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Why do we need personality tests to tell us who we are?

The eternal quest to unlock the mystery of who we are and be "seen."
Image: Group of People with differing personalities
Results from personality tests can make us feel as if we have a sense of agency over our lives.Chris Madden / Getty Images

I’ll admit, I’ve never met a personality test or horoscope I didn’t like. A single glance at something that promises to define me and I have an urge to chomp on the clickbait as if it were a tantalizing meal. Though I never take what these tests say too seriously, I find it fun to hear tidbits of feedback about myself that resonate as true.

Of course, this same brand of curiosity is why Cambridge Analytica found it so easy to mine the profile data — and try to sway the votes — of over 80 million American Facebook users. And astrology, another means of self-definition, is gaining in popularity among millennials as opposed to more cynical Gen-Xers — almost half of them think it’s a science.

So why are we so eager to receive this kind of information about ourselves? “In spite of the relative sophistication of society today, people remain a mystery to themselves as well as others — and they are always curious to get a bit of insight as to what they’re really like,” says Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, and faculty at Fielding Graduate University.

“People like confirmation of their qualities, particularly strengths. In spite of the frivolity, we all have an existential craving to be validated and ‘seen.’”

This craving for self-analysis goes way back to the pre-Socratics in Greece. “People have been eager to understand individual differences throughout history,” says Rutledge. “Early Greeks, such as Plato, explored approaches to psychometric measurements. The Four Temperaments has been a recurring taxonomy of individual differences; Hippocrates described how four bodily fluids, or ‘humors,’ affected human personal traits and behaviors. These were translated by Galen to four temperament categories: sanguine, choleraic, melancholic and phlegmatic. These four traits have also been associated with the four basic elements, the four seasons, with links into various aspects of astrology.”

A 90s study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed three major motives behind self-evaluation: self-assessment (the pursuit of accurate self-knowledge), self-enhancement (the pursuit of favorable self-knowledge) and self-verification (the pursuit of highly certain self-knowledge).

“The purpose of most psychometric tests was to facilitate understanding to aid in mental health treatment, job and education training and placement and self-knowledge,” explains Rutledge. “There are two main types of personality tests: projective and objective. Projective tests assume personality is mostly unconscious and ask a subject to project meaning onto images or drawing that are interpreted by professionals based on validated standards and norms. An example of this type is the Rorschach. The second are objective and are scored based on self-report questions. The Myers-Briggs is one of these.”

Personality tests at work

Today, the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator is the most popular personality test in the world used by Fortune 100 companies, universities, hospitals, churches, and the military to sort-of summarize who you are and what you bring to the table.

“The indicator offers people an incredibly compelling language of the self. It’s a portal of self-knowledge, an opportunity to self-manage,” says Merve Emre, author of an upcoming book called, “The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing.” “Here is who you are, in four letters, and now that you’ve met yourself you’re capable of designing a plan, or practice of life, that actualizes who you are according to your preferences.”

Rutledge says the value of this kind of personality test, other than sheer amusement, is in its potential for self-reflection and thinking about how your strengths and preferences are a match for your goals. “Many times, personality tests will identify an area that can be further developed or identify a strength that is undervalued,” she explains. “If, for example, you wanted to work in sales but hadn’t realized you were an introvert, you could use that knowledge to develop strategies to connect with others rather use traditional extravert approaches. Conversely, an extravert might discover that certain jobs are too ‘antisocial’ for them to be performing at their best, or even the kind of vacation they might want to take.”

Emre says results from these kinds of tests can make one feel as if they have a sense of agency over their life. “It’s no accident that tests like the Myers-Briggs is given to people in transition. The language of ‘type’ has given you a framework to knit together your narrative in a coherent and compact way,” she says. “You don’t have to apologize for who you are, and by knowing you can become the master of your own destiny. That’s seductive model for many people.”

Yet, there can be a downside to these types of categorizations — especially with tests imposed by employers or therapists. Emre says she’s heard from people who had to take a personality test for work or for therapeutic purposes, only to suffer professionally or be “type-shamed.”

Rutledge advises satisfying the urge to take personality tests with caution. “First, learn about the test you’re taking and what it’s been used for. The important thing is to use feedback with a positive outlook, view your traits as strengths and figure out how to use your innate predisposition to your advantage,” she says, mentioning the Clifton Strength Finder, which focuses on the importance of using your strengths, or the Pearson-Marr Archetype Indicator, a translation of Jungian archetypes and can be taken online or purchased in a booklet with an explanation of how the archetypes can aid in self-understanding. Yet, she also mentions how these types of tests have also undergone serious scrutiny as researchers have challenged their applicability across cultures and socioeconomically diverse populations.

This is partly why Emre discounts the need for these tests altogether. “Though they can be useful, I’m not sure what would be lost in the world without them,” she says. “This obsession we have with the self comes often at the expense at more social or institutional questions about who is it that benefits from these tests. Corporations use them to rationalize their work force, the military uses them, colleges once used them to try to figure out who to admit. Yet, racial, ethnic, gender-based and class-based biases are left out. Some questions are impossibly classed, and you can’t get around the need of cultural literacy to answer questions regulated by money, wealth, upper middle-class standard of living.”

Emre mentions a recent lawsuit filed by Asian-American students against Harvard University for rating Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected.’

“In the industry of personality, who is it that gets to have a personality and who is it that’s left out of these conversations about the self?” asks Emre. “Often among them are women, immigrants, the lower class, and people who aren’t neurotypical. There are so many people that don’t conform.”

After all, who among us are content to fit the span of our personalities into four little letters?


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