The subject of personality types came up recently at work which led me to revisit my own supposed traits as an “INTJ”. I first took one of these tests a few years back during a team-building event and I was blown away by the eerie accuracy of the results. Today I want to discuss the problem with personality tests and stereotypes.
For all the detail these tests go into (and the depth and breadth of their profiles are mind-blowing), you end up with a narrative that feels but cannot truly be coherent. There are jumps and gaps. The very goal of these tests is to put people into boxes. Grouping together individuals so they are easier to understand.
The flip side of this has some utility. Personality tests offer a route to better understanding ourselves. We can feel a sense of kinship with others who share our profiles too. But the bottom line is that people don’t fit in boxes. You will never fully understand yourself reading about yourself in third-person.
The nature of these tests can be called into question, although that’s not my primary concern today. There is surely an element of self-diagnosing and selective reading, although, for the most part, I think the tests are credible and have their place.
The Loss of Agency
The big problem I have with personality tests is not even the reduction of people into categories. It’s the implicit loss of agency that occurs when we relegate ourselves to “characters” and not actors in our own story.
When I read that my weaknesses include being arrogant, judgemental and overly analytical, I’m tempted to “forgive myself” considering this to be part of my inherent nature. As soon as I accept these qualities as intrinsic, I forego responsibility for bettering myself and combating these negative traits.
Even if I do default to be an arrogant overthinker, there’s nothing to say a great deal of effort can go some way to righting my shortcomings.
To be told that my personality type is typically adverse to highly structured environments and clueless in romance might help me paint a better picture of myself. But it doesn’t help in the slightest when it comes to dealing with such common environments and conducting myself in a relationship.
If you were to tell a depressed divorcee that marriage and commitment were always going to have been a problem for them, do you think they would take comfort in that? Or would they feel all the more hopeless and without agency?
Chemistry Beyond The Textbook
While I’m fascinated by personality tests and would recommend that everyone takes one (with a pinch of salt), I’m anxious when I hear about HR departments formally introducing them into the recruitment process.
At face value, there’s logic to hiring extroverts in sales positions but when you take this further, to its logical conclusion, the results are more disturbing.
Certain personality types become perceived as more valuable than others and you arrive at a kind of Social Darwinism. You could argue this isn’t that different to certain qualifications being more desirable in the job market. Or the psychometric tests students are put through to win places on competitive graduate schemes. But the science behind these personality tests isn’t concrete.
I can see no way of monitoring for honesty when it comes to filling out these surveys either. If you knew the kind of personality that an employer would likely prefer for a role, what’s to stop you manipulating your answers, the same way we embellish and somewhat distort reality in interviews.
Leaving aside the prospect of personality tests in the workplace, the notion that some personality types are more compatible with others, romantically or otherwise, is troubling.
If singletons were to start adding desirable personality types to their dating profiles, they would be filtering out the vast majority of people they would probably have gotten along with just fine, making their quest for love all the more difficult.
In the same way you learn chemistry in school outside of a textbook, the natural and spontaneous chemistry that exists between people has little to do with statistics and probability. At the end of the day, people don’t fit in boxes.