I took a lot of psychology classes in college. In fact, my emphasis area was in human psychology. In every class (to my dismay) personality tests were brought up at least once.
The Meyers and Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test is one of the most common tests. This is, coincidentally, one of the least reputable personality tests. For starters, it was developed by Catherine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. Isabel Myers graduated from Swarthmore College. These two lacked any substantial education in the field of psychology but had (apparently) studied the work of Carl Jung extensively1.
The MBTI, of course, is a personality tests based on four dichotomies of personality: Extroversion or Introversion, Sensing or iNtuition, Thinking or Feeling, and Judging or Perceiving. Based on how you answer a few questions (between 50 and 100), you are given a four letter code composed of one letter from each of the four dichotomies. I’m an ISTP. Myers and Briggs spent a tremendous amount of time trying to get a college (or another accredited institution) to back their personality test and to this day, over 50 years after the test was created, not a single institution has said it’s a solid metric of personality2.
My favorite aspect of the MBTI is the idea of ‘Self-Realization,’ (or sometimes called ‘Self Awareness’) which is somewhat, their attempt to cover up the fatal flaw in the test: If you know the questions, you’re likely to answer them differently, which can greatly affect the results of your test. It’s said that your results change over time due to ‘Self-Realization.’ What that means, is that instead of answering the question truthfully, you pick the answer you know falls into the dichotomy you’ve already been assigned. For instance, I’m predisposed to say I enjoy keeping to myself because I’ve already been told I’m an introvert3.
In addition to the MBTI, another growing personality test is the Clifton StrengthsFinder, recently developed by Gallup4. I’ve also taken this test, which I found very similar to the MBTI. Here, you’re given two different statements and have to pick the one that best describes you. So, as opposed to four dichotomies like the MBTI, StrengthsFinder has 100 characteristics listed from high to low.
I’m not convinced this perfect solution, either. While Gallop is great at polls, I have a hard time believing that personalities are something that can be grouped and averaged.
There is one personality test I’m intrigued by and it happens to be the most trusted to date5. It’s called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). This is the only personality test with safeguards built-in to determine if a test taker is lying. It can even be used to diagnose an underlying psychological disorder such as depression. Reportedly, the Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Federal Aviation Administration all use the MMPI in their hiring processes when Top Secret security clearances are required6. This is a way of determining if a candidate is able to withhold secret information.
The real problem with personality tests is how subjective they are. Some may say they’re adventurous, but what, really, is adventurous? Everyone has their own subjective definition. I may think a day without my cell phone is adventurous while others may say that moving to a foreign country on a whim is adventurous. The multitude of personalities makes it difficult to compare them all and then furthermore agree on one objective kind of personality type. In addition, most people have a bad tendency to take general statements and apply them to themselves. This is known as the Forer Effect.
Personality tests can have a very negative effect on a person’s (or team’s) quality of work. Let’s say Employee Z takes a personality test and finds that he/she is an extrovert. Extroverts prefer face-to-face interaction (instead of emails or phone calls). So, to “play to Employee Z’s strengths”, a fellow co-workers start asking questions in person. On paper, this sounds like a great thing. But, unbeknownst to all, Employee Z prefers to have tasks emailed. And, the new task of transcribing face-to-face conversations to email is greatly affecting his/her productivity.
Instead of personality testing and assigning arbitrary numerical values to represent one’s personality, it’s better to naturally allow employees to create schemas (or Mental Images) of their co-workers. For instance, hanging out (outside of the office) can be much more beneficial. Although I hate team building with a passion, it can be a great way to actually get to know one another.
In the 1980s, there was an experiment to study the correlation between how people perceive their driving skills and how well they actually drive7. Drivers who told themselves they were the best drivers typically drove the worst. On the contrary, drivers who thought they were the worst were typically performed the best. These results are wholly representative of the primary problem with personality tests: People believe they’re good at what they’re told they’re good at, instead of taking a retrospective look at themselves to determine whether they are, actually, good at it.