What Personality Tests Can (and Can’t) Tell You About Yourself

And why understanding exactly what makes you tick makes it easier, maybe, to just own it.

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Photo by Gracia Lam

Let Me Introduce Myself.

I'm Virginia, and I'm a pitta Taurus introvert Myers-Briggs INTJ. In other words, I'm ruthlessly organized, easily sunburned, quick to make decisions, exhausted by large crowds, assertive, stubborn, and always ready for a big meal. If I were a city, I'd be Paris; a permanent age, I'd be 18; a celebrity, Amy Poehler. This is what the personality tests tell me, and frankly they're not that far off.

Personality science is a relatively young discipline: "The word personality didn't even exist until the 19th century," says Susan Cain, the author of the introvert bible Quiet and the creator of the Quiet Revolution Personality Test. Prior to that, notes Cain, society focused more on character—whether someone was a noble, virtuous person. "But around the turn of the 20th century, we moved from being a culture of character to a culture of personality," she says. This was due at least in part to the Industrial Revolution: Instead of automatically working on the family farm (a job you got simply by being born), Americans began to go out and sell themselves in job interviews at factories and corporations. "Suddenly we began to prize all these external traits, like how engaging or charismatic you are," says Cain. About a hundred years ago, the field of personality science emerged, with the system of psychological archetypes developed by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung.

But many experts say that our tendency to understand ourselves through labels and categories is simply part of our nature. "You see a huge tradition of that in both philosophy and literature," says Joshua Jackson, Ph.D., the director of the Personality Measurement and Development Lab at Washington University, in St. Louis. Once corporations introduced personality testing for new hires, in the 1950s, we became fascinated by the idea that a quiz or a test could tell us something about ourselves that we didn't already know.

Nowadays Google tracks an average of more than 400,000 searches each month for "personality tests"; 89 of the Forbes Top 100 companies turn to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to help them understand their employees; and Cain's book is in its fourth year on the New York Times best-seller list. So it seems fair to say that our fascination with personality science—and its far less scientific iterations—is at an all-time high. The question is: What can personality tests really tell us about ourselves? And why are we so enamored of them? Partly, Jackson says, it's because we crave validation: "We hope these tests will in some way confirm who we think we are."

The Comfort of Labels

Perhaps the only thing better than validating your own personality through a test is getting to pick apart other people's, especially if you're married to them. So once I start taking personality tests, I waste no time in making my husband, Dan, take them, too. We quickly discover that he's a Myers-Briggs ENFP (that is, "extroverted intuitive feeling perceiving"), which apparently means we are almost polar opposites. I report this to Jackson, who suggests that we take the assessment that his research—and most other academic research—focuses on: something called the Big Five Personality Test. "The Big Five is an attempt to boil down the infinite ways people can differ in their everyday tendencies to think, feel, and behave," says Jackson. It began to be developed in the 1930s by psychologists who created a list of thousands of adjectives, then grouped the words into categories to represent major dimensions of human personality. The real draw of the Big Five, in my book, is that you can take the test yourself, or answer every question with someone else's personality in mind, then compare results, so that the person can see what you really think of him. After getting through the 144 questions with Dan, I get why Cain thinks the Big Five assessment and other robustly researched personality tests offer real value. "Understanding ourselves in terms of these traits can give us the language we need to voice preferences and to understand that people with opposite preferences aren't wrong," she says.

Science Schmience

The more tests I take, the less credence I give to any of the results. Part of the problem is that there's a huge variation in the scientific credibility of these assessment tools. Of course, most of us know when taking a Play Buzz quiz about which Harry Potter character we are, not to get too hung up on the results (though it irks me that I'm not Hermione). And while there are many disciples of astrology and Ayurveda, most know—and may even celebrate the fact—that any personality insight found therein has not been validated by Western science.

