Every couple of years when I was in elementary school in Virginia, my whole class would answer a questionnaire about our skills and interests. Two weeks or so later, we would receive recommendations of careers we would enjoy. Someone told me the test had been developed by the Boy Scouts, and that seemed to make sense, because I had read a few Hardy Boys novels, and it seemed to me that the test had been developed by the Boy Scouts circa 1955.
The options for “interests” included hunting, fishing, black powder shooting, backgammon, animal husbandry, and 20 different sports. Every year, I checked “reading” and shrugged. When the results came back, we all giggled at whoever had been told they’d make a good mortician, which was about 40% of us: I later surmised that the test was a bit of propaganda aimed towards shuffling students into our nation’s underserved occupations. (Do you like the decathalon? You would be an amazing home health aide.)
I couldn’t help but think of this when ordered to take a Myers-Briggs personality test. (Have you heard people talking about being an ENTP or something and wondered what club you had not been initiated into? Yep, here we are.) It costs about $30 to take a real Myers-Briggs Personality Test online (you can Google it and bargain shop), but you can take a short free quiz based on the Myers-Briggs here.
I got my results and looked up a bit more information (try this site). I laughed when I read, “When it comes to their own areas of expertise — and INTJs can have several — they will be able to tell you almost immediately whether or not they can help you, and if so, how. INTJs know what they know, and perhaps still more importantly, they know what they don’t know.” (I have written numerous times about how saying “I don’t know” builds credibility for the things on which you are an expert). Also: “Anyone considered to be ‘slacking,’ including superiors, will lose their respect — and will generally be made aware of this.” (My thoughts on lateness are a matter of public record).
But then I kept reading, and realized that I was just enjoying being flattered. For instance, “Many INTJs also find it useful to learn to simulate some degree of surface conformism in order to mask their inherent unconventionality.” I find this accurate (wouldn’t anyone?), but I also find it flattering. Lots of people like to think they’re more special than they are, even when their corporate drone facade pretty much is their real self. It’s very Revolutionary Road. And if I have trouble in my romantic relationships, it’s because I unrealistically expect other people to be reasonable? I get to be Spock and all my ex-boyfriends are screaming banshees? That’s a lovely whitewash, although I’m sure all my ex-boyfriends’ personality-type profiles say equally lovely things about them. And then I realized:
These are just horoscopes for WASPs.
While many employees are made to take the Myers-Briggs as part of their jobs — so we can all learn the strengths of our individual differences and the glorious rainbow of humanity that makes us human like a diversity-rainbow of individual strengths that are diverse like a rainbow — many researchers have pointed out that the test is flawed in that it doesn’t account for lying (there are other tests that do) and relies on individuals’ self-assessment, which is fine for questions like, “I like being in crowds” and not so good for questions like, “I am good at seeing the long-term consequences of my actions.” Few people with poor perception can, um … perceive that they have poor perception.
More importantly, though, Myers-Briggs results are not falsifiable. Much like the belief that God causes everything that happens and that it’s all for the best. (“Then why did this child have to die?” God was teaching the rest of us to love each other more. “Then what if the child had lived?” God would have been giving us a miracle!) When every possible result can be interpreted in support of a theory, that theory lacks falsifiability, which doesn’t so much bother some religious people, but is a serious problem for a psychological test. Much as we do with horoscopes, people tend to focus on the parts of their Myers-Briggs reports that they like, and most of us can see a part of ourselves even in the bits that don’t give us goosebumps.
Finally, because I teach test prep, I know that many, many people really don’t understand the difference between these two questions:
Should society be governed based more on justice or on mercy?
Which makes you feel fuzzier inside right now, justice or mercy?
So, I think personality test results have some serious problems. (And in the end, isn’t it a little tautological if I ask you if you like to be alone, and you say yes, and then I say, “Amazingly, you’re an introvert!” and then you say “OMG! How uncanny!”?)