I Have Personality Test Anxiety

Everything you need to know about knowing yourself.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art credit: Kelsey Tyler

At some point in the late 2000s, I noticed that a lot of strangers on the internet had four-letter combinations in their personal bios: On Twitter, INTJ, taco obsessive, creator of words.” On a dating app, something cheekier, like, “I’m a hopeless romantic and a hopeful ESFP.”

Google told me that these letter combos referred to personality types, as determined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI, the most widely used personality test in the world. Oh, fun, I thought, and proceeded to take the test. But I had trouble answering the questions, which asked me how likely I was to agree with statements like “You consider yourself more practical than creative” and “You do not let other people influence your actions.” My roommate, who’d taken the MBTI for a job interview, told me to stop overthinking the questions and go with my gut. My gut urged me to hem and haw over several answers that could be equally correct in different contexts. 

For the sake of finishing the test, though, I started picking answers — not at random, exactly, but not with much confidence that I was making the best choices. I retook the MBTI later that week to see if I’d get the same results. I did not. The test told me I was both an ENTP, a rare breed of logical, small-talk-averse extrovert, and an INFJ, an imaginative critical thinker.

Over the next few years, I took the MBTI several more times, as well as a hodgepodge of other online personality tests. But I never got the hang of swiftly and decisively evaluating broad statements regarding my cognitive and emotional dispositions. Instead, I got anxious. 

Then, this year, after getting murky results on yet another test that people seemed to find value in, I decided to dig in to the personality-test literature to figure out why I struggle with these tests and whether the problem is me — a stable genius! — or the tests themselves. I learned which tests are bunk pseudoscience and which are the product of empirical research. And, more importantly, I found my true personality type: PWSATPTANLCAUW (Person Who Sucks At Taking Personality Tests And No Longer Cares About Understanding Why).

***

By “personality tests,” I mean questionnaires that assess personality traits, defined as “the relatively enduring patterns of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that make people uniquely themselves.” For simplicity’s sake, let’s group personality tests into two overarching categories: Type Tests (a term I made up) and Big Five tests.

Type Tests, the most famous being the aforementioned MBTI, are grounded in Jungian typology, a cognitive theory formulated by the psychiatrist Carl Jung in the early 1900s that breaks down personality into discrete types according to how people process information from the outside world. The MBTI, in particular, analyzes personality across four axes:

(E) Extrovert or (I) Introvert
(S) Sensory-driven person, who collects information through the senses, or (N) Intuitive person, who looks for possibilities that might not be immediately apparent from sensory data.
(T) Thinker, who relies on logic, or (F) Feeler, who identifies the emotional value attached to something.
(P) Perceiver, who just takes information in, or (J) Judger, who evaluates the information first.  

Everyone is assigned one letter for each axis, yielding 16 possible personality types (ESTP, INTJ, ENTP, etc.).

The MBTI was invented in the 1960s by a mother-daughter team (Myers and Briggs) as a tool for companies to use in hiring, the underlying idea being that certain personality types are better suited for certain jobs. And that’s how it’s still used — 89 out of 100 top Fortune 500 companies, as well as federal agencies, administer the MBTI to job candidates. Plenty of people also take the test on their own time. In all, about 2.5 million people take the MBTI each year, as the Washington Post reported in an in-depth 2012 story on the test’s legacy.

The MBTI is decidedly unpopular, however, with at least one group of people: psychologists. “Tests based on Jungian psychology put people into types, but we know that personality doesn’t work in types,” explained Kate Rogers, a personality psychology professor at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. “I wouldn’t trust the MBTI to tell me any more about my personality than I would trust my horoscope.”

Instead, psychologists rely on the second overarching category of personality tests: Big Five tests, which measure the degree to which people possess the “Big Five” core traits that undergird personality: extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, openness to experience, and neuroticism.

