Do Personality Tests Really Mean Anything? 5 Things to Keep in Mind
Are you an Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Judging personality (INFJ)? Maybe you’re an ENTJ or INTP? Don’t know what I’m talking about? You obviously haven’t checked your Myers-Briggs personality type.
We love a label in our society.
It’s so much easier to identify where we belong, whom we belong with, and why, when we all have tidy labels to our names. Whether it’s the vagueness of your horoscope, the procrastinating fun of the What Hogwarts House are you? quiz, or the slightly more credible Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, personality tests and their subsequent write-ups continue to be popular.
In the US alone, there are more than 2,500 different personality tests available on the market for a range of uses: From corporate team building to assessments for jobs and tests for specific aptitudes often used in candidate selection processes. It wasn’t too long ago that the idea of completing a psychometric test for a job was a daunting exercise. Now it seems that we relish the opportunity to dive into our psyches and find out what makes us tick, whether it’s for work or pleasure.
The purpose of these tests is to help you build self-awareness, uncover your strengths, identify areas for growth, and help you find the language to articulate yourself more effectively to others. These assessments can be a great resource for team building and developing an understanding within teams of preferred modes of working (especially if some frictions are arising). Another bonus is that they’re quick. Why spend months reading self-help books and thousands of dollars on therapy when you can take a ten-minute personality test, right?
Well, as you probably guessed, wrong.
The Questionable Validity of Personality Tests
The concept of personality testing has come under increasing fire in the past year, with the release of books such as Merve Emre’s The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. Honing in on the most popular personality test out there — the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) it only takes a tiny bit of digging to start uncovering some of the issues that surround personality testing, as Emre does throughout her book.
The MBTI is distributed by Consulting Psychologists Press Inc., which also leads the market in psychological testing, amounting to close to $2 billion a year. Despite its immense popularity, the MBTI has failed extensively to meet established standards of psychological testing validation. The Educational Testing Service, the world’s largest nonprofit focused on quality and equity of educational testing and assessment, has concluded unanimously that the test is “without psychometric merit.”
When there are entire groups of people (and employers) who take their test results as a new gospel from which they make decisions, act and justify certain behaviours, there is a huge issue here.
The inspiration for the MBTI came from work by the renowned psychologist Carl Jung and his groundbreaking “Psychological Types” to define a range of personalities, first published in 1921. However, Jung insisted that his types, as he saw them, could only reflect an individual’s preferences, not definite abilities. Jung also ascertained that these types were a “snapshot” of a person at one particular stage of his or her life. This changes over the course of a lifetime as we gain more insights, experience, feedback, and self-knowledge.
Why the growing popularity?
Search “the future of work” on Google and you might gain some insight into why personality tests continue to grow in popularity. Louis Menand articulately puts it in his review for the New Yorker, “when the world of work becomes uncertain (an instrument) that takes stock of personal interests and abilities is appealing.”
Work is a huge part of society and has a strong influence on how we define and present ourselves within that society. When faced with unemployment or the uncertainty of what your future career might (or might not) hold, personality tests like the MBTI offer another anchor on which to pin our identity.
While they may lack a certain level of scientific validity, that doesn’t mean they can’t be useful tools. With that in mind, there’s a few things to keep in mind when using personality tests:
1. They are a resource, a tool, a snapshot — NOT the whole picture
There’s a risk when we take the labels these tests assign us of viewing our abilities very simply and assuming, “that’s it, that’s me!” It’s important not to let the labels become a restrictive barrier to your further growth — personal or professional. It’s also worth revisiting the tests and seeing what different results you get over time. They might surprise you.
2. They are NOT an excuse for bad behavior (or judgment)
“Oh, sorry I took over the project, it’s because I’m an ENTJ. I’m controlling.”
Using your personality labels to justify or explain away poor or rude behavior is a big no-no. If you use a test to identify these types of characteristics, it’s your responsibility to acknowledge if it is indeed something you do, and put in place practices to help improve the behavior, not hide behind it. Neither should you judge someone because they have a different “label” than you.
Another popular one I’ve heard are people saying they can’t work with a certain MBTI type because it clashes with their own. Which is, of course, ridiculous.
3. Mind your own bias when answering the questions
It’s actually proven by psychological research that we often respond to any form of personality testing based on what we think we’re supposed to say or do, rather than how we would actually respond to a given scenario. It’s referred to as Response Bias. Make sure you check yours when answering questions to ensure you get an honest answer (warts and all).
4. Pay attention to the parts you don’t relate to, as much as the parts you do
This is common phenomenon when reading test results, and especially with horoscopes. We often take on board the “good” aspects of a definition and attach them to ourselves and dismiss the “bad” or anything we don’t identify with. It’s why we feel confident when we say things such as, “That’s such a cancerian thing to do!” Don’t do this.
Read and re-read any test results and explore the parts you feel inclined to dismiss, and ask the question why you want to dismiss them. Taking on the bad with the good will give you a more honest picture, and some great starting points for growth, which leads us to the final point …
5. Approach them with a growth mindset
As a resource, personality tests should be encouraging you to explore more, not close the book or website and walk away dusting your hands off saying, “done with that.” Explore the things that appeal to you in your results, the things that don’t, and use a variety of tests to build points of growth. It will help you in a number of personal and professional ways.
Despite the fire personality testing is undergoing, when it comes to applying labels, pigeon-holing, or blanket characteristics to ourselves and others, it’s hardly a new occurrence. How often have you described a friend or colleague as introverted or extroverted? These labels help us navigate a number of social scenarios.
When it comes to personality tests such as the MBTI, it’s important to follow Jung’s advice, in that it describes a preference at a certain stage of your life. Your abilities grow and stretch as you gain more experience, make sure your definition — or label — of them does the same.
MBTI® Basics [n.d.]. The Meyers Briggs Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/home.htm?bhcp=1
Emre, M. (2018). The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing. New York, NY: Doubleday.
Jung, C.G. (1921). Psychological Types. Retrieved from https://psychclassics.yorku.ca/Jung/types.htm
Menand, L. (2018, September 10). What personality tests really deliver. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/09/10/what-personality-tests-really-deliver
Johnson, C. (2019). Response bias [blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.nextiva.com/blog/response-bias.html
Mead, E. (2019). Do Personality Tests Really Mean Anything? 5 Things to Keep in Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 28, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/do-personality-tests-really-mean-anything-5-things-to-keep-in-mind/