Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Personality tests: are they baloney?

I've been thinking recently about personality tests (specifically the MBTI): the one I consistently test as is INFP, (wiki) (maybe I should quit science and become a social worker...). Reading the descriptions of that type, I have to admit that it sounds awfully familiar. When I read the description of the exact opposite type: ESTJ, it was pretty clear that I'm not anything like that. One letter switches from INFP tend to look fairly familiar to me also. So there certainly seems to be some validity to personality tests (this has also been shown in the scientific literature), they measure something, even if it's not always clear exactly what. However, I think people need to be very careful with interpretation and application of the results of personality tests, and not take them too seriously. You are precisely who you are, and not precisely who some silly test says you are!

What scares me about personality tests is that they can become self-fulfilling prophecies, and that they're not particularly necessary. I didn't need a test to tell me that I'm shy and idealistic, and that I don't see the point of tradition. I already knew that. I think it's pretty clear that there are not 16 personality types, but 7 billion, as many as there are people. I'm not so much interested in what personality type the test says someone is, as I am in communicating with people and figuring out for myself who they are and what they're like. And the same is true for knowledge about myself. Maybe a personality test is a good starting point for self-discovery, but I think it's too tempting for people to think "see, that's what I am (or that's what my friend is), I don't have to think about it any more," and then miss out on a whole slew of wonderful nuances about what truly makes them who they are: a person that doesn't fit into some predefined schema. I also think that maybe people use personality tests as an excuse to not grow and change, maybe saying, "look the test says I'm shy and disorganized, so there's no point in my trying to be more outgoing or better organized, even though I think I'd probably be a lot happier if I were: the test says I can't do it, so I won't try."

I think the main advantage of personality tests isn't necessarily reading about one's own category, but reading about all of them, and realizing just how wide a range of motivations and ways to perceive the world exists among different people. It was interesting for me to read about the category opposite of my own, and notice how foreign it seems to me, but realize that there are lots and lots of people who would identify strongly with it. So I think the proper use of personality tests isn't for in-depth analysis of a person's character, or for trying to fit people into categories. Personality tests should be more of a reminder of the wonderful richness and diversity of human personalities. Not as a way to pigeon-hole people, but to do the opposite: to remind ourselves that our assumptions about people are often wrong, and that it is well worth the effort to get to know them as unique individuals.

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