Feedback
Science

We're All 'Divergent': Personality Tests Get a Reality Check

Image: Personality test

A Dauntless faction member (Maggie Q) administers a serum to Tris Prior (Shaeline Woodley) for a hallucinogenic simulation in the movie "Divergent." Summit

In the new movie "Divergent," a conflicted teen girl gets into trouble when high-tech personality tests reveal that she doesn't fully fit any of the five factions in a post-apocalyptic Chicago. The story is completely made up, but it reflects the real-life fascination we have with putting ourselves into pigeonholes.

There's a whole world of personality tests out there, ranging from pop-culture Internet quizzes ("Which 'Game of Thrones' Character Are You?") to expensive in-house employee assessments. Even the makers of "Divergent" are offering an online "aptitude test" that will assign you to a movie faction.

Is there any validity to these tests? Yes, but psychologists say it's easy to push the pigeonholing too far.

"We scratch our heads and wonder why corporations spend so many millions of dollars using tests that put people into one particular group," said Joshua Jackson, a psychologist at Washington University in St. Louis who studies personality assessment. "People really like being assigned to 'ENTJ' or whatever color, but to me, that glosses over the richness of individual differences."

Even the designers of personality tests will tell you their categories reflect spectrums on a multidimensional scale. That's the big difference between real life and the factions laid out in the"Divergent," movie, which is based on Veronica Roth's young-adult trilogy.

2:21

Fictional factions

The personality-based faction system is the plot twist that distinguishes "Divergent" from that other young-adult dystopian saga, "The Hunger Games."

After a catastrophic breakdown of society, the leaders of the survivors in Chicago try to restore order by dividing the populace into Dauntless' thrill-seeking warriors, Erudite's analytical brainiacs, Candor's contentious truth-tellers, Amity's friendly earth-tillers and Abnegation's selfless public servants.

All citizens undergo personality tests at the age of 16, and then they have to choose which faction they'll side with for the rest of their lives. They can choose any faction, even if it's not the one the test says they should choose. But if their choice doesn't work out, they're pushed out of the social order and become factionless pariahs.

The problem for the main character, Tris Prior, is that she falls into not just one pigeonhole, but several. That puts her in the "Divergent" category — a status that could get her killed if the wrong people find out. Therein hangs the book trilogy's tale. (The genesis of the faction system comes to light in the later novels.)

Real-life factions

There are eerie parallels between "Divergent" and some of the personality types laid out by real-life assessments. You can find out online whether you are, say, a peaceful Dove, a logical Owl, a showy Peacock or a bold Eagle. (Who knew those labels would spell out the word DOPE?)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the granddaddy of personality tests: It dates back to the Jungian archetypes of the 1920s and has been continually tweaked since then. There are four scales: extraversion vs. introversion, sensing vs. intuition, thinking vs. feeling, and judging vs. perceiving. You answer scores of questions on the quiz, and those answers are assessed to slot you into a matrix of 16 personality types.

An "ENTJ" classification, for example, suggests that you're "frank, decisive and assume leadership regularly." In contrast, an ISFP is "quiet, friendly, sensitive and kind." (Here's a free online test based on the Myers-Briggs system.)

In the 1980s, psychologists came up with a five-factor personality assessment system widely known as the Big Five, or OCEAN. Those factors include openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. (There are plenty of free version of the Big Five test online.)

Even when they're administered by professionals, personality assessments have faced criticism as a pop-psych exercise on a par with horoscope readings. The fact that the same people can get different results when they take the same test at different times contributes to that perception.

More than 2.5 million people take the Myers-Briggs test every year, primarily for business purposes. The tests are used to evaluate potential hires as well as candidates for advancement, even though personality assessments are not considered good predictors of performance. In some instances, employees who were passed over for promotion due to bad test results have successfully sued their employers.

Despite the criticism, the psychologists who study (and devise) the tests say they're worthwhile, under the right conditions.

"When a person is motivated to describe him or herself accurately, the assessments can give useful information for that person or for his or hear counselor or clinician," Michael Ashton, a psychologist at Brock University in Ontario, wrote in an email to NBC News. "There is also evidence that personality assessments can be useful in employment settings, but here some caution is needed, because some persons may adjust their responses in an effort to give a good impression."

Ashton and a colleague at the University of Calgary, Kibeom Lee, have devised an assessment that uses six scales rather than Myers-Briggs' four. The name of the test, the HEXACO Personality Inventory, plays off the initials of the six attributes: honesty (and humility), emotionality, extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness to experience.

The future of personality testing

In the movie, the test administrators inject their subjects with hallucinogenic serums and monitor them with brain-wave gear to see how they respond to challenging scenarios: Will our heroine pick up a knife to kill the menacing dog she sees in her simulation, or offer it a steak instead? Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately — that technology doesn't actually exist.

"For the time being, there isn't any valid way of measuring personality trait levels through virtual reality simulations and/or brain scans," Ashton said. "Researchers would very much like to develop this kind of direct measurement, but for now it seems a long way off."

Some biologists have suggested that genetics may predispose certain people to altruistic, empathetic and compassionate behavior. There are even reports of genes linked to intelligence or aggression. But researchers say personality traits are far too complex to be categorized by genetic tests alone.

Image: Personality test
A member of the Dauntless faction (Maggie Q) hooks up Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) with high-tech gear for a personality test. Jaap Buitendijk / Summit Entertainment

Psychologists are working on other ways to improve personality tests, however.

"One way is to get multiple assessments beyond the self-reports, from friends and family, and to get behavioral assessments," Jackson said. "Another next step is, if you know you don't have an accurate perception of yourself, can you be trained to become more perceptive?"

The big difference between real life and the world of "Divergent" is that people change, and the personalities they manifest are far more complex than black and white. Or black, white, yellow, blue and gray, for that matter.

"The 'Divergent' series is based on the idea of personality 'types,' where each person fits into one of a few groups of similar persons," Ashton said. "But personality researchers have found that people don't fit into neat groups in this simple way. Instead, each person can be measured on about six basic personality traits, each of which is a continuum: A person might be very low, or very high, or anywhere in between. In combination with each other, these half-dozen trait dimensions produce a huge variety of personalities."

Or to put it in terms that Tris Prior would understand: We're all Divergent.