What personality tests don't (and can't) tell you about who you are
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
I have to confess. I used to love personality tests. When I first did the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (while still at law school) I was so excited that I made my whole family do it. As an INFJ (one of the16 personality types), I took seriously the idea that I was the Advocate (haha!), sensitive, introverted, intuitive and principled.
Later, as a legal academic, I suggested my first year class take the test to get an idea of what type of lawyer they might be. Little did I know then that personality tests are very limited in what they can do.
One of the biggest limitations is that they can only show us the external persona we have created (consciously and unconsciously) so far in our lives. Rather than revealing possibilities for what we might do or be in the future, they work by identifying and categorising the person we have become based on our past experiences. And if we take these typologies too seriously, they can limit our future choices.
The idea of classifying people based on personality and character has a long history. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that a person's personality could be determined based on physical attributes such as how much blood or bile they had in their body. A person with lots of blood was likely to be friendly and sociable, while a person with too much bile was likely to be melancholy. According to ancient Chinese wisdom, we are all influenced by the elements of Wood, Water, Earth, Fire, and Metal, with one or two of these elements dominating our personalities.
The first modern personality tests were developed by the U.S. Army in World War I in an effort to predict which soldiers would suffer from “shell shock”. At around the same time, Katharine Briggs was conducting her own research into personality, drawing heavily on the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.
Her work led to the well-known classification of people as extroverts or introverts, intuitives or sensors, thinkers or feelers, judgers or perceivers. Her daughter then picked up this classification - turning it into the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that is still in use today. Since the 1960s, it is estimated that over 50 million people have taken the test, making it by far the most popular personality assessment ever created.
Key criticisms of the test focus on its non-scientific foundation and over-use in employment contexts. In the HBO documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests , it is also argued that the Myers-Brigg Indicator is now an industry out of control in the US, particularly in the context of recruitment, dating and self-development.
For me, however, the biggest limitation of personality tests is that they can only reveal the dominant identity or persona we have unconsciously constructed in our lives so far. While they can be useful at showing us the person we believe ourselves to be, they can not help us discover the parts of ourselves we have yet to explore (our potential) .
Indeed, if we go back to the work of Carl Jung, he believed our personalities were only part of who we are, and that many other characteristics and abilities could reside in our subconscious. For Jung, a key part of achieving wholeness as a person was becoming aware of and integrating our less dominant characteristics.
So what do we do if we want to know more about ourselves and what we are capable of doing? The first thing is to realise that who you are now is not who you need always be. Whilst our past experiences have contributed to who we have become, the future provides us with the opportunity to explore new and different aspects of ourselves.
Next is to acknowledge that who we are has been strongly influenced by other people's opinions and assessments of us. These opinions might have fundamentally impacted our identity, including how we dress, speak and act, the "face" we provide to the outside world, and what we perceive our strengths and weaknesses to be. Remembering this allows us to expand who we think we are and what skills, interests and experiences we would like to have in the future.
Finally, we all need to be a little bit brave if we are to go beyond how other people see us. Trying new things, taking a different direction or rekindling old talents means giving importance to what we enjoy and are interested in, even if other's don't agree. The hidden bits of who we are may take a while to develop, and during that time we need to be patient with ourselves and keep an open mind.
So, while personality tests can be interesting and fun - don't let them limit your idea of who you are. After all - the only person who is an expert on that subject is you!