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A personality test can’t tell you who you are

The desire to define ourselves, from love languages to Myers-Briggs types.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Juanita Hernandez is a 25-year-old Miami-based anxiously attached Aries (Scorpio moon, Taurus rising), ENFJ, Enneagram Type Two. Until recently, she considered quality time her love language, but after listening to an episode of the podcast If Books Could Kill, she now thinks love languages are “kind of bullshit.”

Her path toward inner omniscience first began with a foundation in astrology, which Hernandez says she discovered as a child. Then came Enneagram — a personality test labeling respondents with one of nine types — which predated learning her attachment style at the behest of her therapist. Later, she took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Just as a medical diagnosis can explain a patient’s symptoms, Hernandez sees personality identifiers as succinct validation for why she is the way she is. She attributes descriptors such as “insecure,” “reliable,” and having an “intense relationship with your mother” to her various personality types. Whenever she mentions her astrological sign or attachment style to other similarly personality-informed conversation partners, “I feel like they understand who I am just by these signifiers,” Hernandez says. “It makes conversations easier.”

People have long been motivated to define the inner workings of their minds, but never quite had the wide array of tools or language to clearly communicate who they are until fairly recently. From Myers-Briggs and Enneagram to love languages and Hogwarts houses, we are sufficiently armed with the means to classify and define ourselves — and with bite-size descriptors in which to broadcast our findings.

These assessments and quizzes and identifiers, though, only tell one side of the multidimensional story that is a human life. Self-reflection has its utility, but a test or a rigid personality type may not provide the answers we’re looking for. The question of whether we can ever truly know ourselves — and whether the means of obtaining that information from a quiz is legitimate — isn’t as important as what we do with that insight.

The quest for self-knowledge is as old as humanity

We’ve been attempting to make sense of our minds, our personalities, our motivations, for millennia. The origin of the age-old axiom “know thyself” extends as far back as ancient Greece, after all. In contemporary times, the rise of psychoanalysis and the belief that an all-knowing shrink can mine your psyche was a strong “cultural prompt” inspiring people toward introspection, says Mitch Green, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut and author of Know Thyself: The Value and Limits of Self-Knowledge.

In 1917, American personality testing began in earnest with Woodworth’s Personal Data Sheet, an assessment given to soldiers during World War I to identify those who might react negatively to enemy fire. In the 1940s, Katherine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers developed the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator based on the work of Carl Jung, who posited that people were either introverted or extroverted; that test ascribes one of 16 personality types based on where test-takers lean when it comes to extraversion versus introversion, judging versus perceiving, intuition versus sensing, and thinking versus feeling.

Less than a century later, there are hundreds of assessments and classification systems, measuring everything from emotional intelligence to how you display love, and ranging in scientific validity. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is notoriously based on unproven theories and was conceived of by a mother-daughter pair with no formal psychology training. Attachment styles are ever-changing and can vary from relationship to relationship. Research about love languages is not definitive regarding whether the five love language categories — acts of service, physical touch, quality time, gifts, and words of affirmation — are accurate.

Other assessments are revenue drivers in a $2 billion industry based on the premise of self-enlightenment: know how you react and respond in situations both professional and personal and crack the code to interpersonal relationships. Most people recognize BuzzFeed quizzes such as “What Succession character are you?” as purely for entertainment purposes, but when your company requests employees take an evaluation commonly used in work settings, like the 16 Personalities assessment, which remixes the 16 Myers-Briggs personality types by adding another letter — A or T, for assertive or turbulent — the line is blurred.

“There’s just so many random supposed ‘personality assessments,’” says Jennifer Fayard, an associate professor of psychology at Ouachita Baptist University. “And they’re absolute rubbish. They are made by random people with no training or no understanding. Just because you get a result on a personality quiz doesn’t mean that it means anything.”

