Are Personality Tests Helpful or Damaging?

Before the age of the internet, self-discovery meant pulling out a journal and doing some soul-searching. Nowadays, all it takes is a quick Google search.

Type ‘personality test’ into any search engine and you will find page after page of results, with each test swearing that it will uncover ‘the real you’. 

Personality tests can range from the sublime to the ridiculous, covering the more playful topics (‘Which Stranger Things character are you?’) to more serious assessments promising eye-opening results (the popular Myers-Briggs test, The Big Five and Enneagram, just to name a few).

In fact, some of these tests have even become powerful employment tools. According to Karen Mills of the American Psychological Association, 79% of human resource professionals utilise personality testing when it comes to making external hiring decisions. 

However, the reactions to personality assessments haven’t been entirely positive. Branded as unreliable by critics, and even viewed as unethical in the workplace, the value of personality testing is still largely up for debate. 

How Accurate is Personality Testing? 

To offer a quick disclaimer, I will admit that I am a big fan of personality tests for the simple fact that they are fun. There’s something exciting about holding up a mirror to my personality and trying to see myself through the eyes of others. However, even I have to admit that the accuracy of personality tests is questionable, to say the least. 

Firstly, most personality tests available online have little to no scientific basis. Let’s take a look at the Myers-Briggs test, for example. As the world’s most popular personality quiz, the MBTI test is frequently used for both personal development and to judge employability.

The test involves assessing participants based on their affinity for Introversion (I) or Extroversion (E), Intuition (N) or Sensing (S), Feeling (F) or Thinking (T) and Perceiving (P) or Judging (J).

After answering a steady stream of questions, you will be sorted into one of 16 categories and given a four-letter code – your ‘personality type’. For example, according to the Myers-Briggs test, I am an ENFJ – this means that I am generally highly extroverted, future-oriented and interested in connecting with other people. 

Created by mother-daughter duo Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, the test drew on influences from Carl Jung’s typology, as seen in the 1921 publication Psychological Types. However, the test is rarely endorsed by scientists and psychologists due to its failure to meet numerous scientific criteria, including reliability. 

If personality tests were reliable from a scientific perspective, then users should be able to test and retest – whilst still receiving the same results. This is not the case as, according to David J. Pittenger, around 50% of people test differently upon taking the MBTI assessment a second time. 

This is largely because the test relies purely upon our own knowledge of the self. Being honest with ourselves about our flaws is a difficult thing to do and, equally, it is easy to overlook our good points and be overly critical.

Fundamentally, personality tests rely on our ability to be fully transparent and have an already-established sense of self, which is not always the case. 

Additionally, we may respond differently to tests based on our environment. Someone who is struggling with anxiety may be more likely to test as an introvert or fall higher on the ‘neuroticism’ scale using the Big Five Test, for example.

Later, the same person may find themselves testing as an extrovert or displaying lower levels of neuroticism after leaving the stressful situation. 

In a nutshell, consistently accurate personality testing relies upon our ability to understand ourselves from an objective perspective, which is extremely tricky. 

What About Personality Tests in the Workplace? 

Aside from questionable scientific reliability, personality assessments could pose potentially damaging effects when used incorrectly. A huge example of this is personality testing in the workplace, with an increasing amount of employers introducing some form of personality assessment into the recruitment process. 

When used correctly, personality tests can be a very useful way to ensure job satisfaction, increase diversity and improve working relationships. 

However, when too much value is placed on a personality assessment, the results can be much more damaging. For instance, Dr. Benjamin Hardy in Psychology Today suggests that personality testing could promote ‘mindlessness and inflexibility’ when used in an unhealthy way, discouraging people from growth and evolution and instead forcing us to ‘assume labels’ and restricting our capacity for change. 

To illustrate, the traits associated with working in hospitality are usually similar to the traits associated with extroversion: strong conversational skills, social confidence and high levels of energy.

That isn’t to say that an introvert would be unable to perform just as well in a hospitality position as an extrovert, as they would be trained to behave according to the work context. However, if an introvert is labeled as unsuitable for a hospitality role simply because of a personality assessment, this could hugely restrict their growth and prevent them from seeking jobs in areas where they could thrive. 

Rather than using personality testing as a deciding factor, therefore, it is important to remember that people behave differently based on context. Instead, personality testing should be more of a compliment to traditional assessors, such as qualifications and experience.

If we treat personality tests as law, we risk stereotyping individuals and creating further discrimination based on assumed ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable’ traits that may have no impact on work performance whatsoever. 

Using Personality Testing in a Healthy Way 

Personality tests can be a useful (and enjoyable!) way to find out more about ourselves and grow as people. Of course, this means making use of balance and taking your results with a pinch of salt.

In this regard, it is always great to use personality tests in combination with other forms of soul-searching – journalling, meditation, self-help books and more are all great ways to connect with your inner self and grow as a person.

The key takeaway? Personality tests can be a fun and helpful way to discover new career possibilities, identify areas of improvement and even develop a greater understanding of other people – so long as we view them as providing a piece of a puzzle rather than the entire picture.

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