The Problem with Personality Types
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.
Cultural anthropologists have noticed that societies are either “lumpers” or “splitters.” Lumpers tend to perceive and name things broadly, while splitters categorize and divide things. Sometimes, a society will be lumpers in one domain but splitters in another, according to what’s more important to them. A classic example is that the Inuit are generally lumpers, but have more than a dozen different words for snow. Western society, as an individualistic, merit-driven entity, naturally has many words and categories for personalities — something that isn’t even a concept in other cultures.
It makes sense that we’re obsessed with personality, whether it’s through our devotion to charismatic celebrities, our fascination with multiple personality disorder, or our tendency to appropriate ancient zodiac signs for our own amusement. We believe that personality is the driving force in people’s success, and we’re also very concerned with how different “personalities” interact with each other. Add that to a merit-based, capitalistic work culture that commodifies workers, and you’ve got a need for a pseudoscience and a self-help market to buttress it all.
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.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is based upon four dichotomies in four domains (drawn from Jung’s theories). Respondents answer nearly 100 questions about their behavioral preferences and are subsequently assigned one of 16 types that purportedly encapsulates their work style, personal philosophy, and internal motivators. If you’re wondering how our personalities can be thoroughly and accurately assessed with fewer than 100 either-or questions, you’re not alone. The MBTI has been vastly criticized for its validity and consistency problems. Yet, it’s still regularly used in the workplace.
In addition, copycat or complementary tests have popped up. Some claim to be more accurate than Myers-Briggs, while others, such as DiSC, are meant to complement it. Increasingly, these tests are marketed as ways to scientifically screen candidates and ensure a “best fit.” DiSC in particular provides comparative charts showing which employees and candidates will work well together, based on their behavioral styles. The publishers of these tests make millions of dollars off employers who want a quick and accurate way to select candidates for jobs. Hiring based on a candidate’s qualifications and past performance, or on any sort of intuition, have gone out the window and have been replaced by attempts to “balance” a workplace by plugging in the missing personality types, as though people are just pieces in a jigsaw puzzle.
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.
When an employee ostensibly fills a missing type or complements a colleague’s type, they’re implicitly told that they are a good fit. But fitness for a workplace is much more than behavioral style, and many employees have been vastly disappointed when they’re let go from a workplace in which they were given an illusion of fitness, based on pseudoscience.
If you need further proof that these tests are bunk, consider that the very reason they are legal in the employment process, even though discrimination in hiring is not, is because they’re not considered scientific, medical tests.
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.
Labels can be empowering, though, and sometimes even the flawed tests can reveal unusual results when collated. For example, the Myers-Briggs type INFJ is the rarest result on the MBTI, with only 2 percent of the test’s 2.5 million annual respondents scoring it. As you might imagine, hundreds of INFJ support groups have popped up for people who “feel different from other people.” Interestingly, informal surveys in domestic violence support groups have revealed that a majority of survivors are INFJs. Taken as anecdotal evidence, these results indicated that tendencies measured by the MBTI might correlate with susceptibility to abuse. However, correlation does not equal causation, nor should we even attempt to say that victims caused their abuse, especially by having a certain personality type that they can’t change.
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.
I tested as an INFJ. Believing in the results of my MBTI for a long time, I found solace in our rarity. All the same, while taking comfort in the fact that other abuse survivors tended to be like me, I longed to be normal. I didn’t want to be a favored target of abusers, nor did I want to be so different from other people. I googled “how to change your personality” and came across dozens of articles that simply advised not being a jerk, which didn’t answer my question.
That’s the problem with personality types: despite their claims that “there is no good or bad personality type,” these tests and the enormous body of pseudoscience surround them highly suggest that there are. When we hear that ENTJs are the most successful people and we’re not an ENTJ, it’s very easy to chalk up our personal failures to our type. When we hear that ENTPs and ESTPs are usually psychopaths and we fall into those types, we worry that we’re secretly evil if we forget to call a friend back.
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.
Successful people aren’t limited to type; true success is achieved by best demonstrating your individual traits in response to other individuals and your shared environment. Even shyness can be a trait for success if it encourages deference when meeting with an important client, for example. As with evolution, the fittest organisms do the best, but less fit organisms can still thrive, even in the same environment. Your recipe for success won’t be the same as anyone else’s, but by focusing upon your personality type, you’re likely limiting your perception of what you can achieve.
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Rachel Wayne is a writer and artist based in Orlando, FL. She earned her master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Florida and runs the production company DreamQuilt. She is an avid aerial dancer and performance artist, and also dabbles in mixed-media. She writes nonfiction stories about herself and other awesome people, as well as essays on feminism, societal violence, mental health, politics, entrepreneurship, and whatever cultural topic strikes her fancy.