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In ancient Greece, the physician Hippocrates is said to have theorized that the ratio of four bodily fluids—blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm—dictated a person’s distinct temperament. The psychologist Carl Jung, in his 1921 book, Psychological Types, proposed two major attitudinal types (introversion and extroversion) and four cognitive functions (thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition) that combine to yield eight different psychological profiles. And in 2022, a BuzzFeed contributor suggested that everyone is either an apple or a banana. (I’m an apple.)
The point is, people have historically made great efforts to categorize their inner workings, and they haven’t stopped trying. Billy is an extrovert; Sarah wants you to know that her love language is gifts. Your best friend is a Miranda, and you enjoy her company even though she’s a Gemini. Today, attempting to measure personality is a fun conversation topic, a still-growing area of scientific study, and a multibillion-dollar industry.
This plethora of personality measurements presents a new quandary, though: Which one do you believe in? Research has pointed to three major motives for self-evaluation—self-assessment (procuring accurate self-knowledge), self-enhancement (hearing vague compliments and thinking, Huh, that does sound like me), and self-verification (checking to see if others see you the way you see yourself). Yet modern behavior measurements—whether Jungian or fruit-based—can attract different types of people, who are drawn to their test of choice for different reasons. In other words, the selection of the metric itself might say something about the person.
Can someone’s personality predict the type of personality test they might want to take? The Atlantic made a quiz to try to find out. Like so many tests that have come before, it is not scientific. It also takes a rather broad definition of the word test—you’ll find astrology as one of the results, which is not a test, but a way of categorizing people based on the position of the stars and planets during their time of birth. Take our quiz as an Aquarius would: with an open mind and a generous spirit.
This association took off in 1975 when, according to Merve Emre’s book The Personality Brokers, Myers sold the MBTI to Consulting Psychologists Press. The new version of the quiz was shorter and adjusted to be self-scoring, which made the test cheaper and faster to take, and, according to critics, less concerned with validity. It is still used by Fortune 100 companies, universities, and the military to assess workers’ strengths, determine which employees should work together, and—though it is not advised by the Myers & Briggs Foundation—sometimes assist in hiring. In corporations, Emre told NPR, the MBTI became “this incredibly useful tool for convincing people that they are doing exactly what it is that they are meant to do—and that they should bind themselves to their work freely and gladly.”
The Enneagram, meanwhile, might appeal to people who are seeking spiritual enlightenment rather than a happier workplace. This system—which is also not scientific—sorts its test-takers into personality types labeled one to nine. Each number represents a core “virtue,” which also corresponds to a “passion” (transgressions that are essentially the seven deadly sins plus two extra: deceit and fear). The Enneagram tries to help people learn what is motivating them to move away from their virtue, and then navigate them back. Its popularity with some Christians might reveal what people like about their favorite personality tests generally: The results readily assimilate into the test-taker’s worldview.
There are plenty of other personality measures with their own appeals. The Big Five grades people’s traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism—with percentile scores of one to 100, and is the personality framework most widely approved by psychologists. Although it is not perfect, the Big Five places its users on a spectrum rather than into a set of rigid “types,” a system much more in line with how personality actually works. That might appeal to the more empirically rigorous seeker of self-knowledge. For people who are more spiritual than religious (or for those who just like memes), astrology offers another path toward guidance and self-reflection. Although it’s been around for thousands of years, Millennials and the internet have driven a resurgence of the star-based personality-sorting system. Meanwhile, if you strongly identify with your favorite fictional characters, quizzes abound online. You can find out which Sex and the City character you are, or which Taylor Swift era you’re currently in. Tests that tell you which Hogwarts house you belong in have been perhaps among the most persuasive pop-culture quizzes, because personality testing is built right into the Harry Potter series’ lore via its sentient “Sorting Hat.”
The bottom line is that personality tests that you can do at home speak to a timeless human need—and most of them should not be taken too seriously. Jennifer Fayard, a psychology professor at Ouachita Baptist University, in Arkansas, told me not only that both the MBTI and Enneagram “aren’t real” and “aren’t good,” but that overrelying on their explanatory powers could have negative effects. “In my experience, when I talk to people about this, what I hear is, ‘Oh, I know it’s just a test … I don’t make it my whole identity. I just use it as a tool to understand myself,’” she said. “But yet, I know so many people who have made it their identity, who use it as the way to describe themselves to people or to explain their behavior.” This can lead to test results being used to ignore, or refuse to adjust, maladaptive behavior: for example, bailing on dinner plans at the last minute because, as your friends should understand, ENFPs struggle with time management.
But looking for excuses isn’t what typically motivates people to take a personality test today. Instead, as Tessa West, a psychology professor at New York University, told me, they’re looking, in part, to have a sense of certainty about where they belong and what path they should follow. In some ways, this is not surprising. Self-knowledge can feel like a balm for unpredictability, whether in relationships or at the office. The contemporary test-taker’s hope might be that if you know your love language or what kind of worker you are, you’ll know what choices you need to make to have a successful life. Beyond that, you might even find a sense of identity or community. That rings true to me. But then again, I am a Type-Four-Aquarius-INFJ-Ravenclaw.
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