Can We Talk About How Weird Personality Tests Are?
So I've felt this way for years, but sometimes I like to wait to open my big mouth until I feel validated by someone I view as more intelligent. Sometimes I'm just small like that. This morning, one of my favorite podcasts, Stuff You Should Know, released an hour-long episode called "How Personality Tests Work," and I praise-hands'ed my way through it. The episode centralized around the ubiquitous Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), detailing its history and modern uses. And I am more convinced than ever that our obsession with personality typing is downright weird.
The MBTI, which is not grounded in science and almost universally rejected by psychologists, is used by companies and individuals alike to gain insight into who people are and how they relate to those around them. But one major problem is that today I am an INFP, but tomorrow I may answer the questions differently if I am tired, bored, energetic or PMSing. It all comes down to self-reporting.
I was asked to take the MBTI for the first time during my second year as a missionary, and I remember struggling with many of the questions, constantly asking myself if the answers I gave reflected who I really was, not who I wanted to be or who I was on my best days. But then I realized that I don't really have an average standard response. Sometimes I'm this and sometimes that.
And that is one of my biggest issues with personality quizzes. They put people in boxes without nuance or considering that people might fall somewhere on a scale. You are either "introverted" or "extroverted." You are either a "thinker" or a "feeler." That reminds me of one of the most popular conversations surrounding the Divergent book series: "How can a person be all brave or all smart or all kind with no other character traits?" The same applies here. Just because the MBTI has 16 types instead of five doesn't make it any less strange.
In the Stuff You Should Know podcast, they illustrated this point using height. According to the metrics of the MBTI, you would be labeled as either tall or short. So a 4'11" male would be called short...but so would a male who is 5'9". Those two heights are vastly different, but they would fall into the same category. In fact, 5'9" isn't even actually short. It's average. But when you have to choose between two opposing traits, the line must be arbitrarily drawn somewhere. In the same way, I might not be an introvert or an extrovert, but rather an introverted-extrovert who leans just barely toward introvert. I might like my alone time a tiny bit more than the average bear, but not enough to confidently identify as an introvert.
This lack of subtlety can be a problem when it can affects the way we think about ourselves, and, if we share this information with others, as is often done in corporate settings, it can affect the way we are viewed by others. If a person has been labeled a "feeler" rather than a "thinker," and they put too much stock in these personality types, they could be swayed to follow their gut in a situation rather than their brain, when they wouldn't normally have done so. It seems ridiculous that people would allow a personality label to dictate their behavior, but I have seen it happen.
And as others learn our personality types, it can affect the way they interact with us. If a person has been labeled a "feeler" rather than a "thinker" in an office setting, their ideas could be disregarded as illogical and written off, or they might only be approached to take on certain jobs that best suit their prescribed type. It is easier to put people in boxes, and interact with them accordingly, but in reality no two people are alike, and not even 16 different boxes can fit the variety of personality types that exist on earth.
The final, and most dangerous, issue with personality types as I see them, is that we as a society are obsessed with ascribing valueless things with a value. No matter how many times someone from The Myers & Briggs Foundation says that all personality types are equal and none are either good or bad, people will always brush that aside and take things a step too far. Where are my INTJs at? This personality type is often labeled as conniving and, sometimes, sociopathic. Take a look at a Myers-Briggs chart of some of your favorite fictional characters. On a Star Wars fan made chart, the Emperor is your INTJ. In Harry Potter, it's Malfoy. In Game of Thrones, it's Tywin Lannister. This can create a perception of those labeled INTJ that is not necessarily accurate and extremely negative, all because of on an online personality quiz without any basis in science.
We saw the same in Divergent when all of the Erudite faction was viewed as evil. The same goes for Harry Potter with Slytherin. We like to typify people so that we can understand them better, but the result is actually less understanding, not more.
Personality quizzes, whether they are the MBTI or any other, feed on our desire to get to know who we are and where we belong in this world. If only this process of self-discovery and fulfillment could be circumvented by a simple test. But that just isn't reality. Sure, these tests can be fun, but if we give them power over us, they can cause us to place limitations on ourselves and on the people around us. Getting to know our own strengths, weaknesses and desires isn't about taking a test, and the same goes for those around us. Personality labeling doesn't bring understanding, it inhibits it, so maybe we should treat it like the fun bit of weirdness that it is, and no more.