You were made to choose…

Psychological determinism is something I feel the need to resist.

You might have guessed that from posts like this one, in which I react to the seeping snake oil that is personality testing. One of the reasons that I react against all this kind of stuff is the fact that it would tell us that we can not change- that our die was cast in the DNA we grew from and therefore we should just conform to our stereotype.

I do not concur because I do not think the science can support such narrow determinism. Also I stand as a person in much need of change. I am not the best that I can be. I am not the finished article. At age 47 the broken bits of me still need mending and the sinful bits of me need forgiving more than ever. I no longer have the excuse of immaturity.

This short TED talk says some interesting and hopeful things about the continuing possibilities of change;

Tested to distraction, Myers Briggs and the like…


So here is how it goes for most of us.

The company/organisation/bureaucracy that you work for is in trouble. There have been rumours of cuts and financial black holes for months. Anxiety gathers like dust on every workstation. Eventually the inevitable happens- it is announced that there will be a ‘restructuring’ of the workforce.

Because our managers are human too (and soon to be subject to their own version of the same) it is possible that a firm of consultants will be brought in- people with relevant expertise in helping other organisations through the ‘essential modernisation process.’ Their skill set is to bring anonymous quasi-scientific ruthlessness to bear in such a way that changes appear inevitable, inexorable.

They will no doubt set up meetings with individual members of staff, who will be subjected to ‘evaluations’ and ‘reviews of job role’. This process will almost always miss the crucial ingredients for the productivity or otherwise of your team- it will not be able to deal with the bullies or the psychopaths, who will probably find the process entertaining, motivating invigorating.

To add to the feeling of objectivity, the consultants will also employ various forms of psychometric testing to measure our supposed fitness for the job roles we are undertaking.

The most common of all being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI.)

Within a few short months, a handful of people will have succumbed to stress related illnesses or high blood pressure. Strangely, unless they decide to jump ship, their employment will probably be safe- although they are very unlikely to rise any further in their organisation. Rather they will be given a backwater to swim quietly in until the next reorganisation.

A few others will be made redundant. Some of them will have made a positive choice in this direction- it is better to have your fate in your own hands of course.

Many more will be in lower paid jobs. There will be fewer middle managers, and staff will be increasingly called ‘autonomous professionals’.

It is a dirty job, but someone has to do it.

Sorry about that- I felt the cynicism building up in my fingers like lactic acid as I typed away…

But back to the point of this piece, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and its many imitators.  It was developed by a couple of ladies during world war two who had become fans of the wild and wonderful work of Carl Jung. Jung had this view of personality as being made up of dichotomies- polar opposites that we all find ourselves fixed upon; our ‘type’. This from Wikipedia;

Jung’s typological model regards psychological type as similar to left or right handedness: individuals are either born with, or develop, certain preferred ways of perceiving and deciding. The MBTI sorts some of these psychological differences into four opposite pairs, or dichotomies, with a resulting 16 possible psychological types. None of these types are better or worse; however, Briggs and Myers theorized that individuals naturally prefer one overall combination of type differences.[1]:9 In the same way that writing with the left hand is hard work for a right-hander, so people tend to find using their opposite psychological preferences more difficult, even if they can become more proficient (and therefore behaviorally flexible) with practice and development.

The 16 types are typically referred to by an abbreviation of four letters—the initial letters of each of their four type preferences (except in the case of intuition, which uses the abbreviation N to distinguish it from Introversion). For instance:

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

All of this has a real seductive truism to it- it manages to place us all in a pigeon hole that we are all more or less happy with as it all feels very neutral and more or less supportive of some of our good qualities. Where is the harm in that?

Well, as with all these things, it depends on the use we put things to. If we are going to use something like Myers Briggs as a blunt instrument to knock people into jobs like we would a pit prop, then we need to be pretty sure that it is testing something real, something that makes sense on more levels than our employers organisational convenience right?

Because there is a vase array of criticisms of Myers Briggs. It is simply not used by psychologists- even the ones who are prepared to concede the validity and usefulness of individualised psychometric testing.

This from the Guardian

The trouble is, the more you look into the specifics of the MBTI, the more questionable the way it’s widespread use appears to be. There are numerouscomprehensivecritiques about it online, but the most obvious flaw is that the MBTI seems to rely exclusively on binary choices.

For example, in the category of extrovert v introvert, you’re either one or the other; there is no middle ground. People don’t work this way, no normal person is either 100% extrovert or 100% introvert, just as people’s political views aren’t purely “communist” or “fascist”. Many who use the MBTI claim otherwise, despite the fact that Jung himself disagreed with this and statistical analysis reveals even data produced by the test shows a normal distribution rather thanbimodal, refuting the either/or claims of the MBTI. But still this overly-simplified interpretation of human personality endures, even in the Guardian Science section!

Generally, although not completely unscientific, the MBTI gives a ridiculously limited and simplified view of human personality, which is a very complex and tricky concept to pin down and study. The scientific study of personality is indeed a valid discipline, and there are many personality tests that seemingly hold up to scientific scrutiny (thus far). It just appears that MBTI isn’t one of them.

The lure of a quick fix. An easy simplification. MBTI appears to me to be to psychology what astrology is to astronomy- it uses some shared language but that is about it. It has entered our hospitals, our schools, even our churches….

We are not captured in this narrow set of words about who we are. Sometimes we are both and. Sometimes we revert to ‘type’, often re transcend it. Let us escape the bloody tramlines- whatever ways we do it.

And as I write this, I will be accused of over simplifying MBTI, of dismissing its usefulness. No doubt people will say that those of my type always tend to do these things.

My reply will be that when quasi scientific quackery rises so far as to become a force for narrow stereotypical judgements it becomes a force of empire, and the empire should be resisted.


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.