March 20, 2023

Enneagram. Myers-Briggs. DISC. I could go on. These are a few examples of the multitude of personality tests that exist.

Nowadays, it is difficult to escape completing a personality test at some point in one’s work or school career with the purpose of learning about ourselves and others to improve the ways in which we approach collaboration. In fact, some employers now use pre-employment personality tests to distinguish between candidates for jobs.

Personality tests “are designed to systematically elicit information about a person’s motivations, preferences, interests, emotional make-up and style of interacting with people and situations,” according to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management.

While I understand the sentiment behind personality tests, they are largely purposeless — or even harmful — in traditional work and school environments because they create division, oversimplify people and ultimately lack the evidence to support the faith many people place in them.

Many popular personality tests provide people with a questionnaire to fill out and then take the answers to the questions and provide people with a personality “type” based on their answers. While each test varies somewhat, each one ultimately labels people with a specific type and often provides additional information, including potential strengths and weaknesses.

Personality tests also tend to provide people with information about what personality types with which they work well; for example, the Enneagram test spurred a large focus in media on what personality types — assigned as numbers 1 through 9 — would work best together in a relationship. Further, the Enneagram Institute dedicates an entire section of their website to describing the pros and cons of interactions and relationships for each combination of numbers.

While this information could seem useful on a surface level, when we become bogged down in assigning labels to ourselves and others, we run the risk of pushing each other away rather than discovering ways to collaborate with people who are deemed to have a different personality than us. Rather than using personality tests to better understand how to interact with each other, we should use organic interactions to get to know each other and listen to each other’s experiences. This process allows us to build relationships with each other rather than with each other’s personality tests.

Since these tests rely on categorizing individuals into different personality types, they often assign test-takers with one or two main personality types. However, this is a gross oversimplification of the complexities of human beings. Neither you nor I has a single personality type. For example, when I took the Enneagram test, I was classified as a Type 4 — the Individualist. While there is some truth to this assignment, I also see myself in almost every other personality type listed — for example, I am a perfectionist (a quality of Type 1, The Reformer), I am driven (a quality of Type 3, The Achiever) and I like to be innovative (a quality of Type 5, The Investigator). 

Although many tests acknowledge that everyone is a combination of the multiple personality types, grouping us into specific types based on our “dominant” personality traits inevitably leads to a failure to capture the complicated nature of each individual.

Beyond the dangers of oversimplification, it is important to note that most personality tests simply lack the scientific support to lend them credibility. Many tests lead to different results for individuals when they retake the test. For example, in one study looking into the Myers-Briggs test, up to 50% of people tested as a different type only several weeks after the initial test. 

These differences display that humans are variable, and we answer differently from day to day. The way we behave each day depends on a wide range of internal and external factors that personality tests cannot measure. Since there are so many variables outside of these tests’ control, we should recognize the potential for error and take our classifications with a grain of salt.

Personality tests are not necessarily “bad.” However, we must be careful with how much faith we place in their results. Should our ability to get a job really rely on a pre-employment personality test? Should we build the way we work with others around a simple questionnaire?

Ultimately, I put little faith in personality tests because at the end of the day, I know myself better than a list of questions, and I can find ways to work effectively without a test telling me what type of person I am. The idea that a list of questions holds the answers to who we truly are — I just don’t buy it.

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