Two Reasons Personality Tests Like Myers-Briggs Could Be Harmful
Tests like MBTI and Enneagram might promote less flexible thinking.
Posted Apr 06, 2020
In the 2018 book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Dr. Merve Emre explains that personality testing has become a $2 billion industry, with the Myers-Briggs test being the most popular of all.
Interestingly, neither Katharine Briggs nor her daughter, Isabel Myers, had any training in psychology, psychiatry, or testing. Neither worked in a laboratory or academic institution. Since access to universities for women was limited, the two developed their system from home.
Katherine Briggs used personal experience to develop her theories in the early 1900s, seeing differences between herself and her spouse, as well as her two children. According to Briggs, a person can put themselves through a lot of psychological pain by trying to solve incompatibilities. Briggs proposed that the differences in how people respond to life are innate and unchangeable. They are hardwired dispositions to be recognized and accommodated.
Although interesting and perhaps even entertaining, these "type-based" tests are unscientific, do not validly nor reliably measure "personality," and could plausibly lead people to become inflexible learners with a fixed mindset.
This article briefly shares two reasons "type-based" personality tests, like Myers-Briggs and Enneagram, should be not be taken seriously.
1. The Tests Are Not Scientific
Dr. Adam Grant explained, “The Myers-Briggs is like asking people what do you like more: shoelaces or earrings? You tend to infer that there’s going to be an ‘aha!’ even though it’s not a valid question. ... [It] creates the illusion of expertise about psychology.”
In social science, there are four standards through which a test is rated: Are the categories reliable, valid, independent, and comprehensive? If the answer is "no," then the test or measure should not be taken seriously.
The term "reliability" in psychological research refers to the consistency of a research study or measuring test. For instance, if a person weighs themselves throughout the course of a day, they would expect to see a similar reading. Scales that measured weight differently each time would be of little use. And that's the very challenge with most personality measures, particularly type-based tests like Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, and others that overly categorize people. They aren't very valid, for one, but they are also highly unreliable.
2. The Tests May Lead To "Mindlessness" And Inflexibility
Personality tests like Myers-Briggs give people labels. Those labels are often taken at face value and used as a fundamental aspect of a person's identity. "I am a [fill in the blank]."
Labels create tunnel vision, or "selective attention." Assuming a label can lead you to be “mindless,” stopping you from seeing all of the times the label isn’t true. As Harvard psychologist and mindfulness expert Dr. Ellen Langer has said, “If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration... When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time. Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case.”
When you've overly assumed a label, you believe that label is always true, which it's not. In different contexts, you will likely display attitudes and behaviors contrary to the label. But because you see the label as who you are, or as important, you may not give heed to those instances when the label doesn't fit.
Research shows that labeling or diagnosing can be helpful for practitioners for guiding therapy. However, these labels should rarely be given to clients. The label can become infused as a significant aspect of the client’s identity, greatly limiting their capacity to change.
Finally, when you've assumed a label, you will likely set goals and make decisions to confirm the label, rather than set goals and make decisions to disconfirm it.
Type-based personality tests like Myers-Briggs and similar others often fail to meet standards of good science. Moreover, when taken seriously, the label or "type" given by such tests can become an integral part of someone's identity. When that's the case, they will likely become less mindful of instances when the label is not true and become inflexible with regard to situations or goals that don't fit the label.
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Paul Graham, “Keep Your Identity Small,” February 2009, www.paulgraham.com/identity.html.
Ellen J. Langer, The Power of Mindful Learning (Boston: Lifelong Books/A Merloyd Lawrence Book, 2016; originally published 1997).
Merve Emre, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (New York: Doubleday, 2018).
Miller, William R., and Stephen Rollnick. Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. Guilford press, 2012.