Do Personality Tests Actually Work?
Fundamentally it’s just a series of questions to determine the sort of person you are. It’s a box ticking exercise to put yourself in a box. Arguably this sort of behaviour has its origins in debunked sciences such as phrenology (the reading of one’s skull to determine personality). But this in itself is at least objective, so actually has one up on an actual personality test.
The first really recognisable thing we would today call a personality test emerged in the 1940’s and was a combination of the earlier work of Louis Leon Thurstone in refining humanity down to common factors and Raymond B. Cattell, Maurice Tatsuoka and Herbert Eber bringing in the ‘16PF (Personality Factor) questionnaire’.
Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia on the 16PF:
“Cattell used several techniques including the new statistical technique of common factor analysis applied to the English-language trait lexicon to elucidate the major underlying dimensions within the normal personality sphere. This method takes as its starting point the matrix of inter-correlations between these variables in an attempt to uncover the underlying source traits of human personality”
In other words, they looked at all the terms which describe people and determined the commonalities between them. This methodology has been developed within psychology for many years with some early adopters from more commercial sectors (weirdly enough, reading through Wikipedia I found that every Major League Baseball has been using them for every draft pick for the past 30 years!).
Here come the Commercials
Myers-Briggs is by far the most common type of test with employers and, well, pretty much everyone else. It’s also become common practice to use this test, or a variant thereof, as part of choosing which person to socially interact with, from dating to flatmates. And the weird thing is, whilst personality tests as a whole seem to be getting less popular, Myers Briggs is seeing a resurgence.
So what changed?
Back in 1988 the use of polygraph testing on employees was banned. This left employers with a pseudoscience shaped hole they desperately needed to fill within their hiring and firing processes. This is when commercial use of personality tests really took off.
In 1988 the now called MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) was in prime position for a starring role. From its inception in 1917 by Katherine Briggs and later work by Isabel Briggs Myers it had become part of a well funded mechanism.
These ladies invented the Myers – Briggs and they really were early pioneers. Much of psychology is made from standing on the shoulders of giants. Those giants as it turns out were often wrong, but still got us where we are today.
The ability to box people into easily understood colour coded boxes has proven an appealing one. The MTBI handbook was first published in 1944 and gained support from the Educational Testing Service before going on to gain academic support from a number of universities. With the second edition of the MTBI manual being published in 1985.
Of course where there are tests to be administered an industry will soon spring up to administer them. By 2013 the industry had grown to be worth somewhere between $135 – $400 Billion.
2013 is also an interesting year, as it’s where personality tests really took a hammering. People really started cottoning on that they weren’t all they were cracked up to be. There is a wealth of articles published that yeah that examine and question their use and effectiveness.
As the most popular type the MTBI also came under the most flak, so how come they are seeing a resurgence as personality tests as a whole don’t?
Myered In Controversy
Conflict of interest is somewhat of an understatement here. But the vast majority of material on the MTBI has been created by agencies with direct interest in it’s success. In as far as they are directly funded by it. Such as the Center for the Application of Psychological Type both provide training for MTBI and are funded by sales of it. Or the equally neutral sounding Journal of Psychological Type which is published by, you guessed it, the CAPT.
So, in this wonderful age of unfettered information at our fingertips we can search around and find a vast amount of material specifically supporting the MTBI from legitimate and neutral sounding entities. The trouble is the MTBI cannot be legitimised from sources which it funds or indeed exist in order to purport it.
The Science Bit
Personality tests as a whole have a big problem. They are completely subjective. Not that some subjective psychological tests can’t be surprisingly accurate. Like this one…
Are you a narcissist?
Yes this really is an accurate test for narcissism.
There are some things we are incredibly good at self-reporting, personality type isn’t one of them (narcissism being a personality disorder rather than an inferred type). For a start it’s self-reporting something which is really complex. The problems with this are numerous. How are you feeling that day? Did you sleep well the night before? Have you just split up with your partner? All of these affect not just how we feel at that moment but also our ability to judge things objectively. You may feel like it’s the end of the world in the morning and that’s how you’ve always and will feel, but by dinner it’s all sunshine and unicorns farting moonbeams and your an outgoing social person.
Secondly, and here’s a really big problem with using them as part of hiring practices, the environment you take them in. Is it a cold bare room? Is there a row of candidates sat with you? Are you freaking shoes on too tight and pissing you off? Are you nervous as it’s part of an interview process…
Then of course. People lie, to themselves and more purposefully. Especially if it’s not being done for actual self-evaluation but as a barrier to getting something you want, like a job or a flat or a date. Of course we’re more likely to give the answers we think they want to hear.
MTBI has been found to be especially susceptible to these issues and is seen even within the wider field as inaccurate. Or as the world renowned psychologist Robert Hogan put it…
“Most personality psychologists regard the MBTI as little more than an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie”
The problem is inherent with how the test is designed, dividing people into either only introvert or extrovert categories. When in reality most people are of course a freaking mess inside and thus naturally a mix of the two. Mostly depending on the day. Which is also why the MTBI has such poor results as when people are retested, 50% will fall into a different category.
Of course none of this is enough to stop the juggernaut that is the MTBI testing industry and that popularity, through self-administered and easily accessible free online tests, has leaked into everywhere else.
I think the bottom line here is that really, it doesn’t freaking matter. If it’s for a job, just lie. Manipulate that test. If you did it honestly and came back and took it again there is a 50% chance you get a different result anyway so what the hell does it matter. So just tell them what they want to hear.
If you’re doing it for yourself, even after reading this article. Well, you’re probably a typical INTJ then. Or Pisces. Or high yellow. Or whatever.