Personality tests are pretty divisive. Even in psychology, the field they originate from, personality tests are either seen as useful tools or, if you want to be really dismissive, pseudo-scientific nonsense. People in the field of industrial and organizational psychology as well as human resources use personality tests to try and get a “sketch” of a person’s attitudes, motivations, and preferred methods of interacting with the world.
Outside of professional settings, the use of personality tests mostly boils down to personal development, a way to classify people you know, or a fun little conversation starter to break the ice with strangers. Sure, it sounds weird, but you’d be surprised at how good it is at bringing online strangers together. Wouldn’t recommend it for an IRL conversation, though.
However, personality tests aren’t without their flaws. While they do have some uses, many of them remain unreliable. That being said, maybe they don’t have to be 100% accurate.
A Quick History of Personality Tests
Long before modern psychology officially existed as a field of study, philosophers, physicians, and pretty much everyone who can classify people into broad categories have tried to understand what makes people tick. Other people are mysteries to us – isolated worlds trapped in their own heads. Our own personal worlds are just as mysterious.
One of the earliest known attempts at categorizing people’s personalities was Humorism, a typology system that centers on the Four Temperaments. The Four Temperaments traces its origins to Graeco-Arabic medicine and was originally used to help diagnose and treat illness. It’s a really simple system consisting of only four “personalities”.
First, you have the Sanguines whose predominant humor, that is, the liquid in their bodies, is blood. Sanguines are said to be optimistic and socially alluring. They embody a lust for life that’s very fitting for a type centered around our literal life source. If you’re familiar with the Enneagram, that probably makes you think of types 3, 7, and to some extent, 4 and 8 – all of whom can be quite magnetic in their own right.
Next, there are the Phlegmatics whose predominant humor is phlegm. I know, I know. Stay with me here. Basically, they’re the opposite of the Sanguines. They’re connection oriented rather than goal-oriented, they seek harmony with others and try to keep things low-key and conflict-free. If you’re familiar with Karen Horney (that’s HORN-EYE, we can see you laughing) and her Theory of Neurotic Needs, the closest fit is the Moving Toward personality.
Third, you have the Melancholic types who are practical and down to earth. You can liken them to the XSXJ of the MBTI who are known for their patience with processes and love of order.
Lastly, there are the Cholerics who are confident, ambitious go-getters who focus their energies on getting things done and getting other people to get theirs done. Think EXTJ and IXTJ in MBTI terms.
You may have noticed a pattern here: These ancient classifications still share a lot of similarities to current typology systems, if a bit less refined.
That said, it would take until World War 1 for the first personality test, not just a typing system, to emerge in the form of the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet. It was designed to help screen army recruits for their vulnerability to shell shock, which we now call PTSD, hence its other name – the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory. A modern personality test called the Big Five a.k.a OCEAN is now considered the gold standard of personality testing. One of its dimensions? Neuroticism.
While it never really took off, the WPI did form the roots of the modern personality test along with Carl Jung’s ideas on cognitive functions. The MBTI, DISC, 16PF, HEXACO, and the like soon followed. Up until today, new personality tests and systems are being created and coming into popularity, even if just among people who think of typology as a fun hobby.
Are Personality Tests Even Scientific? And Do They Even Have to Be?
A lot of them aren’t. The Big Five is a golden standard in personality typing because it’s one of the few that manage to fit validity and reliability criteria consistently, to put it simply. It’s also quite accurate. Conscientiousness, for one, is valuable for predicting career success.
“Scientifically validated and standardized personality tests (and intelligence and neuropsychological tests) can aid assessment and diagnosis, but only in the context of a comprehensive clinical psychological evaluation.” says Laurence Miller, PhD, a psychologist and adjunct professor at Florida Atlantic University, “Unvalidated personality tests are worse than useless and can lead to harmful results for patients, families, and employees.”
And yet they’re not the ones we’re always drawn to. Pull aside anyone interested in personality testing outside of academia and they’ll probably give you a test that’s been accused of being pseudo-scientific. MBTI, Enneagram, Instinctual Variants, the Humors, etc. it is rarely, if ever, the Big Five.
The reason behind that may be because the Big Five…well, it doesn’t really give us much direction. You can score high on conscientiousness and low on agreeableness, and while that’s accurate, it doesn’t quite “click” as quickly for most people as learning they’re an ESTJ. It’s a weak point, it isn’t their thing. But maybe it can be worked on. You get the idea.
