Why Do We Like Personality Tests, Even the Bad Ones?
3 reasons we are prone to believe inaccurate results.
Posted Sep 27, 2019
Ok, fine. Rick Astley was singing about a woman, not the Myers-Briggs. But many people who have taken the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) or the Enneagram adopt their type as part of their identity and don’t want to give it up.
In the first post of this series on personality tests, I discussed why two highly popular personality type systems, the MBTI and the Enneagram, may not give you an accurate picture of your personality. It seems like if our results were inaccurate, we’d know it, but that’s not always the case; the way results are presented can affect how we process them, and we are biased in how we process information about ourselves.
This second installment in the series will explore three reasons we like taking personality tests and why people are reluctant to acknowledge that their personality type might be wrong, even if it doesn’t actually fit them well. In a nutshell, we want to learn about ourselves, feel that we belong, and understand others.
1. We want to learn something we didn’t know about ourselves.
One of the reasons we like to take personality tests in the first place is that we want to learn about ourselves. In an episode of The Black Goat Podcast, personality psychologist Simine Vazire suggested that we like personality tests because we hope that they will reveal previously unknown information about ourselves. The bad news is that this is unlikely to happen, but the good news is that this is because research on self-other knowledge shows that we actually know ourselves quite well!
Our friends and family, and sometimes even strangers, tend to see us pretty closely to how we see ourselves. For some things, like our emotions, we have access to information about ourselves that others don't. There might be things about yourself you don’t know, like how intellectual or creative you are, but to find out, you’re better off asking your best friend than taking the MBTI or Enneagram.
2. We want to belong.
A simple reason that we tend to identify with our personality test results is that we have an inherent need to belong.
A friend of mine recently described her experience of taking the MBTI for the first time when she was in high school. As an artist, she felt different from her peers, and she said it was a great comfort to know that “there were others out there like [me].” Feeling understood and normal, perhaps for the first time, is a powerful experience, so it’s no surprise someone in this situation would react negatively to the idea that the place where they finally fit isn’t real.
3. We want simple ways to understand other people.
After all, understanding and relating to other people is hard. If it were easy, books and services about navigating relationships of all kinds wouldn’t be a multi-million dollar industry. It is tempting to wish for a simple shorthand that would provide us with a wealth of information, something that would allow us to understand someone’s tendencies and motives at a glance, saving us the hard work of trial and error and awkwardness as we get to know them.
This is just what tests like the MBTI and Enneagram purport to do. In theory, knowing someone’s MBTI type or Enneagram number allows us to quickly and easily understand them and respond to them in a way that allows for smooth social interactions.
And it makes sense to us that people would fall into such clear categories. We naturally categorize everything we encounter, and we use those categories to help us make sense of the world around us quickly and with minimal energy.
When we encounter a person, situation, or object, we store information about them in something called a schema—a mental representation of what that person, situation, or object is like. Over time, through many experiences, we develop a rich set of ideas and expectations about people we perceive to belong to a certain category.
When we interact with a person we know to be a member of a particular category or someone who seems like they belong to a category for which we have a schema, that schema is automatically activated and, like a script, guides our interactions with them. If we are familiar with the personality types in these systems, once a person tells us they are an ISFJ or a 7, we have a built-in template for how to understand them. Or at least that’s the idea.
However, an important thing about schema-driven behavior is that it can lead us to make incorrect assumptions about someone based on what we think people in that category are like; generalizations are efficient, but not always correct. In other words, these social road maps are only as useful as their content is accurate. If MBTI and Enneagram types don’t actually capture real differences between us, they have much less practical utility than it seems on the surface.
But wait; there's more!
This post explored three reasons we are motivated to take personality tests and invest in our results. However, this is only half the story when it comes to understanding why people can be so reluctant to acknowledge that their personality type doesn't actually describe them well. In the next post, I will show you two reasons your personality feedback might feel very accurate even when it's not.