Personality Test – When are they really useful?

Personality Test

Personality tests are some of the most widely used tests by employers – a higher percentage of employers in the U.S use personality test than basic literacy and math tests when interviewing prospective candidates, according to AMA data, but are they telling us what we want them to?   

Not all personality tests are created equal, some are more trustworthy than others. In this post, we’ll look at two of the most well known and commonly used tests – The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or MBTI) and the Big 5 Personality Test, before evaluating the usefulness of any personality test for both personal and professional use.

What is The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator?

I’ll dive straight in with the Myers-Briggs personality type indicator which is the most well known in the world and the most used in employment. This personality test has been used for decades to assess personality traits and is still being used by over 2 million people a year.

The general idea behind the test is relatively simple. All Myers-Briggs tests follow the same formula and assign the test taker one of 16 personality types. Each personality type is represented by four letters by which each individual can be defined. Each of the four letters represents a tendency in a corresponding category, which is shown below along with the two ‘tendencies’ in each.

For example, someone whose personality type label was ESTJ would be an Extroverted person who tends to Sense, Think, and Judge more. 

The Most and Least Common Personality Type

There’s a fair bit of disagreement as to which personality type results are the most common, but taking the results published by the test, ISFJ type (Introverted, Sensing, Feeling, Judging) appears to be the most common result by which 13.8% of the population can be defined. The least common result in this instance is the INFJ type (Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Judging), which is thought to make up just 1.5% of the population. A full list of the frequency of results is shown here

The Reliability of using the MBTI Test

Although this test is often used, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that this test is not as reliable as its popularity might suggest. Research suggests that many people find different results when retaking the test, even after only a few weeks. This suggests that the personality label one receives is not accurate or reproducible. It has also been found that because of this, the test is not efficient in use for career planning counseling. 

This is somewhat unsurprising when we consider that neither of the test’s creators had any formal psychology training; and there is little scientific backing to the test itself. In fact, the personality types used in the Myers-Briggs test are based on Carl Jung’s previously published work. He claimed that the 16 distinct personality types were just ‘rough tendencies he’d observed, rather than strict classifications’. therefore was not to be taken as fact. 

 

What is the Big 5 Personality Test?

I want to briefly talk about another well-known personality test – the Big Five Personality Traits Test, ‘the best accepted and most commonly used model of personality in academic psychology.’ This differs from the Myers-Briggs test in that it does not ‘divide’ people into certain categories, but instead tells them where they lie on a percentage scale in 5 categories: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. 

The test resulted from research created by psychologists Gordon Allport and Henry Oddbet in 1936, who put together a list of 4,500 terms relating to personality. The basic formation of the test came shortly after and it was then expanded into what it is today. Many psychologists analyzed the work of Allport and Oddbet and came to the conclusion that there were 5 prominent personality traits in most people. Instead of labeling people as one thing or the other, they felt it was best to put them on a spectrum.

The Reliability of using the Big 5 Personality Test

There’s a number of sources that suggest the Big 5 Personality Test is more reliable than the MBTI Test for a few reasons. One is that it has actual scientific backing; the idea behind it was created by psychologists studying personality since the 1930s. It also shows tendencies and doesn’t try to fit an individual into a box, which means it agrees with some scientists’ findings that personality exists along a spectrum, and certain characteristics are more prominent in certain situations. It is widely regarded as the most scientifically backed up and supported psychology theory. However, some recent researchers have suggested that the 5 categories are too narrow, and more should be added to make it more accurate.

 

Other Personality Tests

There are obviously a great number of other tests that I haven’t mentioned – such as the DiSC test, which also places an individual on a scale, and is sometimes used by employers. Some employers will also use specially created job performance tests based on personalities, such as The SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire or The Caliper Profile. Other employers also use their own test made specifically for their field or job specification. However, I’ve decided to talk about the MBTI Test and the Big 5 Personality Test in particular, as they are the most commonly used by employers.

 

Common Criticisms of Personality Tests

Why are we taking personality tests? Sure, employers use them to judge prospective job candidates, but is it an accurate test of how well they will perform? Perhaps not.

Some experts claim that personality tests only show you a narrow insight into what behavior you are more likely to exhibit in a certain environment. Arnie Kozak, in an article published by Psychology Today, argues that ‘introvert’ and ‘extrovert’ labels are irrelevant. And that we all have a ‘healthy mix of both tendencies with one set predominating overall or in particular circumstances’. 

The idea that certain circumstances bring out different elements of personality is one that most would probably argue is true. Sitting at home, alone, someone is much more likely to get a result showing them as a calmer and more introverted person as if they were to take the same test, say, in a lively environment; in a bar or at a party. It’s also possible that an individual’s mood can affect the results of the test; answering in a good mood might make you appear more laid back and positive, and vice versa with answering in a bad mood.

Personality is a difficult thing to measure – there’s no definitive approved scale, and it can’t be worked out with a mathematical equation. We’re also constantly changing as people, and our personalities change along with us, something that is more common in those who are young and experiencing a number of things for the first time. Sometimes as a result of difficult or challenging events, we can change our mindsets to be more positive or negative, more understanding, braver, paranoid, relaxed, and so on. So the same personality label might not necessarily suit you for your whole life. 

