Rationalizing The Irrational: Why Personality Tests Don't Work
Which is why I was never good socially- I’ve spent most of my life trying to figure out “what works” when dealing with people and I just get nowhere. I mean, think about it- aside from physical harm, what can you do to someone where you’re *always* going to have the same reaction? People are so different that unless you *really* know who they are, it’s impossible to know if you’ve really gone over the line. So I’ve personally decided to stop trying to figure it out- might help the sanity, if just a little bit.
Reflecting on this, it makes me think of those people who have made it an industry of doing just that- “figuring people out”. If you don’t know who you are, there’s a multitude of personality tests that you can take, from the straight-forward (Myers-Briggs) to the bizarre (enneagram). Based on your answers to the test, you’ll receive what purports to be your own “personality profile” accurately depicted, and from there you can see what that profile will lead you to- for example, a job or a relationship with a client. The most popular one is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers in the 1950s, and is based on the teachings of Carl Jung. The MBTI test follows a simple format- you are given a situation and two possible responses to the situation. You then pick the response that most applies to what you would do in that moment, with your answers being compiled to form a four-letter sequence indicating your “personality”. The letters are based on four pairs of inter-related “preferences” ((E)xtroversion vs. (I)ntroversion, (S)ensing vs. I(N)tuition, (T)hinking vs. (F)eeling, (J)udgement vs. (P)erception) of which everyone is one or the other, ultimately producing 16 personality types (2x2x2x2=16).
I have taken three personality tests in my life- the MBTI test (twice) and a newcomer called “4Di” from Collingwood, Ontario based One Smart World. My experiences with each have been rather different. In regards to the MBTI, the first time I took the test (for career counselling), my test results handed me the “INTJ” personality type, indicating a person who has a preference for using logic and reason as well as one who prefers to work alone. The second time I took the test (for school), I came out as a “ENTJ”, meaning that I still used logic and reason but now I preferred to work in groups.
That should be a red flag right there- according to the theory of MBTI, a person’s test score should not change, but mine did. Thinking of that, there were several reasons why my test score did change- the first time I took the test, I was fresh out of University and needed help finding employment, so I was on my own quite a bit. The second time I took the test I went back to school and in my current program, I’ve had to do a lot of group work, meaning that I’ve had to develop an extroverted side. Perhaps my personality changed, but I doubt it- knowing myself, I’ve always thought I was an “introvert-extrovert” that leaned a little towards the “introvert”, so perhaps my reality is that I’m somewhere in between the INTJ and ENTJ. Unfortunately, the MBTI test is far too rigid to take a subtlety like that into consideration, although I did think it did have a small degree of accuracy (though, looking back, there are several reasons for this, which I’ll expand on later).
4Di, on the other hand, was completely off the mark when I took it. That test- for those who are unfamiliar with it- is essentially a poor rip-off of MBTI, as the format is exactly the same yet it produces a different “score”- you are given a colour meaning you’re a “green”, “red”, or “yellow” type. The only difference is that it recognizes subtleties in that you can be a “cool” or a “warm” version of your colour based on how highly you rated in each of the colours. The fourth dimension is “white” or your own “personal spirit” that gets tagged onto your profile even though it doesn’t change your colour. So you essentially could become a “warm red with very little white”, indicating a logical thinker with low personal spirit (which was me, by the way). Technically speaking, it’s not a personality test- the colours represent your “strategies” or how you tackle tasks- but, for all intents and purposes, it is a map of a person and can be considered a personality test for practical purposes.
In any case, my problems with my 4Di score weren’t with its high scores but rather with its low scores. I somehow managed to score poorly in terms of “using past experiences” and in terms of “envisioning”, skills that I know I am good at. The problem was faulty test design, since in many cases I was required to pick between two choices for a situation where I could respond both ways. Several times, for example, “experience” was paired against “logic” and, of course, every time I’d go logical. The creators of 4Di failed to realize that experiences can definitely be “logical”, as there is no better problem-solving skill than knowing what did or didn’t work in the past- and if anyone should know that it should be the owner of a History Degree, wouldn’t you agree?
