Why Do We Love Personality Tests That Aren’t Accurate?
Are you an ISFJ? A type 9? A yellow/gold? A peacock?
Many of us enjoy taking personality tests. They can make us feel seen or teach us something new about ourselves.
And while we recognize that those Buzzfeed quizzes about which White Lotus character you’re most like are just for fun, did you know that many mainstream personality tests aren’t as accurate as you may believe?
Yes, we’re talking about tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), enneagrams, all those color-based ones and even that test about birds.
Are personality tests scientific?
If you’ve found the results of personality tests meaningful, that’s cool. But we need — but kind of hate — to break it to you: Most popular personality tests aren’t based in science. (Yes, even the MBTI.)
“Most people don’t look for evidence; if a test is popular, it must be good, especially if it’s monetized,” says Milla Titova, a psychologist who studies and teaches personality at the University of Washington and leads the Happiness and Well-being Lab. “But it’s about capitalism, not science. There aren’t many scientifically based personality tests that are public-facing or made for the public; the ones that exist are used primarily in research.”
If this is a hard sell, you’re not the only one who feels that way.
“I think I lose students when I tell them the truth,” says Titova.
On the individual level, taking personality tests isn’t a problem. The real issue, Titova says, is tests that have no scientific basis are used by organizations such as schools and workplaces to categorize people and make decisions about their futures.
For example, it has frequently been reported that 80% or more of Fortune 500 and Fortune 100 companies have used the MBTI.
Tests that are based on traits, not types — think Big Five versus MBTI — may be more accurate, and some of them even have some research behind them.
Why are personality tests so appealing?
Whether you already suspected that most personality tests aren’t scientific or it’s news to you, the bigger question seems to be: Why do so many people use and like them?
“People understand there is value in recognizing individual differences and how they make someone perform in certain situations,” Titova explains.
Taking a personality test may also make you feel like you’re becoming more self-aware. If the result of a test tells you you’re introverted and you value introversion, it makes you feel good while also validating and normalizing your behavior.
Except for the accuracy bit, the urge to find meaning in personality tests isn’t that different from the way we track our fitness, vitals and sleep and like learning about ourselves, Titova says. Think of everyone’s enthusiasm for Spotify Wrapped, for example, where we celebrate how our music streaming platform has spied on us all year.
And gathering all this feel-good data about personality hides an uncomfortable truth: In reality, most of us are pretty average.
“If you’re measuring any trait, most people are in the middle, but admitting that isn’t sexy or fun,” Titova explains.
In this way, tests can also make you feel unique and special in a world of 8 billion people.
Why do we still take unscientific personality tests?
Maybe you find yourself unable to accept that your MBTI results aren’t fateful. Or maybe you recognize the tests aren’t scientifically valid but you take them anyway and can’t seem to stop.
There are two psychological phenomena that may be playing a role, Titova explains.
First is the Barnum effect, which has shown that people like hearing vaguely positive things about themselves and will seek out these experiences. (This effect also explains why people love astrology.)
There’s also the sunk cost fallacy, where you’re unlikely to abandon something after investing time, effort or money even if it’s proven unhelpful or unworthy — like when you continue watching a movie you aren’t enjoying because, well, you already spent the past hour watching it, and not finishing it would make that lost hour seem wasted.
Regardless of how you feel about personality tests, the main thing to remember is that they may be fun, but they ultimately don’t represent the real world.
“We know that our brains work in categories; we love things in black and white, good and bad, boy and girl. With personality tests, a lot of them that aren’t science based cater to that desire,” Titova says. “Even though it’s more accurate, it’s harder to think in continuums versus categories. However, life is way more complicated, as we see day after day. Binary things aren’t really binary. Most people are somewhere in the middle.”