Human nature is way too complex to be pinned down by personality tests

Three silhouetted people rest under a tree at Ham
Three silhouetted people rest under a tree at Ham
Image: Reuters/Christian Charisius
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We all want to better understand who we are. Some people turn to religion for answers; others go to therapy. And in the digital age, many of us simply fire up our smartphones and take a personality quiz or 12.

It’s hard to deny the light-hearted appeal of finding out which Hogwarts house you’d belong to or what character you’d be in Game of Thrones. Such quizzes let us picture ourselves within the worlds of beloved narratives and validate our beliefs about our true natures. (I always knew I’d fit in with the scrappy Gryffindors.) Other personality tests aspire to loftier goals. The Myers-Briggs and Enneagram tests, for example, promise to help test-takers find fulfillment in their relationships and careers.

As a navel-gazing writer married to a psychologist, I am both drawn to these personality tests and leery of them. Sure, they’re fun to take. But is it really possible to pin down our personalities?

Journalist Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality Testing, has her doubts. “Human beings are far too complex, too mysterious and too interesting to be defined by the banal categories of personality tests,” Paul writes in a recent article for NPR. She points out that many of our most famous tests have little scientific basis, instead reflecting their creators’ personal quirks. Herman Rorschach turned a simple parlor game into the ink-blot tests that “were for decades taken very seriously in courtrooms and mental hospitals.” Isabel Myers and her mother Katharine Briggs, meanwhile, drew on the writing of psychologist Carl Jung to create the Myers-Briggs test. But as Vox reports in a 2015 article, neither Jung’s theories nor the test itself relied on any kind of evidence or data. According to Paul, “personality tests are neither valid nor reliable.”

Even if many personality tests aren’t grounded in scientific data, one could argue that they’re still a bit of harmless fun. But they can seem a lot less innocuous once corporations get their hands on them.

Ever since the 1970s self-help movement ebbed to a dull hum, personality typing has become a key focus of marketing and workforce efficiency. Facebook quizzes such as “What Kind of Disney Princess Are You?” and “What Are Your Most Used Words?” may be a pleasant distraction, but they’re also a form of social data-mining. Companies gather information about your likes and preferences in order to better customize the ads in your feed, according to a 2009 article in PC World, and occasionally go so far as to require you to input credit card information. BuzzFeed also records people’s information when they take personality quizzes, although their senior communications manager Christina DiRusso told Newsweek that they don’t use this data in a nefarious way. “We are only interested in data in the aggregate form. Who a specific user is and what he or she is doing on the site is actually a useless piece of information for us,” she said.

Meanwhile, personality tests like Myers-Briggs and the Hogan Personality Inventory have become a mainstay at companies ranging from Radio Shack and Lowe’s to McKinsey & Co. and the CIA. Sometimes these quizzes are used to screen potential employees: “You can use it from a hiring perspective, if you know what type of personality tends to succeed in a specific role or a specific culture of organization,” says Trevor Shylock, an industrial organizational psychologist for the talent management company Caliper. Other companies have current employees take personality tests with the goal of improving teamwork and group dynamics.

But critics argue that personality tests in the workplace can be discriminatory or otherwise unfair. People often answer questions differently when they’re under stress, for one thing–so a person might be classified as highly neurotic when in fact she was just in a bad mood the day she took the test. The Wall Street Journal reports concerns that personality tests could discriminate against people with mental illnesses like depression, thereby violating legal protections for people with disabilities. And management psychologist Ben Dattner also points out that placing too much emphasis on personality tests can lead employers to attribute both problems and successes to individuals’ character traits, overlooking the outside circumstances that influence a given outcome.

Yet despite the clear pitfalls of personality tests, we seem to be unavoidably attracted to quizzes that promise to categorize ourselves and others. Rebecca Weingarten, an executive coach specializing in life transitions says that people take personality tests because they are looking for “a magic pill that says ‘do this.’ People are looking for security and a definitive answer.”

The truth is that there’s more to each of us than can be captured in a dozen—or 100—questions. But there can still be an upside to taking a personality test that falls short of the mark.

Merrick Rosenberg, the author of Chameleon: Life-Changing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has a Personality or Knows Someone Who Does, has devised a personality test based on a typing system developed by psychologist William Marston in 1928, formerly called the DISC system (Drive, Influence, Stability, Compliance). Rather than using Marston’s letter-based acronyms, Rosenberg assigns test-takers a bird: for example, eagles are take-charge and results driven, while doves are harmonious and empathetic.

Rosenberg acknowledges that people sometimes don’t like the way they’re categorized on personality tests. But he thinks results that spark debate can still put people on the path to greater self-knowledge.

A classification that rubs you the wrong way may be “more powerful because it gets you thinking about who you are, and it gets you having a conversation,” Rosenberg says. “The most successful people are the most self-aware people.” If you’re disappointed when Pottermore reveals that you’re a Slytherin, for example, that may prompt you to articulate for the first time why you really feel you’re more of a Ravenclaw—helping you to shape your own sense of identity.

Seen in this light, what matters most about a personality test isn’t whether it declares that you’re an introvert, a Lannister or an eagle–it’s the conversation you have afterwards. Our litany of personality tests, Shylock says, create “a common language for people to talk about themselves.”