If the title of this post didn’t give it away, I hate personality tests.
This probably isn’t a surprise to anyone who knows me well, as it isn’t really a topic I’m shy to discuss. Quite frankly, a large part of why I dislike them is because I don’t get them. I don’t understand the purpose or benefits of laying out one’s top ten to fifteen good and bad qualities based on vague questions with highly subjective answers. This may well just be a jaded personal shortcoming, as the vast majority of people I know love personality tests and can rattle off their MBTI acronym or Enneagram number (or both) without blinking. For me, though, they never really seem to stick.
As such, this post will be inescapably biased and subjective. However, as someone who studies literature and therefore (perhaps especially) character, I really want to address this. After some forays into research land (which included actually taking several personality tests — I’m truly committed) as well as a bit of soul searching, here are several of the reasons I think personality tests are untrue, unhelpful, and sometimes downright dangerous.
(By the way, if you’re a personality test lover, please feel free to fight back — I’d love to understand if I’m missing the point!)
I’d like to start by pointing out how subtly manipulative personality tests can be (with the added disclaimer that I am not a psychologist, just drawing conclusions that seem logical to me). Let’s take the Big Five personality test, or OCEAN, which, when I took Intro to Psych four years ago, was considered the most scientifically accurate personality test out there. OCEAN is an acronym which stands for the five areas of personality, as explained by truity:
- Openness – How open a person is to new ideas and experiences
- Conscientiousness – How goal-directed, persistent, and organized a person is
- Extraversion – How much a person is energized by the outside world
- Agreeableness – How much a person puts others’ interests and needs ahead of their own
- Neuroticism – How sensitive a person is to stress and negative emotional triggers
How is this manipulative? Well, right off the bat we’re making the massive assumption that there are only five core categories that make up a human’s personality. But beyond that, just by looking at these categories, a person will likely begin to think of themselves based on how they measure up to these criteria. I know that “good” personality tests account for some nuance of character, but how can a test like this account for nuances or aspects of life that don’t fit one of these five categories? For someone trying to use this test to understand themselves, they’ve suddenly started ignoring all the parts of themselves that might not fit into these categories of personality. In my mind, that’s tragic.
Another massive problem with personality tests is the Barnum Effect (named after none other than P.T. Barnum, the Greatest Showman himself), also known as the Forer Effect. Barnum was known for being able to tell people all about themselves just by looking at them or talking to them for a few minutes. Was he psychic? Nope! He just had a good measure of confidence and a knack for coming up with generalized statements; and as it turns out, we humans are pros at finding personal meaning in vague statements. Horoscopes, psychics, and fortune tellers use these Barnum statements all the time, but most people take them with a grain (or an entire teaspoon) of salt. Personality tests, however, use and abuse the Barnum Effect in exactly the same way, especially tests that focus on more good qualities in a person, with a couple suggestions for improvement thrown in at the end. After all, who doesn’t want to hear all the good things about themselves? I don’t want to take up time explaining the various experiments that have tested the Barnum effect, but if you’re interested, do check out this one (where fifteen people unknowingly receive exactly the same generic results) and this one (where an entire class unknowingly receive the results of a mass murderer). It’s astonishing how easily we are manipulated.
So as I mentioned, I actually took a few personality tests while doing some research for this post. The main two I looked at were Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test and the explosively popular Enneagram. Since I don’t really know what I’m doing, I began by taking two MBTI tests from different websites. I was rather surprised when on one of them, the last page of questions were about political opinions, who I voted for in the 2020 US election (I’m a Canadian?), and who I thought legally won… For the record, I chose “decline to answer” for each question since the other test didn’t have them, but I still don’t know why the answers to those questions would have affected my personality. Regardless, I tried to answer honestly in both tests and keep my answers consistent, and I still had two different results. With the Enneagram test, I found it difficult to find tests that looked legit. After completing three, which not only gave me different types but also had different titles for the nine types, I did some research on people well-versed in the Enneagram and looked for their most recommended. I was then directed to this supposedly trustworthy Enneagram test from yourenneagramcoach.com, the first page of which looked as follows:
How does one even begin to answer these questions? What if I feel responsible but not smart, or prepared and committed but not anxious? Define prolonged involvement or the type of expectations? What makes wholesome, detailed, and judicious fall into the same category? I know that if you want an accurate personality test, it’s best to choose the neutral option as little as possible. But with this test I couldn’t even get to page two as I didn’t know how to answer half the questions. Even in the Myers Briggs test, there were so many questions that seemed extremely subjective. How can I know if I’m more creative or sensitive than the average person? And shouldn’t the type of poetry I like say more about me than the mere fact that I read poetry?
In case you were curious, I could be an INFP, ENFJ, Enneagram 2, 3, or 9. Take your pick, I guess.
Well, that’s the scientific(ish) side of why I think a lot of personality tests are inaccurate at best and downright bogus at worst. But there’s a more important, philosophical side to my beef with them as well.
