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Everything you need to know about personality tests.
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The people test
There are 16 types of people in this world—at least according to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), in which each personality can be boiled down to four core attributes: extroverted vs. introverted, intuitive vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. The idea is that a four-letter classification will help you understand your personality type and how you perceive the world.
In addition to being the most popular personality quiz in the world, MBTI is used to assess employees, students, and soldiers in at least 30 countries.
Despite its appeal, the exam is consistently seen as unscientific, questionable, and meaningless. The black-and-white categories conflict with the complexity of real personalities. And yet, we have a deep fascination with personality tests. Do they help us make sense of ourselves and our relationships with others? And what compels us to continue organizing ourselves into distinct types? Let’s analyze.
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By the digits
$20 million: Yearly revenue from the MBTI and products that go along with it
>$2 billion: Size of the market for workplace personality tests
2 million: People who take the MBTI every year
>2,000: Personality tests on the market
$49.95: Cost of an online MBTI test
1.5%: Share of people who are INFJs
93: Questions on the Myers-Briggs personality test
2019: Year that more Tinder bios mentioned a Myers-Briggs personality type than called out Game of Thrones, Drake, and Stranger Things combined, according to Tinder
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People-sorting goes back to ancient history. In the Hippocratic tradition, an individual could be categorized as innately sanguine, choleric, melancholic, or phlegmatic. In 1921, the Rorschach test, a systematic personality test, was created.
In 1921, Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung published Psychological Types. He observed that people generally engage in one of two mental functions: 1) taking in information, which he called perceiving and 2) organizing information and coming to conclusions, which he called judging. After encountering the theories of Jung in 1923, mother-daughter pair Isabel Briggs Myers and Katharine Cook Briggs were driven to implement Jung’s theories to help people make better life choices and see individual differences in a constructive way. Enter MBTI.
For the next three decades, Isabel Myers, a graduate of Swarthmore College, would assess thousands of people via a paper-and-pencil questionnaire, devoting the rest of her life to fulfilling her mother’s vision.
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“[T]here are lots of people who view themselves as ‘sensitive introverts’, when they are really covert narcissists. These individuals are characterized by their sense of entitlement to social attention. Accordingly, they are hurt easily by the slightest remark of others, are hyper self conscious and self-absorbed, and are frequently upset that others don’t recognize their brilliance.”—Scott Barry Kaufman, psychologist at Columbia University
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How we 🏢 now
MBTI is a common assessment at work. A 2014 survey (pdf) of more than 1,400 global HR professionals found that 62% of respondents used some sort of personality test pre-hire. In addition to candidate evaluation, these quizzes help with assessments of current employees, development of more effective teams, or lead to fun team-bonding sessions.
The use of test “results” to justify things like promotions or important assignments, can have negative effects on workplace culture Neel Doshi, coauthor of Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Motivation, told Fast Company. Defining personalities, and predicting success in a rigid framework may discourage employees or implicitly encourage blame, which can lead to a toxic dynamic.
Perhaps the best way to look at these quizzes? They’re useful for breaking the ice and finding people with similar interests.
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Explain it like I’m 5!
So how does a test seen as largely unscientific continue to allure?
Myers-Briggs taps into our affinity for tribalism. As Vox reports, in the 1970s, social scientist Henri Tajfel ran a series of tests to show how easy it is to get people to adopt a tribe mentality. Tajfel found that subjects were more likely to award more money to fellow members of their team, even though they were well aware that their relationship was based on chance.
Preference for a certain group is consistently pleasurable to human brains—like political parties, for instance. Studies show that we seek out viewpoints that conform with our own and avoid conflicting information because the former feels good. We will even go out of the way to interpret information in a way that fits in line with our own tribal ideology.
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Take me down this 🐰 hole!
Considered the most scientifically sound personality quiz, the Big Five doesn’t sort people into types; rather, the quiz tells you where fall on a spectrum of clusters: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, negative emotionality, and openness to experience. Your results are also based on comparing you to others who have taken the test. The idea is that everyone has a little of all five traits. As FiveThirtyEight reports, the research began in the 1920s and 30s, when researchers first theorized that you can figure out the anatomy of a personality by studying the words we used to describe what people are like.
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➡️ How classic Myers-Briggs personality traits translate to remote work.
➡️ Ray Diallo says his new personality test is better than an interview.
➡️ Introverts make great leaders, too.
➡️ Not everyone is using Myers-Briggs for the right reasons.
➡️ The pandemic impacted our personalities, too.
➡️ When the world reopens post-pandemic, personalities can tell us how people use their newfound freedom.
➡️ Are introverts more likely to be depressed?