The who, what, why of personality tests: A search for self-discovery

Who am I?

The way in which you approach this question, the very contents of your response — this will all vary depending on the type of person you are.

It’s your fundamental characteristics, or in other words, your personality, that help shape and define your every thought and action. So it’s no surprise that those who strive for an adequate response to this question tend to find solace in personality tests, which aim to assist individuals in their mission to better understand who they are and why.

The concept of personalities has been around for a long time, originating in early Greek civilization when the physician Hippocrates suggested that personalities could be divided into four different temperaments based on the balance of “humors,” or bodily fluids, in the human body. For instance, too much blood in one’s veins meant they were sanguine and gregarious, while an excess of phlegm resulted in an apathetic nature. More black bile in the body correlated with a melancholic disposition while yellow bile reflected an individual’s choleric or bad-tempered personality.

Later in the 1800s with the rise of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, more researchers began to pay attention to the idea that one’s behavior and personality were the result of innate needs that differed from one individual to another. The 1900s saw an increased prevalence of personality assessments, leading to one of the most well-known tests in the industry — the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI.

The MBTI is now used and referenced all over, from workplaces and classrooms to the media and more. It’s a self-report questionnaire designed to assess the psychological preferences of an individual and categorize them into one of 16 types, all grounded on four psychological functions (based on an earlier theory by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung) — sensation, intuition, feeling and thinking.

However, it’s long been proven that the MBTI is unscientifically sound, with little to no validity and reliability. The original creators of the MBTI, Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers, never had any formal training in psychology or testing.

Furthermore, such personality tests offer an overly simplistic and limited view of human personality — we can’t logically be defined by and categorized into just a few mutually exclusive labels (such as extroversion or introversion, thinking or feeling). So why are such tests still so widely accepted?

Furthermore, such personality tests offer an overly simplistic and limited view of human personality — we can’t logically be defined by and categorized into just a few mutually exclusive labels (such as extroversion or introversion, thinking or feeling).

Part of the reason could be the self-reinforcing nature of such tests in the multibillion dollar industry of personality testing. People use it because lots of other people use it. Countless social media trends are a testament to this phenomenon — popularity breeds popularity.

According to the Myers-Briggs Company, the MBTI is used by more than 88% of Fortune 500 companies across the world. Many companies take the results of this tool into consideration during hiring practices and assessment of their employees’ work styles. So as more and more companies utilize personality tests, others will follow.

Another possibility is that it can be surprisingly satisfying, even fun, to put ourselves in categories that claim to accurately represent who we are. Personality tests appeal to our vanity and curiosity, but even more importantly, to something deep within ourselves.

It is our innate desire as human beings to be seen and understood. Personality tests provide us with this small bit of insight into ourselves and others like us, and in doing so, they give us an opportunity to connect with others and find our own tribe.

The popularity of the MBTI has led to a rise in online community-building groups (on sites such as Meetup) and public gatherings based on personality types. People come together because they’re of the same type and bond with one another over not just common interests and hobbies, but of their shared minds. As the old proverb goes, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

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