Why are people obsessed with dubious personality tests?
Issue 2: Why people love dodgy personality tests, interventions to reduce emissions and recidivism, and replacing university administrators with AI.
Scientists love to hate on the Myers-Briggs Personality Test, easily the most popular and well-known measure of personality. For good reasons. As explained in this recent article by Laith Al-Shawaf, experts believe that the Meyers-Briggs has dubious predictive ability and is grounded in debunked theory. To make matters worse, it’s unreliable. Which means that if you take the test more than once to learn more about your “true self”, it’s quite likely to give you different answers each time.
And yet, despite these flaws, the Myers-Briggs remains tremendously popular. More than one-and-a-half million people take it each year and a full 89 out of the Fortune 100 companies were using the measure as recently as 2014.
What is it about this scientific hot mess that people so readily buy into? We believe that one of the bugs that drives psychologists crazy is actually a feature that explains the test’s enduring popularity.
After you complete the Myers-Briggs test, you get sorted into one of 16 categories. Each group is often given an appealing name: the “logical pragmatist”, “compassionate facilitator”, or “insightful visionary” - providing a perfect new title for a professional development seminar or your online dating profile (yes, people actually do put their Meyers-Briggs category on their Tinder profiles).
The problem is that these categories contradict how contemporary psychologists think about personality. Most experts agree that human personality can be boiled down to five or so fundamental traits: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness to experience, and neuroticism. Each trait is a continuous dimension, so that someone can score high, low, or anywhere in between.
Unfortunately, however, it is quite hard (even if you’re a psychologist) to conceive of yourself in five-dimensional space. It’s also awkward to tell people that you score moderate on extraversion, moderate-to-high on agreeableness and conscientiousness, high on openness, and moderate-to-low on neuroticism. Not exactly sparkling dinner party conversation!
This is where the Myers-Briggs’ categorical strategy excels. Scoring low on extraversion and high on openness doesn’t sound particularly impressive, but being a “mastermind” does. People would much rather claim a group identity that includes Sun Tzu, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen and Arthur Ashe.
The use of categories is a great marketing maneuver and a big part of the reason behind the popularity of many dubious personality tests from the Meyers-Briggs to the infamous TIME Harry Potter Quiz or Cosmo’s quiz to help you learn what kind of lover you are. The same logic also applies to Astrology signs! We often crave self-definition and are attracted to group memberships that balance a sense of differentiation from the many with a sense of connection to people just like us.
The ease with which people form group identities can be traced back to one of the most important studies in social psychology. In the minimal group experiments, people were randomly assigned to groups after completing a test of dubious merit, such as their ability to estimate the number of dots in an image. Within minutes, they had created a new sense of identity and were treating their new in-group members very differently from out-group members.
As Al-Shawaf describes, when we use personality tests that impose categories, we risk exaggerating the differences between groups and the similarities within them. When this occurs with other types of identities like race or gender, we typically call it “stereotyping” and we try to avoid it.
There is reason for caution when it comes to categorizing others too readily by personality as well. We might well fail to hire, promote, or even date or marry someone because they fall into a false category about which we make exaggerated assumptions.
Research Round Up
What type of messaging might encourage drivers to turn off their engines instead of idling in order to reduce their carbon footprint? To find out, Dominic Abrams, Fanny Lalot, and their colleagues spent a long summer observing 6,533 vehicles as they waited at railroad crossings in the UK. The most effective intervention invoked a social norm and encouraged people to join in. “Join other responsible drivers in Canterbury. Turn off your engine when the barriers are down,” increased environmentally-friendly behavior by 42%. Remarkably, the power of this message accelerated as the number of cars on the road increased. This exciting new study reminds us of the power of social norms and social connection to change collective behavior.
A new paper by Jason Okonofua and colleagues reports the benefits of an “empathy intervention” designed for parole and and probation officers. The intervention aimed to reduce officers’ inaccurate expectations - or stereotypes - that all adults on parole or probation are likely to reoffend. It worked, increasing officer empathy and reducing recidivism among their clients by 13%!
The University of Florida announced a bold new initiative to cut administrative bloat, replacing their President and at least 18 VPs with a supercomputer running an AI algorithm. Academics everywhere applauded the move, until realizing it was just a gag for April Fools Day.
Updates and News
In last week’s newsletter, we talked about why bystanders fail to intervene when strangers need help or are in danger. In this Sunday’s Los Angeles Times, we wrote an extended analysis of the role that social identities - and especially the way we see ourselves - play in decisions to help.
Last week, Jay spoke to the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State University about the pernicious effects partisan political identities have had on effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. The student newspaper wrote about Jay’s talk and the discussion that followed.
We plan to use this newsletter to promote exciting new research every week - and we are seeking submissions! We invite people who would like to highlight a recent paper, book, or other piece of scholarship to submit a short (< 300 word) write-up of your work.
We welcome submissions from anyone - but we especially want to highlight exciting new research by early career researchers and work from a wide diversity of perspectives, including diverse methods, fields of study, locations, backgrounds of the scientists, scope of the topics, etc!
Tell us about the silliest, funniest - or the most useful - personality test you have ever taken. What, if anything, did you learn from it?
Reply in the comments or tag us in social media!