Opinion
A personality test can make you cling to a label.
  • Dr. Benjamin Hardy is an organisational psychologist and bestselling author of "Willpower Doesn't Work" and the new book "Personality Isn't Permanent."
  • The following is an excerpt from his new book, "Personality Isn't Permanent," published by Penguin Random House.
  • In it, he writes that many popular personality tests are junk science - and they can make you mindless by leading you to cling to a certain label.
  • Instead, focus on what you'd like to improve about your personality, and use different techniques to strengthen it.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

In the 2018 book "The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing," Dr. Merve Emre explains that personality testing has become a $2 billion industry, with the Myers-Briggs test being the most popular of them all. Interestingly, neither Katharine Briggs nor her daughter, Isabel Myers, had any training in psychology, psychiatry, or testing. Neither ever worked in a laboratory or academic institution. Since access to universities for women was limited, the two developed their system from home, instead of in a lab or at a university.

According to Briggs, a person can put themselves through a lot of psychological pain by trying to solve incompatibilities. Instead of trying to change oneself, Briggs proposed that the differences in how people respond to life are innate and unchangeable. They are hardwired dispositions to be recognised and accommodated. Rather than improving yourself, you just "accept" yourself, and everyone else should as well. Briggs had a "fixed mindset" about people, and you can still see this doctrine in The Myers-Briggs Company.

Interestingly, more recent research shows that 90% of people want to make changes in their personalities. As people, we want to improve ourselves. But non-scientific theories like Briggs' can lead people to believe they literally can't change, because their "core" attributes or "type" is inflexible. Hence, type-based tests that create a label can also create a fixed mindset.

The labels that tests give you can make you mindless

Here's what might happen when you take a type-based test seriously: You adopt a label about yourself. That label then becomes a deep aspect of your identity and narrative about yourself, which narrative becomes something you defend against criticism. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, has said, "The more sacred an idea is to us - that is, the more deeply it is tied to our identity - the more strongly we will defend it against criticism." Paul Graham, the venture capitalist and essayist, said, "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

Benjamin Hardy.
Macbeth Studio
Put simply, these tests give you a label, and labels create tunnel vision, making you mindless. As Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer explains: "If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration ... When people are depressed they tend to believe they are depressed all the time. Mindful attention to variability shows this is not the case."

Research shows that labelling or diagnosing can be helpful for practitioners for guiding therapy. However, these labels should rarely be given to clients. The label becomes infused as a significant aspect of the client's identity, greatly limiting their capacity to change.

Type-based personality tests are junk "science"

Dr. Michael Wilmot, an I-O Psychologist who studies the theoretical structure of personality assessments, stated, "The thing about personality types is that they're very interesting to talk about and they have been an object of public fascination for ages. But with modern, more robust research methods, most of these older typological claims are turning out to be spurious."

"Personality" is far more nuanced and complex than an overly simplified generalisation or category. It's not an isolated trait uninfluenced by context, culture, behaviour, and a thousand other factors. Of this, Dr. Katherine Rogers, a personality psychologist, said, "We know that personality doesn't work in types. . . . I wouldn't trust the Myers and Briggs to tell me any more about my personality than I would trust my horoscope."

In an analysis on the conceptual structure of personality tests, Michael Wilmot, Jingyuan Tian, Nick Haslam, and Deniz Ones show that structuring personality into "types," although fun, is false. There is no such thing as a personality "type."

Personality Isn't Permanent.
Courtesy of Penguin Randomhouse
According to the Big Five theory, "personality" is not viewed as a "type," but rather, as five factors (Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, and Openness to Experience) in which an individual has a percentile rank against the general population. Research shows that wherever you "score" on each of the five factors will change throughout your life

This same analysis by Wilmot, Tian, Haslam, and Ones also shows that wherever you rank on any of the five factors has a great deal to do with the season of life you're in, and is also predicted by the particular roles you're in (e.g., if a role requires higher conscientiousness then you'll see that until you leave that role). Singapore Management University found that work environment and culture can change your personality.

Nathan Hudson and Chris Fraley shows that approximately 90% of the population want to change at least some aspect of their personality for the better. Nathan Hudson and Brent Roberts found that through goal setting and effort, that you can make intentional changes to your personality (e.g., if you want to become more organised, you can do so). Christopher J. Soto shows that if you believe your life is meaningful, then making changes to your personality can come easier.

An article by Mirjam Stieger, Sandro Wepfer, Dominick Ruegger, Tobias Kowatsch, and Brent Roberts discusses how you can make some degree of change in even a two-week intervention targeting a specific aspect of your personality. Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson show over a 10-year period of time, your personality will change a great deal. However, even when people can see the difference between their former and current selves, people often under-predict the level of change they'll experience in the future (i.e., end of history illusion).

Type-based personality tests like Myers-Briggs, DISC, and Enneagram are junk science. There is no such thing as a personality "type." That's a gross oversimplification and stereotype that leads to mindlessness, both about yourself and other people.

Personality Isn't Permanent: Break Free from Self-Limiting Beliefs and Rewrite Your Story by Benjamin Hardy, PhD., published on June 16th by Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. © 2020 by Benjamin Hardy, PhD.

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