Personality

Don't Let Your Children Take the Myers-Briggs

Type-based tests are not scientific.

Posted May 27, 2020

Type-based personality tests like Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Enneagram, although popular, do not meet the standards of "good" science. First, from a psychological perspective, there is no such thing as a personality "type." That's not how personality is conceptualized nor how it works; it's a gross oversimplification. Personality is influenced by situations, context, unresolved trauma, and many other factors. 

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. But with modern, more robust research methods, most of these older typological claims are turning out to be spurious."

Other psychologists have gone as far as saying that type-based personality profiles are no more scientific than horoscopes. Rather than viewing personality as an isolated entity or trait which is "hardwired" at birth, as Katharine Briggs viewed it, The Big Five theory of personality views each personality trait as a spectrum wherein a person scores a percentile rank on various characteristics such as extroversion.

Whatever "score" you get is based on many factors. Indeed, research has shown that the conditions in which you take a personality test can greatly influence the way you answer the questions, and thus, the score you get. Other research shows that your personality will change over your lifetime regardless of intention. And further research shows that personality can even make sudden changes, based on situations or experiences.

Put simply, the notion that personality is "hardwired" or fixed simply isn't accurate. Moreover, viewing personality as rigid "types" in which a person nicely and neatly fits is also an inaccurate view of personality. Even Carl Jung, on whose work the Myers-Briggs test purports to base itself, said, "There is no such thing as a pure introvert or extrovert. Such a person would be in the lunatic asylum." 

And this brings me to a core problem with type-based personality tests, and why you should not give them to your children, or yourself.

Identity vs. Personality

Identity and personality are two different constructs. Identity is much deeper and is how you view and explain yourself. Identity is generally conceived in the form of stories or narrations about oneself. Personality, on the other hand, is how a person consistently acts and or responds to various situations. 

Identity predicts behavior, and behavior over time reflects personality. Research by Daniel Gilbert at Harvard has shown that people's views of themselves over a 10-year period change. When asked if they believe they are the same person they were 10 years ago, most people disagree. In other words, over the course of a decade (or less), your views of yourself will change and adjust. As those self-views change, your behavior and, thus, your personality, will change. 

Ideally, identity should be held more loosely, and viewed as flexible. In other words, don't turn your current identity into concrete. Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who coined the terms "fixed mindset" and "growth mindset," has found that those with a fixed mindset view themselves as "unchangeable." They are purely defined by where they are right now. She calls this experience being trapped in "the tyranny of now," because wherever you are now as a person is always and forever who you'll be — at least, from the perspective of the fixed mindset.

Conversely, those with a growth mindset do not define themselves by who they are now, but instead see themselves as changing and developing. Dweck says those with a growth mindset get to "luxuriate in the power of yet." If you fail a test or if you don't reach a goal, you're not defined by where you are now, but instead, see that you can become much more. 

Most people, it seems, have a fixed mindset about themselves. In a TED Talk, Gilbert says, "Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they are finished." 

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, has 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." Paul Graham, the venture capitalist and essayist, said, "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

Here's what might happen when you take a type-based test seriously: You adopt a label about yourself. That label then becomes a deep aspect of your identity and narrative about yourself, which narrative becomes something you defend against criticism. Labels can lead to what Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer calls mindlessness: "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."

Type-based personality tests are not scientific. But they may encourage people to have a fixed mindset about themselves because rather than explaining personality, they give people a sense of identity in the form of a "type" or "category." Once people have made something an aspect of their identity, they can become blind or mindless to all the times when the label is false. They can also defend it because their identity is sacred to them. Rather than considering who their "future self" is and striving for growth, a person can justify mediocre performance by saying, "I'm a [fill in the blank]."

The question is, why would a parent ever want to encourage their child to have a fixed mindset? As a parent of five, I don't believe any parent genuinely would want to. But that's the risk of taking type-based personality tests seriously, or of taking any labels seriously. Indeed, as Peggy O'Mara has said, “The way we talk to our child becomes their inner voice.”

Facebook image: Marko Aliaksandr/Shutterstock

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.

Gilbert, D. (2014). The psychology of your future self. Filmed March.

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.

McAdams, D. P., & McLean, K. C. (2013). Narrative identity. Current directions in psychological science, 22(3), 233-238.

McAdams, D. P., & Olson, B. D. (2010). Personality development: Continuity and change over the life course. Annual review of psychology, 61, 517-542.

Quoidbach, J., Gilbert, D. T., & Wilson, T. D. (2013). The end of history illusion. science, 339(6115), 96-98.

Stieger, M., Wepfer, S., Rüegger, D., Kowatsch, T., Roberts, B. W., & Allemand, M. (2020). Becoming More Conscientious or More Open to Experience? Effects of a Two‐Week Smartphone‐Based Intervention for Personality Change. European Journal of Personality.

Wilmot, M. P., Haslam, N., Tian, J., & Ones, D. S. (2019). Direct and conceptual replications of the taxometric analysis of type a behavior. Journal of personality and social psychology, 116(3), e12.