The Problem With Personality Tests image

The Problem With Personality Tests

Few things frustrate me more than training courses which consist almost entirely of intellectual flannel. You probably know the type: a problem which everybody already knows about is pointed out, and elaborated on with a series of flip charts, PowerPoint slides and jargon, making you feel like you've learned something when in fact you haven't; a jazzily-entitled framework is presented, but with no effort made to articulate why this framework possesses greater explanatory power than any others; jokes are made and exercises encouraged, but (again) with no substantiation of the model being used; questions about methodology are deferred to the end of the day ("hopefully this will all make sense at the end"), and then left unresolved; and everybody goes home. Meh.

Personality and strength tests are a common offender. I cannot understand why someone whose job it is to profile personalities - and I’m talking mainly here about experts and trainers, rather than pastors or managers who are using them for a bit of fun and interest - can tell me that I’m an ENTJ, Choleric, Input-Strategic-Intellection-Learner-Activator, Shaper, and yet do so without getting me to say anything, lead anything, ask questions, raise objections, critique alternatives, or do anything about it. So it was a breath of fresh air to be in one such session recently, and to read this from Alastair Roberts:

Everyone wants to believe that the mere possession of a particular personality type gives them some sort of privileged access to or claim upon reality, society, or set of skills. Keirsey’s Temperament Sorter, closely associated with the MBTI, will assign you an identity on the basis of the result of your personality test. Here everyone’s a winner. It will designate you as an ‘inventor’, a ‘mastermind’, a ‘fieldmarshal’, a ‘champion’, a ‘healer’, or an ‘architect’ on no more sure of a basis than the fact that your personality skews in a particular direction. This is all entirely independent of anything that you have ever achieved or skill you have developed ... When I discover that I am an ESFP or an INTJ, I can enjoy a sense of an innate superiority, entirely independent of actual work and achievement, which the world must acknowledge and validate. I am here reminded of Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s remark concerning the piano in Pride and Prejudice: ‘If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient.’

Psychometric tests such as the MBTI promise to reveal deep truths about our personalities. Like the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter books, through some mysterious alchemy, they will discern our true nature and assign us a named identity accordingly. The scientific basis of the claims of many psychometric tests such as the MBTI is highly dubious and their effectiveness probably has more than a little to do with such things as the Forer effect ...

The cult of personality testing threatens to throw our understanding of the person dangerously off balance. I would suggest that it is here that we find its greatest dangers. Personality testing can foster and encourage the myth of the ‘rich internal self’ and the moral obfuscation that can so often accompany it. On the basis of a rudimentary quiz, a test such as the MBTI offers us a flattering image of who we truly are. It assures us that our personalities are healthy and natural. We are heroic figures—‘crafters’, ‘composers’, ‘protectors’, and ‘counselors’—and the world should learn to value us more. We don’t really encounter sin and fallenness in the world of such personality testing; even pathology does not make an appearance.


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