Personality tests are more popular than ever, with free online versions of tests like the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram at the ready for anyone who might be curious. Some people see these tests as a source of entertainment, while others find them deeply insightful glimpses into the tendencies and behaviors of themselves and others. So how seriously should we be taking these diagnostic tools? Are they even based on scientific data? Your answer may depend on… well, your personality type.
Not all “typologies” are created equal; some are based on ancient ways of thinking about the human psyche, while others rely heavily on modern psychiatry. But all personality typing tools use a system of rules about humans and behavior, all of which are theoretical (meaning that while they may be true, they aren’t possible to prove). Here’s the lowdown on the methods behind the mania over personality tests.
The Enneagram is a typology system based on the numbers one through nine. Each number has two “wings” that further classify personality type, meaning there are 32 possible results for this kind of typology test. The typology is based on a combination of ancient beliefs and more current psychological practice and aims to direct people to their blind spots and their strengths.
The Enneagram theory may seem straightforward, but the ways in which it connects behavioral patterns to personal growth can be quite intricate. The most popular instrument to figure out Enneagram type is called the Riso-Hudson Enneagram type indicator, though true Enneagram die-hards will point out that self-assessment of yourself after reading over the possible types is a better method.
People who use the Enneagram to understand the way that they relate to the world around them report feeling more secure in themselves. “Working the Enneagram” feels like an objective, concrete way of personal development — at least, it’s certainly more quantifiable than “trying to become a better person.” What the Enneagram lacks is clinical evidence to demonstrate its long-term effects on the people who practice its directives.
The Myers-Briggs Typology Index (MBTI)
The Myers-Briggs test purports to inform everything from career trajectories to parenting styles to relationship compatibility. This assessment hinges on theories of personality that were first developed by Dr. Carl Jung. In the 1940s, a mother-daughter team synthesized these ideas into a typology test that has since been translated into at least 30 languages and is used worldwide as a behavioral predictor.
There are some people who see their Myers-Briggs type as a golden key of self-discovery; a deep look into their psyche. Research into the way that the test is scored indicates that we might need to step back before we conclude this test is an infallible answer to the question of who we are. For example, the testing methodology means that just one answer on the 100 question instrument could mean the difference between scoring as an introvert or an extrovert. And while you might expect that there would be a normal distribution of test results spread among the 16 possible results, that’s not what happens. Most people tend to score at the more extreme ends of the personality spectrum. This might have to do with the way that we “report” ourselves to the test, as few people perceive themselves as moderate examples of belief and behavior. Also working against the objective strength of the test is the fact that taking it more than once can result in a drastically different score for the same person. There do seem to be some interesting and consistent patterns in career choice and MBTI types, and there are certainly people whose results make them feel seen, known, and empowered.
The Big Five
The “Big Five” is a personality assessment that scores five personality traits (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, neuroticism, and agreeableness) to predict your behavior. This testing instrument has been used to assess everything from career potential to romantic compatibility. The Big Five was even used in the US Air Force as a predictor of emotional stability in the 1960s. The current “Five Factor Model” version was developed in 1996.
One of the main criticisms of measuring the Big Five traits is that it fails to take into account the way that women experience the world in contrast to men. Another flaw in the testing is that clinical mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, can increase scores in some areas of the test according to whether or not they are being treated. Since mental health conditions are independent of (but can influence) personality, the Five Factor Test isn’t ideal for people that might be taking it to diagnose and understand themselves outside of their mental health condition.
The Bottom Line
It’s important to understand that no personality typing system is meant as a firm diagnosis of who we are. Abby Perry, a culture writer and Enneagram enthusiast who recommends the tool for friends looking to understand their underlying desires and motivations, acknowledged that no system can function as a neat container for human behavior. “I don’t ever think of personality typing systems as infallible. They’re just aids, which means they’re not perfect but also likely quite helpful,” Perry said. If a personality test isn’t serving us by providing language to love ourselves better and improve our self-perception, discarding the result is no sign of weakness on our part.
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