When writing my first post about why astrology is pseudoscience, I had the intention of ending it by suggesting the Myers-Briggs Personality Test as a more accurate way to identify people’s traits. I was surprised to find that while personality types are more valid than zodiac signs (or their popular equivalent in Asian countries of categorizing personalities based on blood type), they are still far from perfect. For example, I once took my own Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test and found that I was an INTJ, but when my husband took the same test about me, we found that in his eyes I was an ISFJ. (I’ve also gotten INFJ and INTP.) This was my first hint that personality tests might not be all they’re cracked up to be. Knowing that, and having seen how ubiquitously popular the Enneagram test has become, I decided it was time for me to put personality types to the test. They’re not as bad as astrology, but they’re by no means an exact science. Where do they land?
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator
I’m starting with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator because I still believe that it reigns supreme in popularity among other tests. It is the only test that I’ve taken multiple times, having known about it for many years. I’ve heard plenty of excited chatter as people proclaim and ask each other whether they’re INTJ, ESFP, or another one of the fourteen options. I’ll come right out and say it: I’ve always thought that taking the test and identifying with one of the “16Personalities” was fun. I love answering questions about myself and being told who I am. It’s psychoanalysis that’s quick and easy. But is it too easy?
The MBTI was started by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers and was influenced by two major factors: the psychology of Carl Jung and the tragedy of World War II. The women were devastated to see how divisive the war was and essentially thought that if everyone just understood each other, we all had a better chance of getting along and avoiding conflict. Enter Carl Jung: Myers read his 1921 work Psychological Types and used it as the base of the MBTI. She believed that it coincided with her own ideas, and she wanted to make them all more accessible to the public. In 1962, the MBTI was born.
I’ve always enjoyed taking the MBTI test, but every time I take it I have difficulty with questions probing whether I like to plan things out or act spontaneously. I’m eager to answer, but I always find myself trying to recall a specific situation that could shed light on it. The fact that I respond differently depending on the situation should have showed me that I don’t need to put myself into a category when I don’t really fit perfectly in one or the other. As a matter of fact, every time I take the MBTI test, everything but the Introverted factor hovers around 50%. And being 97% introvert according to a quiz, even that trait is worth examining, since I shouldn’t just dismiss that as “the way that I am,” saying that I’m shy, quiet, or don’t like being around people. My being introverted is constantly developing as my relationships with people change over the years. It’s a dynamic push and pull, and I think that just to label myself as introverted and ask no further questions is, frankly, boring.
The origin of the Enneagram is a little… weirder than that of the MBTI. It is less psychological and more supernatural, in a way that I can only describe as “woo-woo.” The Enneagram as we know it today was developed in the 60s and 70s by philosopher Oscar Ichazo. It draws on many ancient spiritual traditions, but the one that stood out to me the most was that of Pythagoras. Pythagoras was an ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who sought to combine the two branches in declaring that the Cosmos (which at that time were synonymous with “the heavens”) operated according to a divine, mathematically perfect order. He brought superstition and mysticism to math, rejecting anything that suggested that the planets were not what he believed to be orderly, and even began a mysterious math-gatekeeping cult.
In the day of Pythagoras, numbers weren’t communicated with the Arabic numerals that we use now, but rather with symbols and figures. That’s how he developed things like the enneagram symbol, after which the personality test and types are named. There’s a lot more involved, such as the Divine Forms, the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the Holy Ideas, Virtues, Passions, and Fixations.
Nowadays the Enneagram seems to be used as an innocent, secular personality type indicator by spiritual people and skeptics alike, but the mystical origins still make me uncomfortable with trusting what it says about me.
