Relationships

Why Basing Relationships on MBTI Can Be Shallow

People aren't simple enough for a stereotype.

Posted May 28, 2020

After explaining to people the unscientific nature of type-based personality tests like Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Enneagram, the common responses I get back are these:

  • I agree these tests may not be that scientific.
  • I agree that labeling people can limit people's mindset, goals, and future.
  • I agree that labels aren't always accurate.
  • I agree that these tests don't tell the full story.
  • I agree that context greatly matters.
  • However... what these tests do very well is to show people their natural strengths and help them know how to relate to other people.

The author James Clear rightly said, "The more sacred an idea is to us—that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity—the more strongly we will defend it against criticism." If you've made these tests an aspect of your identity, or anything for that matter, you'll do anything you can to confirm your bias and validate your position. That's what we do as people for anything we believe in.

Without question, people do get some value out of type-based personality tests. They seem both entertaining and enlightening at the same time. Michael Wilmot, who studies the theoretical structure of personality assessments, stated, "The thing about personality types is that they're very interesting to talk about and they have been an object of public fascination for ages."

The Pros and Cons of Heuristics (Mental Shortcuts)

People have been trying to "organize" and "categorize" themselves and others into a nicely tailored theory that always fits and always works for a long time. As human beings, our brains have evolved to use heuristic techniques, which are mental shortcuts that ease the cognitive load of making a decision. Heuristics are amazing and necessary and allow us to develop predictions and often, although imperfectly, be right. Of course, heuristics are biased and based on your current understanding, background, knowledge, and agenda. Heuristics are not guaranteed to be optimal or rational, but can nevertheless serve to reach an immediate, short-term goal. 

That final statement is crucial. Heuristics are limited and are often irrational, but they can serve immediate and short-term objectives. 

This is why people enjoy MTBI and other type-based tests. They create a simple heuristic for "understanding" people. In other words, they create a stereotype that allows for mental shortcuts when working with people. If your intention in a particular relationship is "short-term," and if you're just trying to get "immediate" results out of a person, rather than deep connection and transformation, then these tests may be of use.

The heuristic or "insight" created by type-based personality tests, however, may lead to overconfidence. You may think you know more about people than you actually do. As Adam Grant, professor of organizational psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, 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."

Heuristics Aren't as Effective in Long-Term Relationships

However, when it comes to long-term and deeper relationships, basing your interactions with someone on their score of a type-based personality test or upon any heuristic can be detrimental. Firstly, research shows that people change over time, regardless of intention. However, just because someone has changed doesn't mean you can perceive that change.

Often, your bias or perception of a person can lead you to be mindless about the changes or variability in the other person's behavior. You can mistakenly believe they are still the same exact person they were when, in reality, they are not at all. You can also make this mindless mistake in regard to yourself.

I've made this mistake plenty of times with my own kids. My wife and I adopted three children (siblings) from the foster system during my Ph.D. program. Our oldest son, now 12, has a tendency to try to get out of his chores or homework. One day, when he was trying to get out of a particular task, I was triggered: "Why are you always trying to get out of stuff?" I asked him, frustrated. My wife quickly entered, "Ben, stop. Don't talk to him like that. But also, you're wrong. He doesn't always try to get out of stuff."

She then directed my attention to our son's behavior that very morning, when he was incredibly proactive and on-task. She further pointed my attention to his overall behavior over the past six months. In mindfully reflecting, I was humbled and could see her point. I could also see and appreciate the growth and development of my son, which my bias had led me to miss or underappreciate.

Selective attention is how our conscious awareness works. We notice what we've been conditioned to notice, which can stop us from seeing what is actually there. Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist who has studied mindfulness over the past 40+ years, said this:

"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."

Mindfulness is a skill to be developed. It's essential, and it involves being aware of context and variability or changes in that context. Rather than defaulting mindlessly to your common way of seeing things, mindfulness means you choose to be aware of what is actually going on. This can be a difficult skill for people to develop, especially for people who assume their view of reality is correct.

Situations Largely Predict Behavior

Another reason heuristics, if unchecked, can be detrimental in long-term relationships is because people often act based on situational factors. According to Stanford psychologist Lee Ross, “We see consistency in everyday life because of the power of the situation. Ross further explains: “People are predictable, that’s true… But they’re predictable because we see them in situations where their behavior is constrained by that situation and the roles they’re occupying and the relationships they have with us.”

Put simply, people's actions and behaviors, and even personality, are contextual. People act consistently in context. If they are in the same roles and situations, you'll likely see regularity. But in long-term and deeper relationships, the challenge is that you're in multiple scenarios with a person.

Marriage, as an example, is a relationship wherein both parties can deal with financial challenges, health challenges, moving locations, rearing children, and many more things. Given the complexity of the relationship, your MTBI score will rarely be something you can fall back for predicting yourself or another person's outcomes and behaviors.

Situations are powerful. As Ellen Langer further explains, “Social psychologists argue that who we are at any one time depends mostly on the context in which we find ourselves."

Heuristics in Hiring and Workplace Culture

A recent New York Times article, "Personality Tests Are the Astrology of the Office," broached the subject of type-based personality tests in the workplace. The writer, Emma Goldberg, provides a perspective on the questionable scientific nature of these tests but also explains why corporate America has been so fast to adopt these tests. As she states:

Personality assessments short-circuit the messiness of building what is now referred to as a “culture.” They deliver on all the complexities of interpersonal office dynamics, but without the intimate, and expensive, process of actually speaking with employees to determine their quirks and preferences.

Myers-Briggs makes human resources into an algorithm: Give your employee an online quiz, and within minutes you’ll know whether they’re social (E) or quiet (I), interested in details (S) or the big picture (N). Forget all the messy, expensive team off-sites and one-on-ones—how much easier is it to compress assessments into four little letters, puzzle pieces on the page? It’s H.R. tailor-made for the Buzzfeed quiz generation.

Research has already shown that MTBI is not a useful tool for predicting performance at work. For long-term and deeper relationships wherein you're engaged with a person through multiple challenges and scenarios, your mental shortcut may backfire. 

Just because someone has a certain characteristic doesn't mean they fit every aspect of the group or "category" they may be fitted to. For example, just because someone is a particular race or gender or part of a particular religious group doesn't mean they are exactly the same as everyone in that category. Stereotyping and ignorance can often be a case of unchecked heuristics. 

References

Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones. Penguin.

Emre, M. (2018). The personality brokers: The strange history of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing. Random House Canada.

Gardner, W. L., & Martinko, M. J. (1996). Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to study managers: A literature review and research agenda. Journal of Management, 22(1), 45-83.

Goldberg, E. (2019). Personality tests are the astrology of the office. New York Times.

Harris, M. A., Brett, C. E., Johnson, W., & Deary, I. J. (2016). Personality stability from age 14 to age 77 years. Psychology and aging, 31(8), 862.

Helson, R., & Soto, C. J. (2005). Up and down in middle age: monotonic and nonmonotonic changes in roles, status, and personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89(2), 194.

Hudson, N. W., & Fraley, R. C. (2015). Volitional personality trait change: Can people choose to change their personality traits?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 109(3), 490.

Langer, E. J. (2014). Mindfulness. Da Capo Lifelong Books.

Paul, A. M. (2010). The cult of personality testing: How personality tests are leading us to miseducate our children, mismanage our companies, and misunderstand ourselves. Simon and Schuster.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (2011). The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. Pinter & Martin Publishers.