PERSONALITY TESTS


Keirsey.com promised that the discovery of my personality type would be a quiet moment of self-revelation; but for me it was more like a quiet moment of self-love. I became engorged with pride at my own personality description; I fell in love with the passionate, sensitive, loving, intelligent, and yet cruelly overlooked creature it described. I was an INFP, an Introverted iNtuitive Feeling Perceiver, a "Healer Idealist", a poet and visionary, a modern-day Sir Galahad, the second coming of Jesus. I was an INFP, and as I did the personality test several times more, I deliberately answered to make myself even more an INFP. And each time I just got more confirmation of what I wanted.

That was several years ago. Last week I took the Keirsey test again, in a slightly different frame of mind. These days, keirsey.com demands that I hand over cash for an evaluation, but it was obvious from my answers that I was now instead an ISTP -- a "Crafter Artisan", which I think you will agree is something of a fall from grace. I'm no longer Jesus, but a carpenter with airs; and worse still, I've lost all my Idealism and joined the Artisanal classes. Oh, the humiliation! According to Keirsey, this is not just a change of personality, but a wholesale change of temperament. Should I be worried? Has my personality really changed? Well, my parents still seem to recognise me. I've kept many of my friends from the INFP era, and they haven't said anything. Maybe I'm still presenting a false INFP face to the world? Maybe I have multiple personality disorder? Or maybe all that's happened is that in the meantime I've become far more skeptical of personality tests, and less likely to answer like the starry-eyed dreamer who believes in them.

Personality tests like these are pure pseudoscience. The Keirsey test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Enneagram and the like are all pretty much exactly as well-founded as the medieval theory of the four humours, though they have less aesthetic appeal. They are based in a half-assed way on the half-assed teachings of Carl Jung, which have largely been abandoned by reputable psychology and are now the domain of new agers, motivational speakers and pop-psychologists. Like many other pseudoscientific scams, personality testing is a miniature industry; the test inevitably comes as part of a package including books, self-help guides, courses, workshops, lecture series, and so on.

More than one scientific analysis has concluded that the Myers-Briggs test (of which the Keirsey test is an obvious rip-off) is about as useless as a test can be: it's based on unfounded premises, measures nothing, and measures it inaccurately. So why do people fall for it? For the same reasons they fall for astrological profiles, palmistry, and psychic mediums. Personality profiles use all the same tricks of the trade. They use open flattery. They exploit the Forer effect by using vague statements that could apply to anyone. They drop in the odd carefully worded "specific" guess, hoping that you will find in it some personal significance by subjective validation. They tell you back what you've just told them and expect you to be impressed. The latter effect is enhanced by the questions, which often present false dilemmas, forcing you to pigeonhole yourself as one "type", which is then parroted back to you. (Here, I point out most of these devices in an actual Keirsey personality description.)

Personality tests would be harmless, or at worst just fucking annoying, if they were confined their proper domain: parlour games, forwarded emails, and livejournals. But sadly, that's not the case. Many US employers use the MBTI to screen out "unsuitable" job applicants or ensure they have the right mix of types. I've also seen the Keirsey.com test used in real psychological research, which adds fuel my suspicion that much psychology is still only on the fringes of science.

In fairness, Myers-Briggs-style tests are a good deal more benign than those tests which attempt to put a hierarchy on the various types, or assign a score to the results. An example is the Emotional Intelligence test popularised by Daniel Goleman. In this personality test, some personalities are clearly better than others. To be "emotionally intelligent" is to be endlessly optimistic, hardworking, motivated, persistent, contented, self-controlled -- in other words, a perfect capitalist factotum, a bad American-dream stereotype -- and to be anything else is to be a dumbass. I need hardly point out the potential ill effects of this test's being taken seriously.

And of course, this article wouldn't be complete without mention of the granddaddy of all psychological profiling scams, the IQ test, which after years of development has probably reached the stage where it can measure one's ability to do IQ tests, but certainly nothing else. If you doubt this, try to grab a Mensa magazine sometime, turn to the letters page, and prepare for a truly shocking display of ignorance, bluster, vanity, credulity, petulance, and mental slackness. Last time I checked, letters ranged from the severely delusional (one member insisting that Mensa should become a political think-tank, so that governments worldwide would turn to its vast brain power for advice) to the sociopathic (another guy was furious that a non-member turned up at a Mensa meeting, and that he had to share a table with someone with an IQ score under 148) to the blatantly anti-intellectual (a senior Mensa official boasted that she never read books; her mind was simply too highly tuned to concentrate on reading one).

It's a fairly sad state of affairs when someone's opportunities in life are determined by their ability to solve a few geometry puzzles, or by their answers to a personality questionnaire. Adam Curtis, in his excellent documentaries The Trap and The Century of the Self, has shown how the drive to reduce human beings and human behaviour to a few convenient, simplistic measures -- lifestyle types, performance targets -- has resulted in the erosion of democracy and the increase of government and corporate control. A real and useful and progressive model of the mind will come, but not from such simplistic attempts to sum it up in a few figures, or a nine-point or even sixteen-point diagram.


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