Personality tests always give you the same sort of statement at the end: “____ is what you are.” I have a big problem with that wording. I’ve never seen a test that says “____ is what you are right now based on your current mood and life circumstances” or “____ helps explain this specific part of your personality.” Instead, you are given an absolute, immoveable identity. Of course, each individual can decide to what extent the answer to a personality test defines them, but I find it disturbing how many are happy to just absorb the label they are given. Even when a test result makes suggestions for how to improve one’s character, they are often phrased like “you may struggle with this aspect of relationships” or “while this type generally makes an excellent manager, such-and-such tendency may prove a problem in the area of discipline.” Not only is this extremely vague language (hello, Barnum), it also keeps one firmly entrenched — entrapped even — in a labelled personality box. ____ is what you are. I’ve heard the argument that these “boxes” are like paint colours at Home Depot: there might only be eight or nine colours, but there are infinite shades within those colours, just like there are infinite variations of humans in each personality category. But even if you’re a shade of red, you’re still red. There is no room for purple or yellow or green in the red category. Why can’t every human be made up of a unique mixture of every colour? And not only colours, but shades and sounds and textures and movements as well? Is there a personality test available to describe each rich, varied, beautiful, unique, shifting personality that belongs solely to one person? To quote Davy Keith, “I want to know.”
Besides my resentment towards putting labels on people as though they were an element in the periodic table, I also wonder how well we are actually able to know ourselves? Consider the purpose of a personality test: most people use it to be able to understand themselves better. Doesn’t that suggest they don’t understand themselves terribly well in the first place? And if that is so, how can we be sure that they have accurately answered the questions preceding their results?
The maxim “Know thyself” is one of the oldest in the book. It is famous for having been inscribed on the temple at Delphi in ancient Greece, but likely dates back even further to ancient Egypt. Humans, then, have been preoccupied with knowing themselves for millennia. Pick up nearly any volume of classic literature and you will see poets and writers alike desperately endeavoring to understand humanity at its core. Historians trace the rise and fall of empires or agriculture to reveal some sort of pattern that will give a clue as to how we work. Artists and sculptors have spent centuries trying to capture not only the human form, but the essence and soul inside. Nearly every philosophical question can boil down to what a human is, why we feel and work and perceive and live the way we do. There’s a reason these fields are grouped together and called the Humanities. Curiosity about ourselves is, it seems, implanted deep within our nature; so perhaps we can’t be blamed for seeking out personality tests that give us quick and simple answers to the deep questions that humanity has explored since the beginning.
There is, however, a large difference between what we think of ourselves and how we truly are. What we think of ourselves undoubtedly stems from some form of truth, but then extends like a veil over our deeper, truer selves that masks any change which may be taking place beneath it. Worse still, I think we have a tendency to see that veil as the proof of “know thyself.” We analyze it, study it, predict it, coddle it, and never really get past it to explore the deeper levels of self. Personality tests give a strength and durability to this veil, feeding our self image and even directing the way we interact with the world around us. How much of ourselves do we miss? And how much does the true self change, mature, and grow while one is distracted with fixed labels and categories? Or perhaps, how much is the true self inhibited from changing, maturing, and growing?
The labels associated with personality tests can also impact the way we interact with friends, family, and even strangers. I’ve known people who love the enneagram so much because it supposedly teaches them how to interact with other people based on the other person’s number. In fact, using personality tests is becoming a more common practice in businesses, with the purpose of building “empathy,” understanding how to meet people’s needs (your own and others) in a given environment, and identifying compatibility and skill sets. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a remarkably lazy way to get to know employees, or even people in general. There is such a large difference between assigning me to a task or position based on my OCEAN results instead of personally observing my behavior and work ethic and actually asking me about if I would be willing to step into a certain role. The former makes me a cog to be fit into a machine — the latter makes me a human being.
While there are obviously certain things that only an individual knows about themselves (thoughts, for instance), there is a good deal to be said for the discernment of people close to them. I would never be the person I am now if I didn’t have mentors, family members, and good friends who pushed me to do things which they knew I could do but I thought were too hard. I think that the deep accountability and genuine relationships of community can be impeded by taking the results of personality tests too seriously. In many evangelical churches, the Enneagram is rapidly growing in popularity as a tool for fostering relationships and roles in church family (to the extent that this church parodied Bohemian Rhapsody in their service to talk about Enneagram types…). Perhaps I’m a just a hard-nosed cynic, but this just seems like such a detrimental idea. If you can’t help looking at someone through the lens of their Enneagram number, if you can’t talk with someone without their MBTI type hovering around the edges of the conversation, how can you really get to know them without just filling in a stereotype?
At the end of the day, I don’t think it will cause irreparable damage to discover what type of Disney princess or animal or sports ball you are (though, on that note: datamining is a thing…). For me, the danger comes in accepting labels and identities that are based in questionable science (if any) and only part of the picture. Especially among Christians, the best way to know and understand ourselves is to better know and understand our Creator. If we must keep anything in mind when we think of either ourselves or our fellow humans, then let that be that we are made in of the image of the infinitely creative God, strikingly described by C.S. Lewis:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he his holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat — the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden” (The Weight of Glory).