But when it comes to Myers-Briggs, easily the most popular of all the personality assessments, there's heated debate. "The slick marketing of Myers-Briggs has far outpaced the scientific evidence for using it," says Brian Little, Ph.D., a research professor in the psychology department at the University of Cambridge and the author of Me, Myself and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-being. That weak center goes back to its origins: The assessment was originally plotted out on index cards during World War II by Isabel Briggs Myers, whose mother had introduced her to Jung's work. The women were, at best, armchair psychologists—they had no training—and the test has never been vetted by unbiased third-party researchers. "It's not completely snake oil," says Jackson. "But it's not good science, and they're charging people a lot of money."

Michael Segovia, a master Myers-Briggs trainer for CPP, the tool's publisher, bristles at the criticism: "The research division at CPP is filled with very respectable Ph.D. scientists, and they answer to the Myers family to make sure our instrument is current and scientifically valid."

Still, as Segovia leads me through my Myers-Briggs "feedback session," I can't help but notice that the whole thing feels a little bit like a tarot reading I had when I was pregnant. As the reader laid out my cards, she asked enough questions to casually deduce that I was fervently hoping for a girl—and lo and behold, that's what the cards foretold! Similarly, for each category or "preference pair," as they're known in Myers-Briggs parlance, Segovia reads aloud lengthy descriptions then asks which resonate with me most. Only after I've told him that, yes, I really do prefer thinking to feeling or intuition to sensing, does he reveal that my test results show the same. It feels more like a particularly insightful therapy session than anything else, with Segovia nudging me to consider the pros and cons of each preference pair. "The goal here is not for you to walk out with a tattoo of four letters on your forehead," says Segovia. "All we're doing is identifying your preferences and asking what you were born with and what you learned along the way."

Indeed, talk to many proponents of personality testing and they'll tell you that results aren't meant to be black-and-white. "Nobody is all introvert or all extrovert, just like nobody is all masculine or all feminine," notes Cain. "These are simply concepts that are useful for understanding human nature."

My Label, Myself

Perhaps the biggest problem with any form of personality assessment is that we can't resist thinking of the resulting labels as boxes that we now need to live inside. This is Brian Little's worry about our current cult of personality. "Once you've typed yourself as an extrovert, a neurotic person, or someone who is highly creative or highly uncreative, you begin to experience a foreshortening of a life trajectory you might otherwise have been more open to," he says. "Popular personality tests can stimulate discussion, but they all too often lead to dead ends."

Little believes that we should spend more time attempting to understand the ways in which we don't fit into the boxes—the quirks and idiosyncrasies that he refers to as our "free traits," in contrast to the "fixed traits," or fundamental preferences, that the Big Five and Myers-Briggs attempt to identify. For example, on every personality test that I take, I'm classified as an introvert—but I don't think of myself as all that antisocial. Yes, I prefer to work alone, I'm not great at getting to know my neighbors, and I have a mild fear of public speaking. But I also love to throw dinner parties and host weekend guests, and not just because my extroverted husband has invited them.

Little offers a fascinating and nuanced explanation for the crossover: "We all act out of character when we want to advance a core project," he says. Little himself is an introvert who adores teaching: "Acting the funny prof satisfies a core project in my life—exciting and inspiring my students. I wouldn't be able to do that if I behaved in the introverted way that comes naturally to me." The way to discern whether your behavior in a certain situation is one of your free or fixed traits is to assess how you feel afterward. If you're drained, that was a free trait. If you're energized, that's a fixed one.

So if we're all really a much more complicated mishmash of free and fixed traits, can our personalities evolve over time? Will a neurotic ever calm down, or an introvert become extroverted? Will an INTP ever turn into a ESFJ, or a pitta become a kapha? Research shows that our key personality traits and preferences are relatively stable but not, says Little, inevitable. "We know there's enough neuroplasticity in the brain that if you consistently act differently over a long period of time, you may lay down new circuitry," he explains. "We don't know whether it's possible to completely erase your original trait, but it's possible to balance out as you get older." And whether your brain actually rewires itself may be beside the point. "For example, introverts can overcome a fear of public speaking. Extroverts can learn to become great listeners," emphasizes Cain.

Maybe what's most fruitful is exploring personality science to assemble your own distinct type—getting to know your proclivities so you can determine which dials you want to turn up and turn down. And trusting your gut enough to know that you're a Hermione—even when the test says you're a Ron.