Research shows that younger people are more likely to show inconsistencies in personality tests than older people, whose results correlate more often. While older employees may be more static in their personality results, younger people will show fluctuations, and their results will not properly reflect their real behaviors.

Labeling ourselves as any personality type always has its downfalls. Shane Snow argues that personality tests put us in ‘boxes’ that are then hard to break out of and become incapable of changing and growing. Humans can grow, and our personalities can be constantly changing, especially as we encounter difficult and challenging situations that we overcome and learn from. Being told you’re an introvert, for example, may mean that you seek out like-minded people, only to find that while your personality traits may be similar, you need to be surrounded by more extroverted energies to bring you out of your shell. On the other end of the spectrum, those coming under the ‘extrovert’ personality trait label may feel more pressure to be more outgoing and lively in social situations or feel unable to take less of a leadership role and surround themselves with more solitary or calmer individuals. 

 

Using Personality Tests for Employment

Research has shown that a number of people categorize themselves by their personality label, some of whom take personality tests to inform themselves which career they are best suited for. This is a concerning idea when you take into account the criticism of the use of personality tests for employment has received. 

The Negative Effects of Using Personality Tests for Employment

Being told certain jobs and career paths are more suited to the personality label you’re assigned on your first test may be completely wrong for you. This can then lead to feeling inadequate when one feels out of place or does not succeed in the areas they feel they ‘should’. Similarly, being placed into a certain personality category can limit job prospects on both the employer and employee side. Considering the lack of credibility that personality tests have received, the fact that employers often ask prospective candidates to take a personality test means that they may be turning away someone fit for the job but with the wrong personality result.

It also seems that a number of people are not entirely truthful on personality tests. Our moral conscience often tells us what we know is wrong from right, and our intuition can give us an indication as to what employers are more likely to look for in candidates. Many questions measure positivity levels or desire for achievement, so even if someone is lazy and clearly not suited for the job, they can answer in the way they know they should in order to look like they’re motivated and organized. No one would agree with the statement “I always make sure I do things to the best of my ability”. Personality tests are easy to pass if you cheat.

For some, taking a personality test for your own enjoyment is more about being and feeling validated in yourself, and you don’t want to be given an answer that doesn’t reflect who you want to be. However, personality tests can only give back what the respondent gives them in the first place. We tend to respond to questions in a way that reflects how we would like to act or think, as opposed to how we would in a real-life circumstance, especially when given imagined scenarios that require bravery or humility. It’s also hard to imagine, at times, how we would really act in a situation that we have never found ourselves in, or that wouldn’t necessarily be relevant to our lives, and so we might make up how we would want to act in that scenario, based on personality traits that we idealize but may not embody, in order to be given a personality label that we like. 

The Positives of Using Personality Tests 

There are, however, still some good things to be said about these types of tests; it’s not all negative, despite my own doubts about them. It’s human nature to want to know who we are, and for some people, it is comforting to feel accepted and validated, and perhaps even to fit in. Discovering certain areas of your personality can help you to understand why you feel things the way that you do, or react to events in a particular way, especially if it is different from those around you. It is understandable to want to be validated and understood, but it might be best not to take it too seriously. 

Understanding personality can be useful in any job, not just in deciding who could be an ideal candidate for a position. Knowing about different personality types, and how they work, especially for HR professionals, can help in understanding others and therefore moving towards achieving a more friendly and better-functioning workplace. Potentially, the use of personality tests would be more fitting for understanding others rather than categorizing people or using them to turn people away from jobs. 

This is what employers are looking to do – understand their employees by analyzing their personality, which is definitely a good thing. When employers are looking at their employee’s personality to try and help understand who will work well together, and how to change the dynamic to make sure the workplace is functioning as best it can, then this is a benefit of the tests. However, we must come back to the point that they are not always reliable, and the results do not always reflect someone’s behavior all the time. 

Furthermore, if you do manage to take the tests truthfully, finding out certain aspects of your personality that you don’t necessarily like, or would like to change can be encouraging, if maybe a little disheartening at first. I think we all have an idea of how we think we come across, and I also think this is usually a sugar-coated version of ourselves. It takes a lot to recognize our own flaws, but when we do, it can enable us to grow and to realize parts of us that perhaps we didn’t know existed and therefore learn from them to be the person we want to be. Perhaps personality tests can help us with that. And if they’re wrong? Well, even if it’s not one you exhibit particularly, trying hard to avoid a toxic personality trait still won’t hurt anyone.

Check out some of the tests here:

 

What can we take away from this?

As mentioned previously, some personality tests are better than others, and the Big 5 appears to be a more reliable way of predicting someone’s personality without labeling them or putting them in a box. It does appear strange that the Myers-Briggs test has received so much criticism, considering that it is so widely used. However, employers wanting to understand their employers better is certainly a positive thing, provided that they are not putting too much emphasis on the results they get from prospective employees’ results. 

There are definitely positives and negatives to using the tests. However, there seem to be more negatives when it comes to using them in a professional setting as opposed to using them individually. It’s interesting to see the number of employers who do use these tests, and perhaps it would be more beneficial for them to place more importance on literacy or math tests, as these may show a more accurate representation of an employee’s ability to perform than an unreliable personality test. They would also potentially be better used in helping to understand employees and their work ethics in order to improve their productivity in the workplace, as opposed to categorizing them before they have even completed their interview, or turning them away for the ‘wrong’ answers.