Therein lies the problem with personality tests approved for popular consumption (there are more complex psychological tests but they are tailored for specific instances and never used)- despite being touted as remarkably accurate, these tests are so watered-down for the populace that by default they cannot recognize the diverse milieu of personalities that truly exist. We all know that there’s no way only eight, 16 or even 132 different kinds of people exist in this world (there’s enough gene combinations to make at least 300 billion different people), so for a personality test to purport any kind of accuracy is misleading. People more or less always display characteristics congruent to both sets of viewpoints (for example, an introvert-extrovert) even if they may appear to tend towards one (if they even tend towards one). Everyone is truly a mixture of the different types a personality test can produce, so for a test to pigeonhole people is simply disingenuous.
Furthermore, because the tests are so vague someone taking the test again even as short as five weeks (http://www.indiana.edu/~jobtalk/HRMWebsite/hrm/articles/develop/mbti.pdf ) would produce a different result. This is because the personality test is really asking about a person’s thoughts, and those change over time. Aside from my own MBTI experience, this couldn’t be better pictured than when a lady who was the co-ordinator of 4Di (and a self-confessed “green” or spunky extrovert) came to our class to talk about our results. The co-ordinator noted that, as a group, we mostly scored low in “personal spirit”. She was flabbergasted but I was not. At the time most of us were taking the test, we were all stressing about having to find internships that fulfill the program’s co-op requirement as well as working on a major assignment at the same time, so our “low” personal spirit made a lot of sense. If we had taken the 4Di test in June, when we’re all firmly entrenched in our internships and not stressing that much, our personal spirit scores would have been higher- guaranteed. Thus, the best any test can hope for is a small degree of accuracy and that’s it, meaning it just falls into the category of “nice to know”- as far as using it for any kind of serious task (such as counselling) it falls incredibly short.
So why are personality tests perceived as accurate? The reason is due to something called the “Forer effect”, named after psychologist Bertram Forer. In 1948, Forer made his students take a “personality test” and when he received his students’ tests back, he just ignored them and handed each of his students this single reading:
“You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.” (http://skepdic.com/forer.html )
Forer then asked his students to rate the above evaluation out of 5 (with “5” being considered the highest accuracy level), and the average score was 4.26. That was in 1948. The test is still conducted today with similar results. Where did Forer receive the above statement? From a newspaper astrology column earlier that day. Why did it work? The reason is because the statement is vague enough that it could really apply to anyone despite having an authoritative tone and seemingly personalized bent, and the positive sentiment of the piece made it easier to take (make it too critical and people tend to get defensive and will more likely reject an evaluation even if it’s true). The perceived accuracy level of such a statement goes up when someone tells you that is specifically “for you” even if it truly isn’t. Furthermore, people have a general tendency to “want” something like Forer’s statement or a personality test to be true (a process called “subjective validation”), because they most likely took the test with positive intentions (such as trying to understand what career is best suited for them) and thus they want the test to be true because otherwise it’d be a worthless endeavour.
So what do you do if you find yourself wanting to know what “personality type” you are for whatever reason? Well, the first task would be to stop thinking you have a “personality type” and understand that you truly are unique- remember, there’s 300 *billion* different genetic combinations, so there’s no reason to think you need to be pigeonholed. The second task would be to do your own personal reflection by thinking about it on your own or consulting with friends and family, the ones who *truly* know you. You can also consult professional help but make sure that involves more than just giving you a personality test- you want someone to help identify your unique traits, not classify you into one of “16 cliques” that you probably don’t fit into anyway. Finally, if that all fails, follow your heart- oftentimes, you’re already going in a direction because your previous likes and dislikes got you there, and that could lead you along the path you want to go to. Yes, it’s a long and arduous process, but nothing in life is supposed to be easy. Thinking a personality test will guide you is just being lazy and will lead to even more confusion- confusion you don’t need. Remember, if nothing else, you know yourself best, so there’s no reason to ultimately look elsewhere other than the mirror, because the solution will be staring right back at you, even if it will take some time to eventually see it.