The Problem With Personality Tests

Photo courtesy of Hope Williams, Student Publications

Think fast: if you were a kitchen utensil, what would you be? A fork? A spatula? If you were a Starbucks order, what drink would best describe you? What about a dream vacation? 

At some point in recent years, it has become popular to share answers to questions from online personality quizzes, small but telling encapsulations of our identities. We eagerly share shockingly accurate descriptions of self that seem to mysteriously align with our personalities. By saying that I am a tall iced coffee or a backpacking trip through the outdoors, others will supposedly be able to draw conclusions about who I am as a person. 

I can not deny that personally, I gleam a sense of pride from these results (that’s right, a Buzzfeed quiz just told me that if I was a Skittles color, I’d be red!), but I also cannot ignore my desire to dig a little deeper into the mysterious layers of my mind. 

Why do we have an endless obsession with characterizing and comparing ourselves to meaningless elements of pop culture and mundane aspects of life? 

My initial reaction: our emotions and understanding of self are so complicated and boiling ourselves down to something tangible and comparable, like a concrete aspect of pop culture or a set of simple adjectives, allows us to see our personalities in a familiar and less serious context. 

Although I don’t want to face the harsh realities of my insecurities, knowing that I could be compared to Mike Wazowski from “Monsters, Inc.” seems to make this complicated mess of emotions seem a tiny bit clearer. Suddenly, I can find every instance I acted like a tiny green monster with one eye and finally feel a tiny sense of clarity and explanation for my behaviors. 

But perhaps these superficial quizzes are a symptom of deeper societal trends, ones that mask themselves in seemingly more intellectual personality tests. 

Personality assessments are used at an increasing rate in many contexts such as education, career development and college admissions. Unlike simple personality quizzes on social media, these assessments are used for very serious decisions that can determine someone’s life. 

Decades of research into the validity and reliability of personality testing has presented numerous problems, especially when used by employers in the hiring process. There is a low correlation of personality assessments with predicting job performance of future employees and there is a chance that test-takers may manipulate their answers to get desired results. Other factors to take into account are the rigidness of having binary descriptors of personality, potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and bias against test-takers of various races, genders, religions and socioeconomic levels not in the white, middle-class male demographic. 

There are enormous differences between a Buzzfeed quiz and empirically derived personality assessments, but the increased reliance on using these results to predict someone’s productivity in a workplace or success in an academic field is a similar trend to my clicking on a quiz about dream vacations. 

Self-identification and comparison of identity is key to so many of our current institutions — how well will we work in a team? Will we succeed at an academically rigorous university? Will our work ethic match potential employers? 

One example of a test widely-used around the world by universities and corporations is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The test was created by mother-daughter team Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers. Technically, neither Briggs nor Myers had any formal training or education in psychology while developing the test. As the test became more popular, it was heavily modified, but the origin of the test is still not scientific and largely reflects the perspective that Briggs first created the test with. 

Among various issues, MBTI has been shown to have unreliable results for people who retake the test at different times. 

This forms the core of my skepticism of personality testing: the quantification of people into a discrete amount of adjectives neglects how personalities change over time and in given environments. 

With all this being said, I do acknowledge that some personality tests are often critical to diagnosing personality disorders. 

But under many other contexts, I’ve begun to feel frustrated at this endless pursuit to effectively “sort” ourselves. There are so many other productive ways for self-reflection, such as journaling and counseling. I refuse to believe that a twenty-minute personality strengths assessment is the best way to help me develop as a leader. Real experiences, feedback from others and honest reflections lead to discoveries about the self. 

So looking back, what did I gain from clicking on the Buzzfeed quiz that began my descent into personality testing hatred? For one, I learned that I am, undeniably, a vibrant and wonderful red Skittle. 

More importantly, I have begun to see that to solve this desire of understanding the human mind, it can not be supplemented by inaccurate personality inventories that look at one moment in someone’s life. The complete and true answer to the question “Who am I?” can only be found after a lifetime of experiences, relationships and memories.