John Frigo, an eCommerce Manager, had this to say about the appeal of personality tests that are unvalidated, “I think personality tests can be a great thing in regards to understanding yourself, how you see the world, how you interact with the world and how you best learn and work.”
“For me, part of my personality type is being authentic…genuine is important and integrity is important.” Frigo, who identifies as an INFP, went on to say, “In the past I’d noticed I wasn’t great at sales, especially when I didn’t believe in the product I was selling or didn’t think what I was offering was a good deal.”
If They’re Not That Accurate, Why Do Some People Find Personality Tests Worthwhile?
According to R. Karl Hebenstreit, an organizational psychologist with 25 years of experience in using personality tests for Human Resources development, personality tests provide organizations and individuals with a “common language” for addressing their strengths and weaknesses.
While Frigo prefers the MBTI, Hebenstreit finds the Enneagram, an even more controversial typology system because of its spiritual origins, more useful.
“I haven’t found any “personality” test to be more beneficial on a personal and organizational level than the Enneagram. The Enneagram differentiates itself from all other personality systems in that it is an identification of a person’s core motivation that has driven and will continue to drive their life choices and decisions.” Hebenstreit explained, “Understanding each other’s core motivation helps build trusting relationships in personal and organizational domains, and prevents miscommunication and misunderstandings.”
The Enneagram, despite having personality tests, is heavily structured around its core fears/core desires that try to pin down the roots of a person’s personality flaws to identify a dynamic path to growth. This means that the Enneagram requires a lot of self-reflection to be “accurate” for the person using it.
Another key criticism of personality tests is that they lock you into a category. But Hebenstreit recommends a different approach to personality tests, “A misconception that most people have about personality tests and types is that it is a definitive and unchangeable aspect of your being. The reality is, the test identifies your default/preferred mode. It is then up to each individual, armed with this knowledge, to do something about it, and identify when that perspective is appropriate and useful, and when another way of being/doing/thinking may prove more effective in a different situation.”
Okay, Why Can’t They Be 100% Accurate Anyway?
Because personality typing requires a lot of meta-cognition and self-awareness. One key aspect of personality typing that seems to get lost in the debates about whether or not a personality test is “scientific” enough or plain pseudo-science is that it relies on self-reporting. We can’t exactly climb into someone’s head and get a quick snapshot of who they are and how they think. Instead, we can either rely on years of observing them or a personality test they self-report on.
It’s not uncommon for people to “mistype” themselves because they can’t figure out what their own motivations and desires are or the ways in which they view the world. This becomes even more problematic for systems like the MBTI and Enneagram where certain types are said to generally not value their inner worlds of meaning and/or are self-forgetting.
Plus, in corporate settings, people may feel inclined to answer as they would like to be, not as how they are, leading to inconsistent results. No amount of “gold standard”-ing can protect even the Big Five from a test taker that outright lies to it.
Getting the Most Out of Your Personality Test
Maybe you already have an opinion on how useful (or not) personality tests are, but if you want to give it a shot and see if you’ll reap the personal development benefits a personality test may have to offer, here’s how to do just that.
You can’t get a proper typing if you feed your test the wrong data. Try to answer as honestly and accurately as you can. Really think about the questions to see how they can apply to you. Look back on past behavior, especially your least proud moments if you’re taking the Enneagram, to get a feel for how you truly respond to stressful situations.
Contemplate Your Result
A lot of people dislike personality test because they feel it tells them exactly who they are and always will be. While there are people in typology circles who will say one type is better than the other, there’s really no “superior” type. One thing you’ll find that many personality systems have in common is that they see personalities as responses to the world and lenses for processing the information that the world feeds to them. They’re not inherently wrong – just different approaches.
As the kids say these days, does it make you feel “seen”?
Treat It As Your Battle Plan, Not Your Box
Your personality doesn’t have to be a category you fit in that you can never change if you use its pointers on your strengths and weaknesses as the beginnings of a battle plan. How do you make this better? How do you leverage the things that come naturally to you? And how do you counteract the parts of your personality that don’t serve you and you’re not really all that proud of?
Now all that’s left, if you’re interested in this kind of stuff, is to get started. If you’d like to check out how the Jungian types (to put it simply, the MBTI) can be useful for you, you can head on over to our guide to the Sakinorva MBTI test.