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Dorm Living as a Psychological Science

December 12, 2008

If college freshmen knew more about their roommate’s personality type, would they be more likely to get along with one another? Some small liberal arts colleges think so and have invested in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) -- a well-known personality assessment -- to either match roommates or resolve conflicts between them.

This fall, Champlain College, in Burlington, Vt., began requiring all of its incoming students to complete the MBTI before arriving on campus as part of a newly launched “life skills” program. Counselors then meet with freshman roommates at the beginning of the semester to discuss the experience of taking the personality assessment and have them complete a roommate agreement form. This document is used by resident assistants and other officials to establish rules for a shared room and deal with potential conflicts.

The MBTI -- based on the work of Carl Jung -- classifies individuals in one of 16 categories. According to the assessment, individuals are extroverted or introverted; sensitive or intuitive; thinking or feeling; and judging or perceiving. These traits add up to a specific personality type that can be used by qualified counselors in a variety of ways, such as helping a test-taker select an ideal profession or mate.

Leslie Averill, assistant vice president for student life at Champlain, said college officials have seen anecdotal evidence that using the personality assessment has reduced the number of roommate conflicts and switches this semester. Though the college does not have any hard numbers supporting the initial success of this program, she said it has committed to using the personality assessment next year and will further review its effectiveness in the future. So far, she said residence life officials were pleased with the results.

The MBTI, however, is not used for what it tells Champlain students about themselves but for how it makes them think about themselves. Averill noted that the students are not informed of their individual results when completing roommate agreements. Instead, she explained that students self-identity with their perceived personality when getting to know their roommates. This knowledge is used later in the semester: if conflict arises between roommates, she said this information can be used by resident assistants to mediate a resolution. She also noted that students do not have to sign any sort of waiver allowing the college to share this information. The experience of taking the MBTI is intended to help students think more about themselves and their personalities, with the goal of disarming conflicts before they arise.

“Students don’t like to be told what they are, but they like to tell stories about themselves,” Averill said, noting that MBTI results are disclosed in a student’s second or third year when they see a career counselor for guidance. “They don’t like to be put into a box. We don’t want to tell people what they are or are not. Instead, this is a tool for conversations to take place, for roommate agreements, and for students to find out who they are as individuals.”

Averill said Champlain has budgeted $5,000 this year for the use of the MBTI, adding that, even in tough financial times, college officials think the benefit to the student life experience is worth the cost. Roommates are still paired randomly. The MBTI is only used in an advisory fashion after roommates have been selected.

Davidson College in North Carolina has taken the use of the MBTI a step further than Champlain: it uses the personality assessment in its multi-step process to match freshman roommates. Incoming students complete the assessment soon after being admitted, and residence life officials consider the personality types of students alongside a plethora of other self-reported information -- such as preference for a smoking or non-smoking roommate and whether a student primarily views the room as a place to study or socialize. When students arrive on campus, they attend information sessions at which they learn their personality types and the meaning of the MBTI results.

Patty Perillo, associate dean of students at Davidson, said the personality assessment is only one portion of the institution’s intimate and comprehensive roommate matching process. For example, in addition to calculating their incoming students’ personality types, the residence life staff reads the application of every freshman when matching him or her with a roommate. She admits, however, that this attention to detail may have a lot to do with the college’s small size.

“I don’t think every college can do it,” Perillo said of using the personality assessment. “It’s the thought of the college that, if we had any more than 500 [new] students, a cost-benefit analysis might indicate that we need to take the [MBTI] out of roommate matching. Still, the beauty of this process at Davidson is that residence life can get to know students before they get here.”

At Davidson, she said there have only been two formal roommate complaints this semester among the college’s 476 freshmen. In those circumstances, she said the two pairs of students were able to switch roommates and resolve the conflict. Aside from this anecdotal evidence, she said the college believes the personality assessment is making a difference is lessening roommate conflicts based on other related MBTI research.

“Myers-Briggs research shows that certain personality types are more inclined to get along with certain other types,” Perillo said. “While this research was not about roommate pairing, [the MBTI] is pretty well established and reliable. We feel comfortable bringing it into the roommate pairing process.”

She noted that Davidson was paying $8 per student annually for this assessment. This year it cost the institution $3,776.

According to market share information from CPP -- formerly Consulting Psychologists Press, the exclusive publisher of the MBTI in the United States -- more than 70 percent of colleges and universities in the country use the MBTI or other personality assessments in some capacity. Michael Schur, CPP product manager for the MBTI, said the assessment is most popularly used by career counselors in job-matching programs. Depending on how many student participate, he said the assessment can cost an institution anywhere between $10 and $20 per person.

Still, Schur said CPP does take issue with using the MBTI as a “screening” or “exclusionary” tool, for example, if an institution were to tell roommates that they should not room together because of their opposing personality types. The test, he said, should not be the only or final arbiter in such a decision.

“The MBTI helps people understand their differences and appreciate them,” Schur said. “It’s not about saying this person does this correctly or incorrectly. If you have this preference and I have another preference, how can we live together?”

 

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