A little rant about personality testing…

I know, I know- it is here to stay. It will increasingly be used to support appointments to employment, and to put together teams in all sorts of industrial/Managerial situations.

All those carefully developed questionnaires- testable, measurable, repeatable-giving pithy truisms that can then become the means to understand the mess of humanity. As a psychology student I had to understand something of the ‘science’ behind all this- enough to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the approach.

The arguments for such testing are powerful- enabling understanding oneself in a new and clear way- and suggesting the basis of likely conflict with others in the performance of joint tasks, thereby allowing teamwork to be better understood.

But that is not to say I have to like it.

Some of this is because everything in me hates the idea of easy categorisations- as if what we are is reducible to a simple set of generalisations. In the name of individualisation, we strip people of their individuality and replace it with a letter, or a position against two axes.

It has always seemed to me too that some kinds of personalities are pre-disposed to loving personality testing. Ah the irony- those who love to organise, to place everything in order, to control- both themselves and their immediate environment- they will fall upon personality testing in all its different forms like a starving man on a bag of chips.

And it can become a real danger- to both them and to others around them.

Let me give you an example of a typical description from Myers Briggs, one of the most common types of personality test.


ISTPs excel at analyzing situations to reach the heart of a problem so that they can swiftly implement a functional repair, making them ideally suited to the field of engineering. Naturally quiet people, they are interested in understanding how systems operate, focusing on efficient operation and structure. They are open to new information and approaches. But contrary to their seemingly detached natures, ISTPs are often capable of humorously insightful observations about the world around them. They can also be closet daredevils who gravitate toward fast-moving or risky hobbies (such as bungee jumping, hang gliding, racing, motorcycling, andparachuting), recreational sports (such as downhill skiing, paintball, ice hockey, and scuba diving), and careers (such as aviation and firefighting).

ISTPs may sometimes seem to act without regard for procedures, directions, protocol, or even their own safety. But while their approach may seem haphazard, it is in fact based on a broad store of knowledge developed over time through action and keen observation. ISTPs enjoy self-sufficiency and take pride in developing their own solutions to problems.

ISTPs are content to let others live according to their own rules, as long as the favor is reciprocated. ISTPs endure reasonable impositions without complaint—but if their “territory” is encroached upon, eroded, or violated, they defend what they view as rightfully theirs.

This category is thought to describe 4-6% of the population of the world.

There are twin dangers here- the first is that, presented with this truism (and these categorisations always read a little like astrological predictions to me) we might actually come to believe that this is who we are– and this effectively becomes a self fulfilling prophecy- it becomes formational in terms of our self image. There is some evidence that we are often too quick to identify personality traits in others, and despite the fact that all the personality types identified in Myers-Briggs are deliberately positive, we tend to reject and condemn those that we see as different to ours.

The likely result here is that those positive attributes of personality we find ourselves labelled with, become enhanced, but the less positive ones we are able to excuse as they are not who we are.

Secondly, it ignores the possibility of development, change, encounter and growth. Sure, I know that some would describe these personality traits as fixed and immovable- stable through our life time, but there is a chorus of psychologists that would entirely disagree with this too. Some of this debate can be seen here.

I would add one more objection however- and I think that this perhaps the greater part of my concern- I believe that personality tests are dangerous in the hands of powerful people- in the same way that machine guns should never be given to despots. They are too often used as means of achieving the opposite of their stated intention. It is a way of manipulating and shaping a workforce to achieve efficiencies, redundancies or restructuring.

There is another area in which these methods are forcing their way- self help methods, and even spiritual practices. People are being encouraged to buy into a method of success and self fulfilment that starts with insights gained from measurement and categorisation. Typical of this approach is the Enneagram. Whilst some people have clearly found these approaches useful- they can also become a kind of cult- like a successful slimming programme or a pyramid sales system. And the whole thing is based on an intuition, with no evidence that any of the nine types of personality actually exist.

So- after my little rant, time for a few soft conclusions…

  1. We a gloriously diverse, yet tend towards convergence- it is the nature of the human condition. Let us together celebrate difference without seeking to categorise and codify.
  2. We are not the sum total of these narrow categorisations- we respond to situations and people in a varied way, dependent on all sorts of other criteria.
  3. They are very blunt instruments- and such course measurement is very dangerous when dealing with individuals.
  4. We need to be open to the possibility of change- not just of our aspirations and success, but also in more subtle ways- the Jesus way is towards love, acceptance, grace, kindness, self control. These soft, imponderable traits are not optional in The Way- no matter what personality trait you might be tagged with.
  5. Let us not take this stuff too seriously. It is not science, it is population management.

8 thoughts on “A little rant about personality testing…

  1. Please understand that this theory is flawed and is currently evolving, as such the SLTDI (singer-Lewis), and there are other theories in the works. It is not efficient yet, it holds true to about 65% of people taking the test. Here is a link to the flaw that I have found so far if you are interested,
    In response to your reference to it being dangerous in the hands of powerful people, yes it is dangerous being in our hands, because it is and always will be an evolving experiment.
    The beauty of it, is if you can understand the way something thinks, the way the act, their seemingly wayward actions, will no longer frustrate you and annoy you.

    • Cheers for the comment. And I agree with you- with a little ‘but’, because your suggestion is that personality testing is a process that is getting better- in that our methods are becoming more refined, somehow more ‘accurate’. I would contend that the PROCESS is becoming ever more refined and technical, but that the approach itself is flawed- incomplete. We are not defined by a narrow set of categories like this- we are not the sum total of our labels. All of us make choices, act in and out of character, not to mention all those other parts of who we are that are not being measured, as if they are somehow less important.

      Also I think you are right that understanding something of who we are, and what makes us tick is a good thing- and may then allow us to have a more accepting attitude to others. It is just that I have spent a lot of time with people who SAY that this is what they are doing, but at the same time the petty irritations/social frustrations continue- just with a different language to describe it- “Well of course he would say that- he is SOOooooo ISTJ!”



  2. Pingback: You were made to choose… | this fragile tent

  3. Hey! This post could not be written any better!
    Reading through this post reminds me of my previous room mate!
    He always kept talking about this. I will forward this write-up to him.
    Pretty sure he will have a good read. Thank you for sharing!

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