The Case Against Personality Tests and Types

Have you ever been three sentences into a conversation with someone and she interjects: I bet you’re an 8!—or whatever number—implying she has your Enneagram type pegged? More than once, I’ve had that happen, only for the person to blurt out another number later in our chat, effectively changing her guess because something I said veered from the script and mindset associated with the previously presumed Enneagram number. Turns out I’m a moving target.

Oh, here’s another scenario: I watched a webinar a while back, and the speaker said, with a very matter-of-fact tone as if there could be no debate, that bosses are Type A people who are busy running companies and getting stuff done…he was quick to include himself in this category…and then proceeded to say that most people are not bosses because they make room for things like friends and hobbies and a life and… Suffice to say, I logged outta that webinar pronto. Somebody was a little too fond of his Type A-ness.

Several times, people have presumed I’m a Type A based on what I do professionally.
Um, no.

So—to end debate, I’ll go ahead and let you know now: For all you Enneagram aficionados, I’m an Enneagram 237 with a chicken wing.

If you’re into Myers Briggs, I’m an EIEIO. And if you prefer personality typing, I’m a Type U B U, I’ll Be Me.

And, yes, I know all you lovers of personality tests and types are now assigning me numbers and letters based on my snarky comments.

Listen, I acknowledge personality tests and types are interesting and potentially informative. I get that we humans find comfort in being able to understand and identify things about ourselves and others. We like to expect and predict perspectives and behaviors. As I once read on a flyer promoting free personality assessments at the local Scientology center, “don’t you want to know more about YOU?.” I bet they got a lot of takers with that question.

Nonetheless, I invite you to consider that Enneagram numbers don’t always add up and personality types don’t always spell out the full, accurate…and EVOLVING…truth of who we are.
Many scientific minds will tell you personality tests are dubious at best with results that aren’t reliable for a range of reasons I shan’t get into here.

Please—as you glare at me while sipping from your “What’s Your Enneagram?” coffee mug, just hear me out.

The reason Enneagram fans have guessed multiple numbers for me during the course of a single conversation and I’ve never gotten the same results twice on a Myers Briggs test is because I’m not a number or series of letters. I’m a layered, experienced, thinking, growing, and evolving person with many dimensions. There may be some core traits in me, but even those are subject to change, progression, and degrees of manifestation or expression—especially because I’m intentional about developing personally and professionally.

Think about this: In DNA encoding—science that’s much more reliable and undeniable than any personality typing out there, many traits indicate a predisposition—NOT a predestination. Our decisions and actions can actually cause genes to express differently than may have been likely or expected. If this is true for genetic expression, why in the world would we chose to be defined and confined by a number or series of letters conjured by some people a long time ago and purveyed today through online tests—often proffered by organizations that stand to gain from our buy-in?

In the same ilk, current neuroscience affirms brain plasticity—the brain’s capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, perhaps even generate new neurons; these changes can be both structural and functional within the brain—and can occur at any age. How limiting would it be to affix a personalty type to ourselves and function within that box when the very brains that help make us who we are are have the ability to change throughout our lives?

The trouble with personality tests and types:
They can become self-fulfilling prophesy: We’ve probably all known people who accept labels bestowed on them…or who place labels on themselves…and then do everything to live up—or down— to those labels. I’m a poor student, I’m not athletic, I’m an Enneagram —whatever—, I’m an introvert, I’m better at math than English, well—I’m a Type A, I’ve never traveled that far…you get the picture. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. When we fight for our labels or our limitations, we get to keep them.

They appease the 97% of our brain that doesn’t like change: A large part of our brain is dedicated to keeping us comfortable and alive, meaning it strives to avoid changes that could be perceived as threats. It’s the 3% COE, Chief of Everything, in our brain that compels us to override the 97% support staff and go for improvements and new goals. However, when we assign a type to ourselves and then live into that type, we are effectively training the 97% to go on autopilot while silencing our mental COE—absolving it of the effort required to change and defy expectations. This is basically psychological homeostasis—our brain’s attempt to go back to the familiar, normal set point, even if the set point is not the best for us.

They too easily fall into our preference for easy answers and shortcuts: One way the 97% of our brain helps keep us safe is to be efficient. It likes to do that by finding patterns to make our lives really predictable. It also likes to get its answers as simply and quickly as possible and just stick with those going forward. That can lead to all sorts of biases and stereotyping of ourselves and others. When we align with assigned personality types, we provide this autopilot part of our brain its easy answer, and we make it really content because it won’t have to make any complicated decisions regarding who we are or how we’ll respond. That leads us to operate inside the lines and invite fewer challenges. Side note, here: I’m actually a fan of utilizing this part of our brains really intelligently; if we can create positive, automatic shortcuts that serve us in other areas of our lives—say managing social media use or eating well, we will have more capacity for things that deserve our time and attention.

They are often a stopping, not a starting, point: My heart breaks a little thinking about any young person who chose a career path based on her results from a personality test her school counselor had her take when she was 18 or any employee who got boxed into limited opportunities because his company relies on personality test results to help make HR decisions. Even if results are informative and accurately revealing, they are only a reflection of a person in a specific moment in time and, at best, provide a basic starting point of self-awareness. What a loss it is to cling to results long term as if they’re definitive.

It’s very important for us modern humans to activate and nurture the skill of being self aware. Yes, self awareness is a skill, a capability that can be honed and developed. It’s so important because activating awareness gets our brain’s COE involved from the get-go to connect us with ourselves. It helps us observe ourselves with curiosity (very different from being self-conscious, by the way). Once we are curiously aware, we’re poised to make intentional decisions and take thoughtful actions accordingly.

This is ultimately why I am not a proponent of these tests and types, let alone labels, stereotyping, or other people’s expectations. Don’t fence me in. I want to develop my self awareness—all the nuanced variances, complexities, and conflicts—so that I can respond, pivot, grow, change, and develop beyond all that stuff and choose who I want to be!

When asked about our purpose or goals, most of us instinctively respond by stating what we want to do and accomplish. I’m starting to answer those kinds of questions by sharing who I want to become.

I have a pretty long list of personalty traits and labels that many people in my life…including me at some points…might’ve presumed were hard-wired and would be with me forever. Guess what, they aren’t! I shed so much of that stuff. I advanced. I changed! I have surprised myself countless times.

“Who do you want me to be?”—This is the prayer I randomly plucked off the “leave a prayer, take a prayer” board at church a while back. The person who left this prayer underlined the “you”—as a pleading to God for clarity.

I realize he or she was imploring God—not me—for a response. But here I go interjecting: PLEASE BE YOU—the YOU that you choose.

God granted you a beautiful brain so you can decide. There is absolutely no reason you should be bound by limiting expectations and definitions that come with personalty tests, social status, education level, family background, whatever. Be the introvert who launches and leads a business. Be the extrovert who’s excited about solitary research projects. Be the creative who geeks out on neuroscience. Be the empath who keeps clear boundaries.

Kick down the sides of the box and surprise yourself and everyone else.

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