Personality Types A and B
I was particularly interested in the continuum between Personality Types A and B, and I appreciated their simplicity. These two categories were created by two cardiologists, Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, after observing that the seats in their waiting room were wearing out unusually quickly due to the patients fidgeting from anxiety. Years after realizing this, they conducted a study in 1976 involving a questionnaire to determine if people with what they called a Type A personality were more likely to develop coronary heart disease, and they found that they were twice as likely as people that they called Type B (although this is now in question because the correlation could have been influenced by subjects’ tobacco use). I was skeptical about this correlation from the start, as I think that being in the waiting room to see a cardiologist or get heart surgery would make anyone more nervous than usual.
Before learning about these two personality types, I had a general idea of what it means to be “Type A” from hearing it so often tossed around in conversation. I had come to understand that it means someone is high-strung, competitive, or easily stressed. I hadn’t heard as much about Type B, but it is essentially the opposite: easy-going, relaxed, and patient. I had always thought that there were more than two types, and some people will try to say that there are more, but there were only two at least when the classifications were first made.
I think that there being only two types make the classifications easy to understand, since Types A and B are meant to exist on a spectrum, so you don’t necessarily have to be one or the other. For example, when I first read the description of Type A, I immediately thought of my manager at work who tends to get very stressed and treat everything like an emergency. This led me to see myself as Type B, since I often have to reassure her not to panic, and I would much rather pace myself than work too urgently and have to fix my mistakes later.
Even as I try to look objectively at personality types and quizzes, I got excited learning that I can add “Type B” to my identity. I then realized that I decided too soon, as the description said that Type Bs tend not to get anxious, and I think I’m quite an anxious person in many respects, just not so much at work. This led me to the important caveat to take when trying to categorize yourself that different personality traits will come out in different situations.
Big Five Test and Hogan Personality Inventory
These three major personality classifications have all (rightfully) had their fair share of criticism. In the realm of personality quizzes, the Big Five and Hogan are the two that are less famous but supposedly more accurate than the popular three. The Big Five, developed in the 80s, is the result of a statistical study of responses to questions about the subjects’ personalities. When the researchers got their results, they felt that five personality variables stood out the most: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. My favorite thing about the Big Five Test is that it comes with a disclaimer that “The results of this test are not psychological or psychiatric advice of any kind and come with no guarantee of accuracy or fitness for a particular purpose.”
Robert Hogan, who founded of the Hogan Personality Inventory in 1987, came up several times in my research as a big critic of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, but I found that his personality inventory was not without fault, either. His inventory is completely oriented toward learning how people work and deciding which job candidate would be a good fit for your workplace. I didn’t look too far into the Hogan Inventory, but I was definitely put off by its claims to tell you “how they work, how they lead, [and] how successful they will be.” In my opinion, the hiring process is already far more objective than it should be. We don’t need to be judging people only on the number of years of experience they have, and we certainly don’t need to be adding more ways to categorize candidates. How someone will perform at your company, or how they will fit in with your company’s culture can’t be reduced to some yes or no questions.
I think that the Hogan Personality Inventory’s purpose in hiring, while imperfect, brings up a good point: different personality type indicators exist to tell us different things about ourselves. The MBTI is more general, seeking to elucidate traits relating to personal growth, relationships, and career. The Enneagram is more spiritual and mystical, trying to uncover the subconscious happenings of people’s psyches, egos, and souls. Types A and B are primarily concerned with how people respond to stress, and the Big Five, like the MBTI, tries to show the big picture.
I began this post with the goal of exposing personality tests as unreliable similarly to how astrology is. What I found is they aren’t totally useless, but they will work better if you keep in mind what they are meant to be: a mere snapshot of something that is ever-changing, nuanced, and dependent on circumstance. Blaming your misdeeds only on the fact that you’re, say, Type A, disregards the truth that there is always room to better yourself and change your behavior. Your traits aren’t set in stone; they can arise from experiences throughout your life, and they evolve as you continue to grow. While it can be fun to find out which type best describes you, who you are can’t be reduced to four letters or a number.
Type A and B Personality
Note: A few months after publishing this post, I saw a documentary that I can only describe as “the dark side of personality testing,” especially when they are used for hiring purposes. I don’t want to say too much about it, but I definitely found it interesting.