What type of person are you? | A body lying covered by a pile of boxes in a bare room.
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Overview:

Personality tests of all kinds have always been popular.

None of them can tell you who you are.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Human brains are forever trying to make patterns. We want to create models and run simulations to deflect the unimaginable horrors of chaos. We want to put everything into a manageable series of boxes. However, the social world composed of human minds trying to communicate with each other is total chaos. How many boxes do we need to categorise each other?

Two boxes?

In the 1950s, two heart specialists developed a system that divides people into two categories. The test was designed to profile patients to help doctors treat heart disease. The two types were based on people who are generally stressed and those who are generally unstressed. This work finally ended up in what we know today as Type A and Type B personalities.

The utility of these categories has been questioned as multiple studies from many countries have failed to demonstrate any connection between Type A behavior and heart disease.

Shoving everyone into one of two boxes will not enucleate our social lives.   

Twelve boxes?

Ancient astrologers (and modern charlatans) developed a system that divides people into 12 categories based on dates of birth. Astrologers assume that people born around the same time should share the same traits—an assumption entirely without basis that has been comprehensively and repeatedly disproved.

The 12 categories are collectively known as the zodiac. Even ancient people had enough information to understand that astrology is not based in reality, but the attraction persists among many today. Daily zodiac readings called horoscopes are regularly available in most bad newspapers, a mixture of the Barnum Effect, obvious statements, and unfalsifiable predictions.

Shoving everyone into one of twelve boxes will not enucleate our social lives.

Sixteen boxes?  

In the 1940s, a mother (Briggs) and daughter (Myers) team developed a system that divides people into 16 categories based on different permutations of opposed character traits. These four pairs are extraversion and introversion, sensing and thinking, judgment and intuition, and feeling and perception.

If someone advertises their Myers-Briggs personality type, it might tell you something about them, but probably not what they intended.

When exposed to science, the test, in the very charitable words of one professor of psychology, “doesn’t really measure what it purports to measure.”

Myers-Briggs categories are arbitrary, and the tests are self-administered. The results will therefore be subject to confirmation bias. In other words, people will subconsciously guide themselves toward the personality they think they already have or want.

As one critic put it, the Myers-Briggs personality test is little more than “an elaborate Chinese fortune cookie.” Another critic called it “pretty much meaningless.” If someone advertises their four-letter Myers-Briggs personality type, it might tell you something about them, but probably not what they intended.

Shoving everyone into one of sixteen boxes will not enucleate our social lives.

How many boxes?

None of us can be reduced to a few adjectives. We are all a complex network of opinions, apprehension, self-awareness, discernment, insight, experience, preferences, and passions. There is no such thing as “that sort of person” and a personality test “can only tell you what you tell it.” Our lives comprise special circumstances, hard cases, and rare exceptions. There is no personality test that can take account of these.

We are constantly evolving our personalities through our decisions, peer validation (in other words, how our decisions and opinions are reflected back to us), and how we react to the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

Rather than having a consistent discrete personality, we are constantly updating what we think of as our inner selves in response to how others react to it. Or, as American sociologist Charles Cooley put it more confusingly: “I am not who you think I am; I am not who I think I am; I am who I think you think I am.

There are nearly eight billion people on the planet right now. We need eight billion boxes.

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Barry Purcell lives in Ireland and writes about religion, philosophy, psychology, politics and language for a variety of paper and online publications. He has been involved in campaigns to counteract the...