Poor design is a feature, not a bug, of personality assessments, says Randy Stein, a professor of marketing at California State Polytechnic University Pomona. In a study of personality assessments, Stein found that the more opaque or confusing the questions, the “deeper” respondents considered the test. “The more disconnected the questions and the results, the more it seems to be getting at something underlying who you really are,” or so the reasoning goes, according to Stein. If questions on a personality quiz can be interpreted five different ways by as many people, test-takers trick themselves into thinking the assessment is uncovering something so profound that they never considered it before. However, legitimate personality assessments have questions so specific that each respondent interprets them in the same way, Stein says. It’s the difference between an abstract question like, “Are you drawn more to (a) fundamentals (b) overtones and nuance?” and rating how strongly you agree with a clear statement like, “I get stressed out easily.

In reality, the results of personality tests and self-identifiers are never wholly surprising. If they were, the assessment was either poorly designed or you answered the questions inauthentically. “We live with ourselves, we watch what we do, and we watch how we feel and how we think,” Fayard says. “Despite that insider information, I think there’s still a tendency for people to assume that if they take a test, it’s going to spit out some magical secret that’s going to help them understand themselves better.” On the contrary, these quizzes are like a mirror, reflecting back exactly what you show it. If I always feel anxious when people are slow to text me back, and I know this to be a hallmark of anxious attachment style, then I can deduce I am anxiously attached.

But life is a mosaic of experiences and emotions. It is nearly impossible to put one label on a person’s existence, one box in which to place yourself. In parallel with the rise of online self-diagnosis — where memes and TikToks seemingly describe symptoms of many conditions, from ADHD to autism spectrum disorder — self-categorization allows people to put a stamp on what is typically a complex condition. Explanations of each type are simplified and broad, meant to have as wide an appeal as possible for those looking for “a simple explanation for the complex mess that is my life and my relationship with people,” Green says. “It’d be nice if there was a single one-paragraph narrative that puts it all together. We tend to gravitate toward those things.”

Relationships and personalities aren’t so neatly defined. Personality traits are measured on a spectrum, not in binaries, says Simine Vazire, a professor of psychology ethics and well-being at the University of Melbourne. Rather than being extroverted or not, most people have some percentage of extraversion. The Big Five personality test, which Vazire considers an accurate assessment, measures to what degree you inhabit the “big five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Rather than sort test-takers into strict types, it merely informs you whether you’re high in neuroticism or low in agreeableness. But percentiles aren’t sexy; they don’t make for good conversation. “It’s not how we communicate,” Vazire says. “I say, ‘How are you?’ ... You don’t tell me, ‘Well, I’m 17 percent as good as yesterday.’” That we’d lean toward clear-cut terminology to describe ourselves isn’t altogether shocking.

Because descriptions of many “types” or “styles” or “signs” — from zodiac sign to Enneagram type — are vague and broad, people often find something in it they identify with, known as the Barnum effect. Any person who reads any vague descriptor claiming to explain who they are could realistically find something in the passage that resonates with them, Stein says, something that makes them say, “This is so me.”

Personality types as a force for change

To feel seen, of course, is often what people want.

A few years ago, Andrew Flynn was in a turbulent period of his life: He’d just finished grad school in Scotland, moved to Westminster, Colorado, where he lives now, and started a job in renewable energy tech. All the while, his relationships felt more tenuous than ever. He was embroiled in conflict with his roommates; romantic relationships weren’t panning out. In an effort to understand himself — and how he connected, or didn’t, to the people in his life — he took a free version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator online and discovered he was an ENTP. Described as “innovative,” “entrepreneurial,” and “unpredictable,” Flynn, now 33, says the ENTP signifier “summarizes my existence in a really succinct, bizarre way.” From his penchant for procrastination or conversations some might not consider “polite,” he says, learning his personality type provided context for his interpersonal relationships, both romantic and platonic. He’s become more observant about how other people react at work or while dating, noticing others’ behavior in contrast to his own impulses. “I can see a lot of the ways that I could be doing things better and then I just choose not to,” Flynn says. “I understand how I’m going to fuck this up and I’m just going to continue to carry on this way anyway.”

The validation provided by self-identifiers can inspire tangible change. Knowing your attachment style within a particular relationship can explain why you feel clingy or distant and help illuminate areas for growth. However, it’s arguably easier and cheaper to watch a YouTube video or take a quiz online than it is to seek out a mental health professional, pay for therapy, and spend time working through those issues (though that’s hardly necessary).

