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The Danger of Personality Tests

The pseudoscience and business-oriented model of personality tests overshadow their potential for serious interpretation

Personality tests are often fodder for conversation – a guess and check game of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) types along with other quizzes done in tandem to explore differences in friends. The danger of these personality tests comes when we attribute importance to the results. According to Psychology Today, approximately 80 per cent of Fortune 500 companies use personality tests to assess employees for the purpose of coaching, development, and team building. The Myers & Briggs Foundation offers MBTI certification programs, and it boasts that “many organizations engage the services of external MBTI consultants to present psychological type.” Outside the workforce, a 2016 study by the National Council on Teacher Quality determined that 59 per cent of textbooks suggest that students’ learning styles should be a consideration in lessons. Thus, there’s a precedent in seriously interpreting online questionnaires, which lack scientific foundation and are not transparent about their methods. 

I was first initiated into the world of personality tests as a teenager. Around the same time I was exploring my sexuality, other identifying markers became available to me – namely, the microlabels assigned to me by quizzes on the internet. First, lauded by zealous middle school teachers, there was a quiz to discover our learning types, which was a product of the paid platform Career Cruising. The assessment was called Learning Styles Inventory, and it consisted of a mere 20 questions to determine whether we were visual, auditory, or tactile learners. A few months later, our class did a Myers-Briggs test. As a lover of systems, the acronyms and neat classifications were a welcome mindframe to me. 

The draw toward self-exploration was a healthy impulse. Especially as young adults, there are a lot of unkowns one has to grapple with: Who are you? Who do you identify with? Who is your community? 

The potentially destructive facet is the advice that is given as a consequence. The learning type quiz dictates which educational environment you will thrive in. The Myers-Briggs test identifies supposed flaws in your personality. There is also the Big Five Personality Test, which claims to identify your openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism. Another popular personality test, Enneagram, has a focus on self-improvement, meaning you are expected to rehabilitate your personality based on your results. 

Advice that is anything other than individual is doomed to ignore traits – or combinations of traits – that are unique to a person. These tests also work on an assumption that we can accurately interpret possibly unclear questions and that we are able to accurately identify some pretty sweeping personality traits in ourselves. 

Take a look at the Learning Styles Inventory, for example. The question, “If learning to cook, I would rather: a) follow written recipes; b) create my own recipes, tasting as I cook; or c) be told how to cook” simplifies an activity with dozens of factors. For instance, the answer will change based on experience with cooking, and it is hard to answer if someone has no cooking experience at all. The question, “I find it easiest to remember: a) names; b) things I have done; or c) faces” is simply baffling, especially given that option b) can encompass all of human memory. Even ignoring the possible confusions in these questions, they point to superficial qualities in a person and assign them undue importance. At best, the Learning Styles Inventory is a frivolous introduction to learning styles, but the corresponding study tips imply that the Inventory tries to take itself seriously. There is no information on the Career Cruising website concerning the reasoning behind the questions. 

The Big Five test is a more comprehensive questionnaire, allowing you to do a 300-question personality test. Although I imagine these results could be quite specific to the person, spending so much time self-analyzing can become unhealthy. It is a way of thinking about identity that is divorced from the community around you. With 300 questions, trivial subjects surface. The effect of “I love action” or “I go straight for the goal” on any of the Big Five traits is never explained. The calculations behind the results are a black box, and there is no way to discern how the test uses the data it collects to form its conclusions. While the Big Five test was created by psychologists with the backing of evidence, some online assessments have been revealed to produce sexist results – ranking women as more disagreeable than men for the same traits depending on what gender one self-identifies as. This is because results are shown in comparing other test-takers with the same gender.

The Enneagram test attempts the most ambitious stab at your personhood. According to the website Truity, the Enneagram identifies a core belief that “drives your deepest motivations and fears — and fundamentally shapes a person’s worldview and the perspective through which they see the world and the people around them.” The framework is self-confident, but Professor Sanjay Srivastava of the Department of Psychology at the University of Oregon points out the lack of evidence and scientific theory behind the test. The fact that Enneagram does not acknowledge the lack of scientific background suggests that it is a commercial rather than evidence-based model.

Myers-Briggs has accrued credibility by basing the test off of psychologist Carl Jung, and approximately 3.5 million tests are administered each year. Despite the confidence in Myers-Briggs, it lacks empirical evidence to support the veracity of claims to capture someone’s personality. In an interview between a University of Wharton journal and Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University, Emre claims 50 per cent of people who take the test receive different results a second time. Emre also points out that when participants disagree with their results in workplace evaluations, they are often told by MBTI test administrators that they’re not interpreting the results correctly. 

If anything, these tests are able to  monitor our perception of ourselves – a very subjective experience that concrete questions can never fully account for. 

Yet another flaw is that these tests are static. They record a moment in time, while our experiences in life are constantly shaping how we interact in the world. Another pitfall is confirmation bias, a phenomenon where we are more likely to believe evidence that supports our existing beliefs. Thus, when we receive results that validate our opinions of ourselves, we may accept them without enough critical consideration. 

Finally, many of these personality tests cater to a specific audience – they are not universal. This was recently found in a study on the Big Five Test: a translated version of the test was given to a small South American tribe, and the results did not cluster into the expected five types. Not only do the tests lose accuracy when applied across various demographics, but they also reflect a rigid interpretation of personality. To put stock into such models limits our perceptions of people through a Western gaze.  

Although I can understand the temptation to neatly classify a chaotic assortment of values and quirks, I am learning to embrace the ways humans are unable to be described in a paragraph. I am also learning to describe myself based on the actions I do for others and the way I react to real-life experiences, rather than trying to extrapolate meaning from vague statements such as “I am always prepared” (the Big Five). Although I will keep doing personality tests for fun, I will no longer be putting stock in them.