Cult of Personality Tests
I go through periods where I take a lot of online “personality tests”, that is, the tests of the generally fun and sometimes goofy (and even, occasionally, insightful) sort that seem to infest the Internet like weeds. Sometimes you have a slow evening, you run across one, it’s fun, it leads to another, and…well, you get the idea.
Anyway, it reminded me of a book I read about a year or so ago, The Cult of Personality, by Annie Murphy Paul. You can read a good review of it here. In this book Paul takes a look at many of the common personality tests, e.g. the Myers-Briggs, the MMPI, and so on. Her thesis is two-pronged; first, that many if not all of these tests are at best questionably scientific and at worst outright malarkey. She looks in depth at the creators of many of these tests and how they came up with them in this part. Second, Paul points out that more and more businesses, employers, and other organizations are increasingly using these tests to screen, hire, and promote employees. Since the bases of so many tests are questionable, she finds this to be a disturbing trend.
In the course of various training programs related to job and church, among others, I have actually had most of the more popular tests (e.g. I am an INFJ on the Myers-Briggs, a 4 on the Enneagram, and sane with occasional tendencies to mild depression on the MMPI). I went through a phase in my early 30’s where I was somewhat into these personality guides, thinking them pretty neat and powerful instruments for self-understanding. I have become much more skeptical over the last decade. Reading Paul’s book helped confirm some of it.
I’m not saying that no personality tests, types, etc. have any validity at all. Humans have been “typing” each other since the beginning of time. Look at the Greek theory of people dominated by different humors (e.g. phlegmatic, bilious, sanguine), the Yogic doshas, the personality theories of some of the Medieval theologians, &c. Types have their value as long as it is remembered that they are maps. We should never mistake the map for the territory. It is a guide, not an exhaustive explanation.
Furthermore, there is a tendency to reify these concepts. That is, they are treated as actual things when of course they are abstractions. This tendency goes back at least to Freud. After all, there is no such “thing” as an ego or an id. If you cut open someone’s skull, you’ll never see a superego, and you can’t take an MRI of a cathexis. These terms are useful terms for describing certain observed phenomena, but in a sense they don’t “exist” in the same way a neuron does. Likewise, there is no such thing, say, as “extroversion” or a “6” on the Enneagram. Some people are observed to be more interested in exterior phenomena (that is, they’re extroverted) and some are more so than others; and some people are loyalists (the Enneagram Type 6). These are impressionistic, rough-and-ready concepts of the type people have always used when trying to figure out each other, though. As soon as you start saying that John Doe exhibits 68% extroversion, or that a six moves towards a 3 or a 9, depending on stress, with wings of 5 or 7–well, at that point you’re playing a game. At that point you’re like a fanboy arguing about the actual sequence of events in light of script contradictions in Season 2 of the original Star Trek; the difference being (and I’m a fanboy myself, OK?) that at least the fanboy isn’t hiring or firing or promoting or not promoting people on the basis of Captain Kirk’s backstory!
I think a lot of the whole fascination with personality types and tests is an attempt to immanentize the eschaton. What I mean by that in this context is that there is some belief that if somehow someone can just figure out just the right test it will finally solve all our problems. Based on his or her type, everyone can find exactly the perfect job, the perfect spouse, the perfect place to live, the perfect boss, the perfect employees, the perfect place to live–in short, it will be Paradise. I think a simple look at observed reality should disabuse us of this notion, but hope, or optimism, or delusion, or some such, springs eternal, I guess.
That’s the upside of these things I do on the web. At least they’re acknowledged to be just for fun and not too serious, and no one’s job hangs in the balance as a result of the them. One might just get a teeny tiny bit of insight, too–but if not, they’re still a hoot!