Scientists love to hate on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, easily the most popular and well-known measure of personality. For good reasons. As explained in this excellent article by Laith Al-Shawaf, experts believe that the Myers-Briggs has dubious predictive ability and is grounded in debunked theory. To make matters worse, it’s unreliable. Which means that if you take the test more than once to learn more about your “true self”, it’s quite likely to give you different answers each time.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is the most popular personality test in the world. It’s a favorite among Fortune 100 companies and government agencies. It is a thriving multimillion dollar industry and it’s now being used to determine our love life — funders just gave 1 million dollars to develop an app that matches couples based on their Myers-Briggs personality types.
As Al-Shawaf notes, “any psychologist will tell you, it’s mostly bullshit.” The open joke is that it offers little more value than your astrological sign.
Despite these widely known flaws, the Myers-Briggs remains tremendously popular. More than one-and-a-half million people take it each year and a full 89 out of the Fortune 100 companies were using the measure as recently as 2014.
What is it about this scientific hot mess that people so readily buy into? We believe that one of the bugs that drives psychologists crazy is actually a feature that explains the test’s enduring popularity.
After you complete the Myers-Briggs test, you get sorted into one of 16 categories. Each group is often given an appealing name: the “logical pragmatist”, “compassionate facilitator”, or “insightful visionary” — providing a perfect new title for a professional development seminar or your online dating profile. Yes, people actually do put their Myers-Briggs category on their Tinder profiles and, as we noted above, companies are now using these to match couples.
The problem is that these categories contradict how contemporary psychologists think about personality. Most experts agree that human personality can be boiled down to five or so fundamental traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism. Each trait is a continuous dimension, so that someone can score high, low, or anywhere in between.
Unfortunately, however, it is quite hard (even if you’re a psychologist) to conceive of yourself in five-dimensional space. It’s also awkward to tell people at a conference event or cocktail party that you have a moderate score on extraversion, moderate-to-high on agreeableness and conscientiousness, high on openness, and moderate-to-low on neuroticism. This is hardly sparkling dinner party conversation!
This is why assigning people to Myers-Briggs’ categories is compelling. Scoring low on extraversion and high on openness doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but being a “mastermind” does. People would much rather claim a group identity that includes Sun Tzu, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen and Arthur Ashe.
The use of categories is a great marketing maneuver and a big part of the reason behind the popularity of many dubious personality tests from the Myers-Briggs to the infamous TIME Harry Potter Quiz or Cosmo’s quiz to help you learn what kind of lover you are. The same logic also applies to Astrology signs! We often crave self-definition and are attracted to group memberships that balance a sense of differentiation from the many with a sense of connection to people just like us.
The ease with which people form group identities can be traced back to one of the most important studies in social psychology. In the minimal group experiments from the 1970s, people were randomly assigned to groups after completing a test of dubious merit, such as their ability to estimate the number of dots in an image or their preference for abstract art.
Within minutes, they had created a new sense of identity and were treating their new in-group members very differently from out-group members.
As Al-Shawaf describes, when we use personality tests that impose categories, we risk exaggerating the differences between groups and the similarities within them. When this occurs with other types of identities like race or gender, we typically call it “stereotyping” and we try to avoid it.
There is reason for caution when it comes to categorizing others too readily by personality as well. We might well fail to hire, promote, or even date or marry someone because they fall into a false category about which we make exaggerated assumptions.
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