Taking stock of past trauma helped 35-year-old Randy Kakumei develop healthier relationships — all thanks to attachment style. Following a breakup nearly a decade ago, Kakumei’s only motivation was to reconcile with his ex. Like any web-savvy millennial, he searched YouTube for videos on how to get back together with a former partner. Instead, he found a video explaining attachment styles. The clip, Kakumei says, illustrated the qualities of a relationship between an anxiously attached person and an avoidantly attached person: The anxious character feels needy and insecure, the avoidant party pulls away. “It was like she was describing my relationship between me and my partner,” Kakumei, who lives in Slidell, Louisiana, says, “like, to a T.”

From the video, Kakumei deduced he had an anxious attachment style with his former partner, stemming from fraught relationships with parental figures in his childhood. Kakumei was adopted as a child to an older couple with military backgrounds who he says were cold and unloving. “It’s been a constant battle of feeling like I’m not enough,” he says. “Nobody’s going to accept me. Nobody loves me. Nobody cares about me.” In his adult relationships, he says, he constantly sought validation to compensate for the affection he lacked growing up.

Learning his attachment style was revelatory. Suddenly, Kakumei had a name for emotions and fears he believed were singular to his experience. Through working with a life coach and confronting his past — realizing the stories he told himself about being undeserving of love were just that: stories — Kakumei says he now is securely attached. About six months after their breakup, Kakumei reconciled with his ex. They are still together.

Attachment style can be an effective tool for parsing the dynamics of different relationships, Fayard says. But when we too heavily ascribe to one classification or identifier, we run the risk of using these personality types to justify bad behavior. Introverts may feel their personality type gives them permission to avoid social contact or reject a potential romantic partner because they may have a supposedly conflicting personality type. Clinging to specific descriptors makes it easier for people to put blinders up to certain aspects of their personalities because they aren’t neatly aligned with their type, Fayard says. “People I know that are really into the Enneagram, if they have things that maybe are causing some relationship issues or [things they] just need to work on, you hear a lot of ‘That’s just my type, that’s just my type,’” she says. “It’s almost like, ‘I don’t need to examine myself or work on myself or make any concessions because this is my type.’ I think that could potentially be harmful.”

Some fans of Enneagram, like Jenna DeWitt, a 34-year-old from Redlands, California, see the personality type as a means for personal development. “You’re supposed to grow out of that type,” DeWitt says. About a decade ago, DeWitt took the Enneagram test and discovered she was a Type Three, which she describes as someone who believes they need to earn their worth, “believing you have to work really hard to get love from other people,” she says. But instead of fixating on the type’s shortcomings, like shame or burnout, DeWitt uses her type to understand what drives her and how to use qualities of other types — the strength of Eights, the creativity of Fours — to her advantage. “I have learned as a Three that I was using these accomplishments, the tasks that I had in front of me to get done for the day. ... It really felt like every time I was trying to achieve more and more I wasn’t getting what I really wanted,” DeWitt says. “What I want is love and belonging. What I want is to have that security in my identity, to feel like I truly am worthy of the things around me.”

For all the self-insight we possess, we are not the most accurate judges of our personalities. We underestimate how much others appreciate us and overestimate our own competence. It’s more pleasant to think about all of the times we were kind over the instances we were not, and this selective memory can impact how we report seeing ourselves. Any quiz or category we lump ourselves into doesn’t take into account how others perceive us. Short of asking our friends to compile a PowerPoint presentation of all of our strengths and weaknesses, Vazire says a more holistic way of learning about ourselves is to share our personality test results with people we trust to see how it compares to their view of us. “I don’t know that I would recommend it,” she says. “I’ve never actually gotten that far in my research where we just literally told people how other people close to them saw them. I don’t know that we can know if we’re ready for that information.”

Perhaps all we can tolerate — all we’re willing to tolerate — is what we already knew about ourselves all along: our willingness to speak up in work meetings, how we react to our partners, our organizational skills. Ascribing labels to the way we see ourselves can be clarifying when so much of life is convoluted and without clear explanations. But it isn’t all we are.

“Simple explanations are good,” Green says. “But simple explanations are hard to find.”

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