Since they first emerged during WWI to assess soldiers’ susceptibility to shell shock, personality tests have become a tool available to the masses. Today, personality testing is an industry worth billions, used by school, individuals and workplaces. The internet is flooded with free quizzes, and countless viral YouTube videos promising to reveal “your REAL personality type”.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) — a test designed to assess personality in terms of four dichotomies: extraversion (E) or introversion (I); sensing (S) or intuition (N); thinking (T) or feeling (F); and judging (J) or perceiving (P) — remains one of the most popular formats. More than two million take the MBTI every year, and it’s not uncommon to see people listing their MBTI type in their bios or dating profiles, or dissecting the implications of the 16 different types in heated discussions on online forums. Over on TikTok, the test clearly has many users in a chokehold, with the hashtag #MBTI racking 3.7 billion views. But just how accurate are these tests, and how seriously should we take them?
Meghan LeVota is a psychology student and a YouTuber whose channel Psyche Design is devoted to using personality types as a tool for self-discovery. “The personality community, not unlike astrology, has blown up online in the past several years,” she says. “This has gotten even more pervasive since the pandemic, as a lot of people are dealing with loneliness and existential crises.”
According to Megan, personality types are not only a way to better understand ourselves; they can “help us give more grace to others who have different preferences”. This can be particularly useful when it comes to solving conflicts in relationships, Meghan says. “For example, if you are an extrovert dating an introvert, you may need to understand how to work with your different energy levels.”
For Orla, a 22-year-old art student from London, coming to see herself as both an ‘INFJ’ and later a Type A was something of a revelation. “I [had] felt like something was wrong with me, or like I was missing something,” she says. “It turns out my personality type is oriented differently to what an extroverted society demands at times.” Orla says that the realisation that other people process the world similarly to her made her “hate herself a lot less”.
While Orla initially saw being Type A as a “good thing”, she eventually came to see her OCD and anxiety as “symptom[s] of her ‘type a-ness”. “I’m trying to adopt more Type B traits, like being more flexible and adaptive,” she explains, “But I think [Type A] is a root in my personality.”
This points to a potential problem with the tendency to see these types as something fixed or innate. In reality, personality is much more slippery. “Studies have shown there are changes in these so-called ‘immutable’ traits over the long haul of adulthood,” says psychology professor Susan Whitbourne. “If you label yourself as having this permanent condition [Type A] you might not try to change, or even recognise that you are changing.” In this sense, Dr. Whitbourne says, personality types can become a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Clearly, these tests don’t account for the full picture, or the complexity of personality. But it’s easy for people to be assigned a label and run with it — particularly if it flatters our sense of self. What also casts doubt over these tests is that many have been found to rely on pseudoscience. Take for example Type A — a personality categorisation we tend to associate with someone who is a perfectionist, excessively organised, perhaps highly-strung. When the Type A personality was introduced into the medical lexicon by a pair of cardiologists in the 1950s, it was considered a negative behaviour pattern that would lead to stress-induced heart attacks.
Or so they claimed. These studies were in fact funded by the tobacco industry as a way of suggesting that smoking didn’t necessarily cause heart disease — that, instead, people with certain personalities who were predisposed to developing the disease just happened to smoke. While the research has since been debunked, it was enough to defend the industry in court for years. And, although Type A as it’s understood today is largely severed from its cardiological associations, the inclination to understand ourselves according to these binaries prevails.
The Myers-Briggs test has also had its validity called into question. In her book, The Personality Brokers, Merve Emre traces the test from its origins in the 20th century, with a mother-daughter pair — Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers — who had no formal training in psychology. Her writing critiques the MBTI along several dimensions, including the way it upholds social, racial, and class inequalities, and perpetuates capitalistic values.
Merve questions the idea that personality is a stable, measurable feature at all. She points to the fact that most personality tests are self-reported, and how, even with the best intentions, self-evaluation can be tricky. We’re naturally inclined to choose an answer which we think is more agreeable or flattering. And it’s also not uncommon for people to change their answers: in fact, one study showed that about half of the people who take the MBTI twice get different results each time.
Why does this matter? While personality tests are often likened to astrology, Emre makes the point that these assessments are more than just a fun distraction. Personality tests are used by powerful institutions to make decisions with sweeping consequences. They’re deployed on prospective workers, despite results poorly correlating with job performance, and the fact that they are riddled with false and dangerous assumptions that drive bias and discrimination.
Felicity Lee, a chartered psychologist, agrees that people should approach personality tests with caution, but doesn’t think they should be dismissed entirely. “There are lots of bad tests out there, and there are only a few good tests,” Felicity says, citing the Myers-Briggs is an example of a ‘good’ test – if used properly. “They can bring some depth of insight […] far quicker than we could get just in conversation […] but I’d never see it as an absolute truth. But even of the good ones, very often, the people who are bandying around some of these tools are not even qualified.” Likewise, according to Felicity, free tests online “are quite superficial and have no basis or validity”.
Felicity stresses that Myers-Briggs should not be used for assessment purposes (so in a recruitment setting, for example). They also shouldn’t be used to make “bigger assumptions than is accurate,” she says, adding that “people hang too much off them.” What’s much more is likely is these tools can reveal something about what someone is like in a particular moment in time, meaning they only have a “certain duration of relevance”.
While the validity of individual personality tests continues to be a source of debate, most agree that personality isn’t permanent. It’s natural for people to want to simplify and categorise – particularly when it comes to making sense of a concept as nebulous as personality. But if this means limiting our understanding of ourselves and others, these tests can only do far more harm than good.