Personality tests are hogwash

Jonas DoerrOpinion Columnist

Are you a Gryffindor? A cunning Slytherin? A brainiac of a Ravenclaw? Or one of the sad people who doesn’t fit into the other three and gets to be a Hufflepuff?

If you don’t know, there are plenty of online tests that will tell you what Harry Potter house you belong to. Some will quiz you on your favorite foods and social habits, and some will ask you about personality traits. All of them will tell you exactly how you fit in at Hogwarts, except for one flaw: they’re all hogwash.

There is a strange pleasure in knowing exactly how you fit in the world. The idea that there could be one of four houses of wizards just like you is oddly appealing. But aside from the dubious merits of sorting children into competing cliques where they’ll wiggle sticks in various attempts to murder each other, the idea that people are so easily sorted is entirely wrong.

Fortunately, most people do not claim that the Harry Potter houses are a legitimate way of categorizing people. Unfortunately, many use an equally unscientific personality test to put people in boxes: the Myers-Briggs personality indicator.

This assessment gives everyone one of 16 personality types indicated by four letters, like ENFP. You can be extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving. According to Merve Emre, writer of The Personality Brokers, the test was created by two amateur psychologists in the first half of the 20th century but really gained popularity in the 1980s. In fact, it became so popular that businesses and government organizations like the CIA started using it to hire people.

The problem is that Myer-Briggs is not very scientific. It’s neither valid nor reliable, two important factors for any scientific assessment. According to Emre, studies found that the questions didn’t necessarily measure the personality traits they claimed to. Additionally, over half of test-takers got a different result after re-taking the assessment. Yet people will still treat those four letters like a how-to manual for understanding themselves.

Emre says that the personality test industry is worth at least $400 million; some estimate it closer to $2 billion. People will pay cold cash to get insights into who they are based on these questions. But why is Myers-Briggs the most popular assessment when its answers are hardly scientific?

How can we define ourselves by arbitrary letters and numbers?

The real problem isn’t even that the Myers-Briggs isn’t particularly accurate. The issue is that categorizing people limits their horizons. Everyone acts situationally, and confining oneself to a particular personality will be polarizing and constraining.

Saying someone has a distinct personality implies that they act consistently in many different situations. If, for example, someone is considered bold, you would expect them to be bold both in their classes and with their friends. If the person enjoyed going cliff-diving with friends but was afraid of disagreeing with professors in class, would they really be bold?

Yet this is exactly how most people are. One might appear very extroverted when talking with a large group of friends, but then seem very reserved in a business setting. A person could be very organized with their personal finances but love to wing-it on a vacation. Everyone acts differently based on context, but “personality” assumes otherwise.

This can lead to grave misunderstandings between oneself and others. When you see a person joking around comfortably at a meeting and assume they’re extraverted, you miss out on discovering the complexities of that person. Understanding human beings is a long process and personality tests are not a valid shortcut.

Taking a wider view of personality can then lead to more forgiveness and less polarization. If we are eager to define ourselves with categories, we will become polarized. We’ll say we are Republican or Democrat, Minnesotan or Wisconsinite, Gustie or Ole. Instead of finding the nuances in individuals, we create ‘good’ groups and ‘bad’ groups.

If ogres are like onions, people are like lasagna. If you just eat the top layer, you’re not going to get the whole experience. If we judge people based on one mistake, assuming that’s their “personality”, we don’t see the true richness of their humanity. Stepping back from quick personality judgments involves giving people second chances.

Finally, once we step back from the idea of static forms of personality, we will open new doors of growth for ourselves. We are not confined to four letters. Why not be all eight? Why not think and feel, judge and perceive, intuit and sense?

If you read enough results pages from personality tests, you’ll realize that they have a strong tendency to say vague statements that could apply to a lot of people. That’s how they get people thinking, “Wow, they really understand me!” People are striving to be understood. Let’s try to give them that.


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