Bullish: F*ck Corporate Personality Tests and Take Control of Your Personality

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!”?)

Share This Post:
    • Lindsay Cross

      When I was in high school, there was some test where each answer corresponded with a color. The color you had the most of was the type of personality you most exhibited. He arranged the colors in a box. (Sorry, I know this is a little confusing to explain.) He said that our second highest scored color would be connected to our first color, either right/left or up/down. Everyone acted like he was a magician who knew us really well.

      Except my two highest scores were diagonal. When I told the teacher this, his response was, “Umm…. that doesn’t happen.” Except it did. So either I’m extremely exceptional (not likely) or the test was crap (more likely).

    • Lilit Marcus

      We had similar tests when I was in school. I was pretty sure they were sponsored by the military because they matched your skill set up with a branch of the armed forces. Just a theory, though.

    • porkchop

      I loved that you found so much positive material in the MBTI even though you don’t really trust it.

      It’s true that some of the descriptions are flattering (as an INFJ, I can apparently read minds and predict the future). Jung is known for a positive viewpoint of personality (despite his (I am totally oversimplifying) view that personality is fixed for life). It’s designed to be a positive spin on neutral. Myers and Myers describe INTJ as “determined to the point of stubborness” which isn’t really a complement or an insult, though it may feel like one or the other. (your views on changing yourself, striving to get better results from yourself, and even your tree analogy, are SO ADLERIAN. Alfred Adler is my fave!)

      In the corporate world, the MBTI can be dumbed down to the point of insult–a glorified horoscope is an excellent description. For a true administration, you have to take the inventory without seeing the results, then talk to someone educated in the theory and come up with your own letters, then discuss your inventory results. Also, the letters aren’t meant to be an excuse for your behavior. People think that a preference for Feeling over Thinking gives them permission to ignore evidence, but really it’s giving them a reason to ask, when making decisions, whether they could make a better decision by seeking evidence.

      Interesting facts about the MBTI include that INTJs, followed by INFJs, are the best performers in school and that standardized tests are usually written by these types. The tendency to use of sensory information (S), and to second guess oneself (P) are actually punished in school.

      Anyway. That is what I learned in counseling school…

      The MBTI is really useful (not least for the reasons you explained) but people either treat it like the be-all-end-all or else oversimplify it until it’s just a parlor game.

      • Jen Dziura

        Ha! Thank you for this. The INTJ / standardized test connection is certainly a new one on me.

    • Sam

      We had a test like that in my middle school too that we had to take every. single. year. It was always total B.S. – one time, it told my brother that he would be a great window washer.

    • eEv

      I read an article recently– tried to find the link and was not able, but it was saying that if you focus on defining your personality, you’re only limiting yourself. I much prefer your method of working on improving things that need to be improved, rather than just going “Oh, I’m a such-and-such type so I’ll never be good at that.”

    • Simon Bostock
    • Anj

      The MBTI is definitely a useful tool for general guidelines about your personality. The key is to use the test to build upon strengths and identify weaknesses you can work on. As with any self-reporting, there is a good chance you’re going to misrepresent yourself.

      As with any test, its important to take the results with a grain of salt. I think the people that administer these tests and the companies that offer them have to play up the benefits and validity of the test but that doesn’t mean that they are the definitive measure of your personality. Labeling of any kind is counterproductive and should be discouraged!

      I don’t really know if anyone in psychology or counseling (I’m a counselor) really stresses the MBTI or tests like it because we know that personality is dynamic and can be changed. Its really the companies that offer the tests that play it up!