Amy Fox

Writer. Editor. Feminist knitting designer.

Why personality tests can’t give you an identity

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Now that you’ve graduated, you might be longing for someone to tell you who you are. But personality tests can only result in binaries, and living the results may turn you into someone you’re not.

A busy street “The world isn’t made of binaries”. Photo: niallkennedy/Flickr

There was a brief period during my degree, somewhere between chunder charts and FitFinder, when personality tests became the in thing.  More specifically, people got really into the Jung-influenced Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) which categorises personality into 16 “types” and then gives vague but encouraging advice on how to best apply yourself.

I wasn’t that bothered at the time – someone telling me at a party that they knew me better than I knew myself, based on a few multiple choice questions, did nothing but make me walk in the opposite direction and down another glass of Blossom Hill.

But graduating changes your perspective. Once the structures I used to depend on disappeared, I became desperate for someone to tell me who I was and where I was going. Lost in a sea of post-graduate self-doubt and desperation, I finally took the test.

MBTI divides personality into four binaries: introvert/extrovert, intuition/sensing, thinking/feeling, perceiving/judging. You can be any combination of these four binaries, leading to 16 grandiose-sounding ‘types’, which each come with their own in-depth profile.

At first, it worked pretty well. I was given the ‘mastermind’ type INTJ (introvert, intuition, thinking, judging) and cautiously read all about this interpretation of myself. The single-minded and obsessive approach to work that the profile described reminded of my time as editor of a student newspaper. The failure that comes of trying to solve relationships like you solve your next career move was harder to swallow – but, ultimately, still familiar. For all of about five minutes, the test did exactly what it was supposed to; I felt like I had gained an insight into myself, my strengths, and how to improve them.

Then things got weird.

After being told that I put logic over emotion, I found myself thinking in more and more clinical ways about the situations around me. Other people’s pain began to look frivolous. My own pain made me angry and frustrated. “I’m not supposed to have feelings,” I thought. “I can’t even do my own personality right!”

Believing in personality categorisation means believing that people don’t change. That you are, incurably, who you will always be.

But people do change. They become more introverted or extroverted as they get older; they have emotional days and logical days. Like gender identity, sexuality and political affiliation, people exist across spectrums, not binaries.

Although one of the most popular personality tests in the world, it has been proved unscientific by many psychologists. I’m also distrustful of any multi-million dollar institution that stands to lose an awful lot if its founding principle falls into disrepute.

Not being a psychologist myself, I decided to ask what my brother, Harry, thought of the test. Having graduated from the University of Warwick with a first in psychology, and currently working in a mental health unit while training to become a counsellor, he’s the most qualified person I know for this kind of thing.

So – why do people use personality tests like Myers-Briggs?

“People are attracted to personality tests because they simplify things, and people like to understand things. Personality tests are particularly attractive because they help us to understand ourselves and other people (people being the most complex entities we encounter).

“My concerns with Myers-Briggs are with its artsy outlook. The categories it gives are suitably vague and interchangeable, and mostly remind me of that special brand of broad applicability seen in horoscopes and fortune tellings.

“As an item of curiosity, the Myers-Briggs is interesting. It can be useful to writers creating characters, for example. My only worry is if people take these categories too seriously, when personality questionnaires are used for profiling or research. If we start to take these narrow, reductionist categories and hold them up as a view of a whole person then we are diminishing and misrepresenting them.

The thing is, I have friends who really do find the guidance that Myers-Briggs gives useful. Who am I to judge, just because I hate being labelled? Clearly, people can have characteristics which they display on a regular basis. There are things about all of our friends that make us smile and say “That’s so typical of Flopsy.” But Flopsy is not the same person as Mopsy, even if they get the same score on the MBTI test.

The world isn’t made of binaries. Happy/sad, right/wrong, masculine/feminine – everything falls somewhere in between, and limiting yourself to them is just that: limiting.

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