We are our own greatest mysteries. How many of you know your Myers-Briggs personality type (ex. ESFJ, INTJ), your zodiac sign, your Hogwarts house, or whether you are an introvert or extrovert? My guess is that most of you know at least half of the above. Unlike learning math or grammar, an education in one’s self is not mandatory learning, yet many of us are tempted to take quizzes that label us or put us in a certain category. How much these tests can actually tell you, of course, varies.
When I was in “World Civilizations” class in high school, our class was tasked with taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which is a self-report questionnaire to evaluate how you perceive the world and make decisions. At the end of a series of questions you are labeled with four letters, the first either “E” or “I” for “extrovert” or “introvert,” the second “S” or “N” for “sensors” or “intuitive,” the third “T” or “F” for “thinkers” or “feelers,” and the final “J” or “P” for “judgers” or “perceivers.” The class clamored to announce their letters and figure out what famous people they lined up with including Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler (many claim that both King and Hitler were “INFJ” types by the way). I remember being stumped on one particular question that went something along the lines of “My emotions impact my choices.” I thought that if I agreed with this statement and said “yes, my emotions do impact my choices,” then that would render the whole quiz meaningless. For example, if I am feeling optimistic and happy one day would I produce very different test results than if I were feeling very negative and sour another day? This conundrum made me question the validity of such tests and become circumspect about how much they can really tell me about myself.
While the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is widely known, yet it is criticized for being a ‘self-discovery fad’ with no statistical validity that promotes ‘confirmation bias.’ In fact, one psychologist described the indicator in utility as “little more than an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie.” If the MBTI cannot stand up to scientific scrutiny, then most other personality measures are liable to be even less accurate. Yet, let’s be honest, we enjoy learning about ourselves! I am most certainly an introvert and a Ravenclaw and I feel defensive if someone tries to tell me otherwise. These labels are intangible and meaningless, yet somehow important to us—but why?
We take personality tests because we want to confirm what we (think we) know, decipher our internal uncertainties, and understand our relationship to the world.
One truth leads to another
When people read their horoscope, they are often confronted with a statement general enough for them to find a grain of truth that relates to themselves. This nugget of wisdom becomes a truth anchor, which allows the reader to latch on and say if I know statement “A” to be true, then, perhaps, statements “B” and “C” are true also. For example, “This could be a rather intense day for you, Libra. Your mind is filled with plots for novels you want to write and ideas for ways to streamline production at work.” For me, this is spot on… spooky actually.
A Feeling of belonging
Personality tests give us a feeling of belonging. If you don’t like staying out late at bars with friends and would much rather sit at home with a book, you may feel lonely if your friends see you as anti-social and cold. However, if you learn that you belong to a large group of people—introverts—that feel similarly, you may be able to feel acceptance for your tendencies rather than shame for them. Feeling understood and part of a group is a beautiful, powerful experience.
For anyone out there who has experienced chronic pain or discomfort like migraines, nauseous, or anxiety/ sadness without diagnosis, you know how troubling uncertainty can be. Is this normal? Do others feel this way? How can I deal with this? Once you do get a diagnosis, you are presented with language that you can use to look up your symptoms online and perhaps even read about others’ experiences. The first step to helping yourself is having the words to understand your experience. Personality tests distill complexity into a few concrete “facts.” With this “knowledge” we feel empowered to learn more about ourselves through this new label and embrace ourselves.
Whether you are a personality test junkie or non-believer, we are humans and we want to belong.
Spoiler alert, Dear Reader, you do belong. In all of your predictability and uniqueness, you are beautiful (even if you’re a Slytherin 😉 ).