How Much Credence Do You Give to Personality Tests?

Last night Denisa and I watched Persona, a new documentary out on HBOmax. It focused on the development and rise of personality tests, spending the most time on the Myers-Briggs. It was an interesting look into the history and controversy surrounding them, and I’ll admit I had never really spent that much time thinking about the impact those tests have had and potentially can have in the future. The more I thought about this, the more I realized this is likely in large part due to the fact that I’ve got a personality type and a “profile” that wouldn’t cause any problems for me in my life. The documentary does a fair job illustrating why that might not be the case for everyone.

My experience with Myers-Briggs has always been more on “gee whiz” level of curiosity than anything that I might decide to base my life around. If you’re not immediately familiar with the test, it’s the one that asks you a series of questions of how you’d act in various social situations, and then it gives you a four letter “code” to define what sort of personality type you have. Are you an introvert (I) or an extrovert (E)? Are you thinking (T) or feeling (F)? That sort of thing. I know I’ve taken these tests in the past, but I never really paid that much attention to where I ended up on them. Why would I? I knew there were people who placed more stock in them, but it seemed like an irrelevant thing to me.

I never realized that a growing number of businesses require job applicants to take these tests as part of the application process, however. Then they use the results of these tests to weed out people they feel wouldn’t be a good fit for the position. On the surface, I suppose I can see the logic behind the argument. If they get 500 people who apply for one opening, then if there’s a way to quickly sift through those for the best applications, then why not use it?

Except the tests in question are problematic for many, many reasons. First, they weren’t designed for use in the job application process. They were more designed for use in self-discovery. Second, they were designed based around a limited number of people: mainly educated white men. This places people outside that demographic at risk of having their results misinterpreted. And third . . . they’re personality tests, for crying out loud! I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to be told I wasn’t being considered for a job I really wanted because they thought based on this random test that I’d do poorly in the position. Especially if I have a track record of success in those types of positions.

As the documentary points out: if you have a biased person somewhere in a hiring process, that person can impact maybe a hundred different position searches over the course of their tenure. But if you have a biased automatic algorithm that’s baked into the hiring process, then it can impact every single search it touches across the entire company for years to come. And it’s sometimes very hard to recognize when a fundamental process like that is biased.

This struck me even harder because of some thoughts I’ve been having ever since the pandemic started. I had always considered myself to be an introvert. It’s a label I voluntarily applied to myself, and I think I used that label as a crutch or excuse for why I did certain things. If I didn’t want to go somewhere or interact with a group of people, I’d just do a mental shrug and remind myself I was in introvert, and give myself a pass. But when the pandemic hit and I was cut off from so many other people, I realized I was much more extroverted than I gave myself credit for. I relied on those other interactions to keep myself going.

So was I an extrovert all along? To me, it wasn’t that simple. I dislike the idea that there’s this either/or setting for introvert or extrovert. I think it’s misleading. In some instances, I may be feeling introverted. In others, I may be a total extrovert. I haven’t thought about it enough to figure out which situations call for which response. (I may be self-analytical, but I’m not that self analytical.)

The more I thought about it, the more curious it was to me that I was so willing to apply a label to myself when, generally speaking, I dislike labels. I feel they’re reductive, and they almost never do a good job of explaining why people do what they do. It’s a step away from explaining everything by astrological signs, and maybe it’s even not that big of a step. And yet people willingly buy into these theories and then start framing their life decisions around them.

In the end, if I don’t want to go to a party, I should just not go to the party. I don’t need a label of introvert as an excuse. And if someone wants a job, they should have the chance to apply and interview for the job fair and square, without some whackadoo computer program telling them they’re a bad fit. Am I being overly reductive here? I don’t think so, but of course I’m open to other thoughts on the matter. I recognize my amount of research into this consists of one potentially biased documentary and a lifetime of idle Google searches into the topic . . .


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