The Big Five model was the result of decades of work. Back in the 1930s, Gordon Allport, the “father of personality psychology,” dug through dictionaries to come up with a taxonomy of 4,500 words that might be used to describe someone’s personality. Those words eventually got grouped together and whittled down into a more manageable list of traits. Today, the Big Five is the basis of several personality tests, including The Big Five Inventory, the NEO Personality Inventory, and the HEXACO model (which includes an additional sixth trait of honesty aka humility).

What’s important to recognize about the Big Five traits is that they’re discrete dimensions of personality. In other words, if you answer a question on a personality test intended to measure, say, neuroticism, then your answer should have no bearing whatsoever on any other trait.

By contrast, a big problem with the MBTI and other Type Tests is that they create false personality divisions. For instance, the MBTI classifies people as primarily either feelers or thinkers, even though most people are both. Not to mention, the results of the MBTI are unreliable — about half of people who take the test twice in a five-week period will get different results. And there’s no unbiased proof that the MBTI personality types are actually useful in predicting job performance. (For a good takedown of the MBTI, read this article by Wharton psychologist Adam Grant.)

But the MBTI does excel in one way that’s central to its success: It facilitates satisfying self-discovery. Each of the 16 personality types comes with a fairly positive description that’s vague enough to apply to all sorts of people. (Am I flexible and charming, always ready to explore something new“? Yeah, why not.) No matter which type someone gets, they’re probably going to accept it. This phenomenon is known as the “Barnum Effect,” named after the showman who famously reminded the world that there’s a “sucker born every minute.”

***

I rekindled my fractious relationship with personality tests a few months ago, when my cousin texted me a link to the rather elaborate Enneagram test. I took it twice and got inconclusive results both times.

I was nearly ready to let these murky results throw me into an existential tailspin. What’s wrong with me? Do I lack the solid sense of self that forms the basis of personal identity?!? But then I read up on the Enneagram and learned that it was another member of the Type Test family, advancing the same bunk typology as its crooked cousin the MBTI. 

Rather than give up on self-knowledge, I decided I’d take another personality test — a valid one, this time. Maybe, I reasoned, I struggled with self-assessments because I’d relied on glorified horoscopes to assess myself.

So I took a Big Five test, the BFI, hoping I’d breeze through its 41 questions. But Big Five tests apparently required me to do virtually the same thing as Type Tests. I still wasn’t sure how to evaluate the overall accuracy of a statement like “I don’t talk a lot.” Because it depends. Some people might say I talk incessantly. Then again, my high school tennis teammates nicknamed me Theresa “Shhh” Fisher on account of how few words I said that didn’t pertain directly to gameplay. 

And, once again, my test results were inconsistent.

Next, I did the only thing that made sense to me: I looked for research to validate my wiggly personality. I found a few studies that made me feel less irregular, or at least like I wasn’t the only irregular castoff in the discount bin. Some people, the studies suggested, are just more prone to inconsistent responses on personality tests. In one 2017 paper, for instance, consistent inconsistency emerged as a stable trait — nearly as stable as the Big Five traits are supposed to be.

The study didn’t explain why consistently inconsistent people are the way they are, so I formulated my own hypothesis: We’re too special — too delightfully nuanced — to be squeezed into boxes or placed on sliding scales.

My hypothesis didn’t win over Kate Rogers, the Tennessee personality psychologist. She urged me not to draw big conclusions from a single study. “Some people are just going to be more similar to themselves than others,” Rogers said. “We wouldn’t expect people to get exactly the same results every time they take a test; some variation is normal.”

When I mentioned the difficulty I had making generalizations about myself, Rogers brought up another Big Five test, the NEO-PPI, which measures levels of the Big Five traits as well as the 5-6 narrower characteristics (called facets) that comprise each of them. 

Unsurprisingly, I took the test. I don’t have to tell you how it went. 

With that, I went into personality-test retirement. Not just because I suck at taking the tests, or because I already knew that I lose things easily and like abstract ideas. I was done because I was satisfied with what I’d learned from my abandoned self-exploration:  

Invalid personality tests yield juicier results than valid ones do.

I’m not fond of making sweeping generalizations about myself.

The Big Five traits might underpin the constructs of personality, but they don’t determine who we are. 

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About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.