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Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture The Real You?

Twelve years ago, I tried to drive a stake into the heart of the personality-testing industry. Personality tests are neither valid nor reliable, I argued, and we should stop using them — especially for making decisions that affect the course of people's lives, like workplace hiring and promotion.

But if I thought that my book, The Cult of Personality Testing, would lead to change in the world, I was keenly mistaken. Personality tests appear to be more popular than ever. I say "appear" because — today as when I wrote the book — verifiable numbers on the use of such tests are hard to come by.

Personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure. There are the personality tests administered to job applicants "to determine if you're a good fit for the company;" there are the personality tests imposed on people who are already employed, "in order to facilitate teamwork;" there are the personality tests we take voluntarily, in career counseling offices and on self-improvement retreats and in the back pages of magazines (or, increasingly, online.)

I know these tests are popular because after the book was published, most of the people I heard from were personality-test enthusiasts, eager to rebut my critique of the tests that had, they said, changed their lives.

Actually it was just one test they were talking about: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. If you've ever made a new acquaintance who, after conversing with you for a minute, says, "Are you an INTJ? Because my sister-in-law is an INTJ and you remind me of her, and as an ESFP I'm obviously your opposite but as long as we know that we can get along and work together really well," you've met an MBTI convert. The MBTI is a secular religion, and no amount of scientific evidence will dissuade its true believers. I have tried, and have repeatedly been told that it's clearly my fill in a four-letter personality type here nature that makes me so skeptical.

After a number of encounters of this sort, I developed a tolerance and even an affection for type-obsessed fans of the MBTI. Sure, their instrument is a Carl Jung-inspired load of nonsense engineered to make everyone who takes it feel good about themselves. On the other hand, insight often turns up in unlikely places. Wherever you find illumination, I began to tell the type disciples I met, you should seize it.

But the one manifestation of personality testing to which I have never been able to accommodate myself is the administration of tests to captive audiences: students and employees required to place themselves in boxes for an administrator's convenience. If my marshaling of scientific evidence against the test failed to change many minds, I hope that the narrative in which that evidence is embedded makes my larger point: that human beings are far too complex, too mysterious and too interesting to be defined by the banal categories of personality tests.

Indeed, the creators of major personality tests are themselves a colorful bunch of characters whose tests were largely reflective of their own idiosyncrasies. In researching and writing their life stories, I came to believe that personality tests tell us less about the individuals who take them than about the individuals who devised them:

  • There's Hermann Rorschach, the Swiss psychiatrist who turned a parlor game into the iconic inkblot test — the results of which were for decades taken very seriously in courtrooms and mental hospitals.
  • There's Henry Murray, the patrician (and married) professor who developed the Thematic Apperception Test with the help of his lover, who worked alongside him at his Harvard clinic.
  • There's Starke Hathaway, the Midwestern psychologist who included questions about test-takers' religious beliefs, sex lives and bathroom habits in his influential instrument, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
  • And, of course, there's Isabel Myers, the Pennsylvania housewife who was inspired to turn Jung's cryptic writings into a personality test accessible to all. Her mother, Katharine Briggs, helped with this endeavor, and at first the test was called the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator; the order of the names was reversed starting in 1956.

Myers typed herself as an INFP (that is, introverted-intuitive-feeling-perceiving). Having spent many months poring over her letters and journal entries, reading the recollections of those who knew her and reporting on the way she turned an obscure psychological theory into a personality test that has been taken by millions of people worldwide, I can tell you that a string of four letters doesn't come close to capturing the fascinating complexities of this woman. If Myers imagined that her multitudes could be contained by four pseudo-Jungian descriptors — well, that was her limitation. We don't have to make it ours.

Annie Murphy Paul is a journalist and author of The Cult of Personality Testing.

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