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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Problem with Personality Types

From zodiac signs to Myers-Briggs

Don’t let the title fool you; there is no problematic personality (well, unless you’re a jerk). The problem is with the science — or rather, the lack thereof — of personality types.

The World’s Most Popular Personality Test

Enter American educator Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. Despite having no background in psychology or behavioral science, Briggs attempted to harness Carl Jung’s ideas to form a new theory of type, in part to understand why her daughter’s husband was so different from their family (yes, really). While she certainly wasn’t the first to create a pseudoscience surrounding personality, Briggs’ ideas helped establish a typological approach to the topic, and her framework worked well with capitalistic employers who desired to process and categorize their workers as much as their inventory.

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Are you a red apple or a green apple?

Typing the Workplace

While that many sound good in theory, the reality is that these tests are not accurate. They all suffer from a core problem of consistency: upon taking the test a second or third time, respondents get different results. In addition, people exhibit different behaviors in different situations. (Shocker, I know.) How an employee interacts with their closest colleague likely differs from how they interact with the boss, yet neither has any bearing on the quality of their work.

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Do you fit in?

What’s Your Sign?

The problem with personality types isn’t limited to workplaces. Categorizing ourselves and others based on surface details encourages a superficial view of each other — one that reduces each other to, well, types, rather than unique individuals with different perspectives and needs. It’s ironic that an individualistic society so enjoys categorizing people into artificial groups and further creating false dichotomies, for example “liberal” versus “conservative,” “introvert” vs “extrovert.” The dichotomy-driven Myers-Briggs framework has seeped into our entire society, while other personality indicators, such as zodiac signs, don’t hold as much sway. While people may jokingly say that they’d never date a Libra, they’re serious about hiding behind their “introvert” status or insisting that all “liberals” have a mental disorder.

Categorizing ourselves and others based on surface details encourages a superficial view of each other

Change Your Mind

By far, the biggest problem with personalty typology is that it insists upon a permanence. We’re told that our personality is what it is, and that dampens our perception of our potential for growth. Some personalty psychologists have claimed that our personalities are locked in at age seven — which curiously, is the age that our capacity to learn a second or third language is severely hindered. But our ability to learn language isn’t obliterated when you blow out those seven candles, and neither is your personality immutable.

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Is your personality set in stone?

Moving Toward a New Personality Science

The momentum of the multimillion-dollar personality type movement isn’t likely to slow any time soon. The good news is that plenty of behavioral scientists are trying to help people better understand the scientific field of personality psychology while debunking these type tests, and with such an understanding comes personal empowerment that exceeds anything the type tests can provide us. When we understand our traits and tendencies as part of a continuum rather than a dichotomy, it allows us to perceive our behavior as fluid, and we in turn can be more adaptable.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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