Be Wary Of Personality Tests

MBTI, 16Personalities, Big Five. There are many personality tests you can take online. In fact, the industry of personality testing dates back to the 19th century with a significant jump in use after the WWII, especially in the USA.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the most popular tool for personality testing, was initially developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers. Katharine, a housewife, a mother, was someone who believed that everyone has a unique purpose in life. She used strict discipline to raise her daughter Isabel into a successful individual. She started her journey into personality testing in 1917 and published numerous articles on the topic. She was a vivid reader of Carl Jung’s work. Later in her life, together with her daughter, developed the MBTI system.

As Emre Merve writes in her exceptionally well research book The Personality Brokers, Katharine lacked an education in psychology, but she had a lifetime of experience bringing up children, and a strong belief in her work. It never mattered to Katharine and Isabel that their work doesn’t have the support of the professional community. They found a hungry audience in the public that wanted to believe in something.

The indicator is built in a way that regardless of the results you are coming out as a well-functioning and useful member of society. It gives you hope. You are good. You are useful. You matter. They were selling people hope. Even today we are all too happy to buy anything that shows us how great we are.

It was the rise of capitalism and the division of people into white collar versus blue collar that helped the personality testing craze. Briggs and Myers began creating the indicator after the war with the idea that it would help women to enter the workforce. It was supposed to help them identify what jobs would be most suitable for their specific personalities.

The personality tests were also a good way of how to justify the difference in classes. The creative ones destined for white collar jobs and those who are more suited to manual work.

The test, or indicator, as the creators called it, comprises of a set of questions that you should answer to the best of your abilities regardless of whether you like the answer. Most of them let you pick one of two ways how you would describe yourself and your actions and preferences. As a result, you get an indicator of your personality. One out of 16 possible combinations. For example, you may end up being ESTJ, or INFP:

  • ESTJ: extraversion (E), sensing (S), thinking (T), judgment (J)
  • INFP: introversion (I), intuition (N), feeling (F), perception (P)

Over the years, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator became extremely popular and the most often used personality inventory around. According to the authors and practitioners, you shouldn’t call it a test. There are no right or wrong answers, and all you get as a result is an indication of your personality. The idea is that it should help you to understand who you are and help you find your place in the world.

It sounds great, and it made lots of companies lots of money. Unfortunately, it is a placebo. Even though it is loosely based on the work of Carl Jung, it is not scientifically validated. It is more like a horoscope than a scientific formula. It is a nice game to play, but you shouldn’t use it to guide your life.

If you feel down and you believe that you are useless, feel free to take the test. The results will cheer you up. But don’t let the results to get you comfortable with where you are. Most of the personality tests are self-affirming devices, rather than actual windows into your soul. They tell you what you want to hear, rather than to provide a true self-awareness.

If you have dreams that you want to pursue, rather than taking a personality test, get out of your comfort zone and take the first step in achieving them. Don’t allow any personality test to let you believe that your type is not good at a particular activity and therefore you shouldn’t even try.

If you ever took a personality test and then re-took it at another point when you felt different, let’s say one day you were happy and satisfied with your life, and at the other opportunity you were really down, chances are the tests returned different results. Especially the various versions of the MBTI test where there is a set of questions about your preferences you need to answer are somewhat prone to tell you what you want to hear.

As part of research for this article, I took the 16personalities test couple of times at various days of the week and various times of the day, and the results oscillated between ISTP, INTP, INTJ, and ISTJ. Then I took the test two more times the first one answering as I felt I would answer most of the time, and the second, responding in a way aligned with my self-image. Again, two different results.

Based on the results my personality fluctuates between four different ones. The great news is that according to the description of each one, I’m happy with all of them:

  • Virtuoso ISTP – Bold and practical experimenters, masters of all kinds of tools.
  • Logician INTP – Innovative inventors with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
  • Architect INTJ – Imaginative and strategic thinkers, with a plan for everything.
  • Logistician ISTJ – Practical and fact-minded individuals, whose reliability cannot be doubted.

In fact, over the years there was a number of works done on how to come out of the personality tests the way you want to. Some even suggest that you should cheat when you are asked to take a test by an organization, so you come out the way you expect the organization wants you. William H. Whyte in The Organization Man’s appending How to Cheat on Personality Tests notes that these tests are often loyalty tests that value if you conform and you come out the same as the rest of the organization.

There is very little scientific evidence that the personality tests are predictive of actual job performance, both for individual contributors as well as for management roles. Over the years I’ve been asked several times to take various personality tests and went through assessment centers. Sometimes I even got something out of it, some insight that helped me focus on a particular area I needed to improve, but none of them ever gave me the answer to a question who I’m and what job is the best suited for me. The life is too complicated to be analyzed by a couple of questions.

The fiction of the personality tests is a convenient way to sort out people and slot them into appropriate jobs, so they believe that it is their destiny to be where they are, and it helps to retain a high functioning and productive social order. Don’t fall into this trap. Don’t let personality tests drive your future!


What are your thoughts? Have you ever taken some personality tests? How accurate do you think they were? Did they tell you who you are or rather who you want to be?

Photo: geralt /

Categories: Career, Coaching, Life

Tags: , , ,

2 replies

  1. Agree. This can often be a placebo. I believe it might have value as a tool that “gets you thinking?” What do you say?

  2. I have experience with many of these tests and have spent a great deal of time learning about MBTI, in particular. I think there’s a misconception about the type indicator in that it is often presented as an either/or, or binary classification. I think it is more helpful to view each of the measures – I/E, N/S, T/F, J/P – on a continuum. For example, my answers might show that I’m 50/50 on the N/S scale (which it does, in my case), and so if I re-take the assessment it could tip to one side or the other depending on my mood and circumstances. Also, someone who is closer to middle in scoring is more likely to be able to view situations from the point of view of the other “side.”

    Another aspect of this conversation that often gets overlooked is “type development.” As we mature and develop the tertiary and inferior functions, we may appear to change our “type,” when in fact, we’re just growing more fully into our selves.

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