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How effective are personality tests?

While often valid, there is a danger in relying on them too much

By Brian Kreissl

While I find personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) quite fascinating, I sometimes question how they can actually be used in practice. There seems to be a lot of validity to their results, but I sometimes believe there might be an over-reliance on their use by some people.

It is interesting how every time I’ve taken one of these tests my personality type ends up being ENFP (which means Extroverted, iNtuitive, Feeling and Perceiving). The fact that I always get the same results – even using different versions of the test – proves to me there must be something to them.

However, while most of the description of the typical ENFP personality seems very much like me, some of it doesn’t seem to apply to me at all. For example, while ENFPs are often creative and passionate about what they do and have a strong sense of values, we apparently can have issues with follow-through and attention to detail. Frankly, that last part doesn’t really apply to me.

Introverts and extroverts

One of the questions I always had about personality tests was ‎whether someone’s personality could change over time. While experts believe a person’s personality is remarkably stable over their lifetime and changes little, it feels to me like my personality has changed over the years – particularly with respect to my degree of extroversion (the “E” part of ENFP pegs me as an extrovert).

While I believe I’ve been more or less extroverted at different times in my life, the general trend feels like I am becoming less introverted and more extroverted as time goes by.

Some of that relates to growing and maturing as an adult. After all, we generally become more comfortable in our skin and tend to care less about what others think of us as we get older.

But perhaps more importantly, many people don’t really understand exactly what introversion and extroversion actually are. Someone who is an introvert isn’t necessarily painfully shy and someone who is an extrovert isn’t always going to be confident and outgoing.

Rather, an extrovert is someone who is energized by other people and an introvert is someone who generally prefers individual activities, quiet reflection and introspection. It is also important to note there are degrees of introversion and extroversion. It isn’t a dichotomy but rather more of a continuum.

While I am definitely an extrovert, one personality test I took showed I’m actually only a mild extrovert. That made sense to me because my Myers-Briggs personality type, ENFP, is one of the few extroverted types where people also enjoy having some time for personal thoughts and reflection. Although I like working as part of a team and enjoy the company of others, I also enjoy having some time to myself and an opportunity to complete at least some work independently.

Dangers in relying on personality tests too much

While I think Myers-Briggs and similar personality tests are both useful and fun when used as tools for self-discovery and awareness and in exploring group dynamics, I believe there are some dangers in relying on them too much.

First of all, unless a work team completes the test together and shares their results, one team member won’t necessarily know what someone else’s personality type actually is.

It is great to have an appreciation of the different personalities that exist and how we all think differently, but it’s actually very difficult to anticipate someone’s likely reactions based on personally type unless you know and understand that individual’s particular type. I believe it would be difficult to really get a feel for different personalities unless you had basically memorized them all and had an understanding of what makes them tick.

I also think there is a danger in stereotyping people based on their personality type. While I still think personality tests are useful tools, people’s personalities simply cannot be neatly classified into 16 categories. Just as I don’t think the description of my personality type is 100 per cent accurate, every person is unique and won’t necessarily always follow their personality profile.

People often use personality tests for career planning purposes, and I do think they should pay attention to what jobs match their personality profile. However, there are many different types of career options for each personality type, and different types could be equally successful in the same type of role.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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