Who Are You? The Lure and Limitations of Personality Tests

Jennifer Walter, Discover magazine, discusses the validity of personality tests. July 2020.

Are you more of a Gryffindor than a Slytherin, or a Phoebe than a Monica? Yes, we’re talking Harry Potter and Friends here, and you might know the answer if you’re a fan of themed personality quizzes. From the pages of teen magazines to the annals of Buzzfeed, they’re a staple in popular culture. But why do we love them so much?

There’s a certain excitement that comes with taking personality tests, says Hillary Anger Elfenbein, a professor of organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis. As she puts it, they’re “like holding the mirror up to yourself and trying to see yourself the way the world sees you.” 

Often in scientific research, academics use the Big Five model to measure personality using five overarching traits: conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism, openness and extroversion. “These are basically big-picture categories, and there are a lot of smaller, more focused personality traits that fall within these five,” Elfenbein explains. 

But many popular personality tests, from the Myers-Briggs to the ones that populate your social media feeds, lack rigorous science. Still, the tests can be fun, and your results insightful — but you may need to take them with a grain of salt. 

Seeking Validation

Most popular personality quizzes give us a positive outlook on ourselves, and rarely highlight the negatives. It simply “feels good to say good things about yourself,” says Chris Soto, an associate professor of psychology at Colby College in Maine. The Myers-Briggs, for example, puts test-takers into one of 16 personality types, with unique traits that highlight a person’s “particular type of awesome,” as Soto puts it. 

“We all have beliefs about what we’re like, what our personality is like [and] what our behavior is like,” he explains. “And it just feels good to get feedback that lets you know that those beliefs are accurate.” Whether that feedback comes from a personality test or thoughtful remarks from a friend, self-validation is a powerful confidence booster.

But not everyone seeks out personality tests just to surround themselves in an echo chamber of good feelings. Sometimes, we take them to gain insight about ourselves, and to look for outside perspective to better understand where we fit in society. 

“What’s fun is trying to understand yourself through these frameworks,” Elfenbein says. “You get self-insight into not just why you do the things you do, but why … other people do the things they do.” And that perspective can do more than satisfy your personal curiosity. 

Historically, personality tests have been used as a tool to help some businesses make hiring decisions and devise activities. The practice is still prevalent today, despite the fact that some popular corporate personality tests aren’t modeled after the Big Five traits.

Read more: https://www.discovermagazine.com/mind/who-are-you-the-lure-and-limitations-of-personality-tests

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