in earnest during World War II, even insisting on calling it the Briggs-Meyers Type Indicator, with Katharine’s last name first. (The names would eventually be reversed, to rescue the acronym from beginning with an unfortunate “B.M.”)

Emre describes Katharine as “irritated” by the indicator; she thought of Jungian typology as more exalted than whatever could be captured by a lowly “scientific” questionnaire. But Isabel’s creation would flourish, especially when corporations and government agencies got wind of it. Isabel pitched the indicator as a way for them to maintain order in their growing ranks. The idea behind it was simple, harmonious and irresistibly win-win: employees wouldn’t raise a ruckus if they were placed in a job that suited their type. “Each type has its own special advantages,” Isabel wrote, in emphatic boldface, in the first published version of the questionnaire.

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