An Email: Personality Tests

[Dear Niece,]

Glad you asked! Here’s how I look at personality tests, Myers-Briggs included. The first question is are they capturing something accurate about reality? Or, is it true that people do really have these sorts of characteristic differences, or does the test create the appearance of differences that do not exist? I think the answer here is that they do help point out real differences. They aren’t “natural kinds.” In other words God didn’t create the Myers-Briggs categories, but humans found them useful to uncover some aspects of the complex reality he has created. If you take the Myers-Briggs you’ll likely find descriptions and videos that capture how you see the world pretty well (my description) and even help to explain some of your behaviors to yourself. But the difficulty is that all personality tests tend to produce these sorts of results. I think it is likely that human beings are complex enough that there are multiple ways to draw commonalities to the surface, and each way of slicing these commonalities contributes to a clearer overall picture of how we work. So, I’d be careful investing too much significance into just one type of personality test. Think of them as sets of lenses that are bound to distort reality, but also help you to notice things you wouldn’t have.

But the second question is more important, are these helpful, if if so, how much? One angle into this is comparing how the two most popular tests are used, the Myers-Briggs and the Big Five Inventory. The Myers-Briggs is very commonly used within business organizations because its results aren’t very prejudiced against a particular type. The results are sometimes framed as if each type has strengths and weaknesses. When we did it with our church we watched these videos, which now require a paid subscription. The guy on the video talked about each personality type’s superpower and kryptonite. It was genuinely helpful. Psychologists, on the other hand, give the Big Five Inventory (BFI), which is much more helpful for assessing and addressing mental disorder, but is correspondingly less neutral about traits. People who are high in neuroticism, for example, are generally unhappy. The Myers-Briggs helps business to leverage people’s strengths and weaknesses; the BFI helps psychologists to figure out how people go wrong. In each case, the generalities that the tests provide bring “insight” or self-knowledge that help people know how to lean into strengths and fix weaknesses.

Third, the tests are most destructive when people use them as an excuse for not taking responsibility and for blaming others. Introverts have often recognized that America is prejudiced toward extroverts. They are right about this, but it not very helpful to know this if you can’t fix it. It tends to create victims. Being a victim is a horrible place to be psychologically because you develop a hatred to your imagined oppressor. These tests can also be used to box people in, to make quick judgments about what people are capable or incapable of. (As a general rule, fixing these sorts of things is accomplished by a combination of raising awareness/action of/toward systemic issues and taking personal responsibility in spite of them.)

Finally, these tests capture only characteristics of a person at a point in time. People’s personalities do change somewhat. I usually say for mental illness that as a rule of thumb genetics account for about 40% of it, and experience/choices about 60%. With personality, it seems that genetics accounts for more than 40%, but still is not totally determinative. Genetics accounts for the basic range of possibilities for a person’s personality. Epigenetics refers to how this range of possibilities actually expresses for a person, which aspects of the genetic make up actually get activated. Take Molly for example. I think genetically her personality is more likely to be extroverted, and she tests as a borderline extrovert. However, she functions much more like an introvert. Because of the anxiety of her childhood she is much more sensitive to noise and stress than she otherwise would have been and is much more like an introvert in some ways (introverts are more sensitive to noise generally). I used to test INTJ and now test INFJ. I think I have grown more empathetic over the last ten years, especially walking through suffering with Molly. So, I wouldn’t invest too much significance into categories as determining your life or personality. They are useful for self-understanding and growth, but they do not capture everything about us or set fixed limits on our abilities to change.

Hope that’s helpful.

– m

P.S. If you take the Myers-Briggs, I’d love to know how you score. Also, try out the BFI since this is the standard test for psychologists. It might be interesting to compare the results of the two tests.


“Pilgrim’s Problem,” by C.S. Lewis

By now I should be entering on the supreme stage
Of the whole walk, reserved for the late afternoon.
The heat was to be over now; the anxious mountains,
The airless valleys and the sun-baked rocks, behind me.

Now, or soon now, if all is well, come the majestic
Rivers of foamless charity that glide beneath
Forests of contemplation. In the grassy clearings
Humility with liquid eyes and damp, cool nose
Should come, half-tame, to eat bread from my hermit hand.
If storms arose, then in my tower of fortitude–
It ought to have been in sight by this–I would take refuge;
But I expected rather a pale mackerel sky,
Feather-like, perhaps shaking from a lower cloud
Light drops of silver temperance, and clovery earth
Sending up mists of chastity, a country smell,
Till earnest stars blaze out in the established sky
Rigid with justice; the streams audible; my rest secure.

I can see nothing like all this. Was the map wrong?
Maps can be wrong. But the experienced walker knows
That the other explanation is more often true.

Polanyi on the Need for Tradition in Science

Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, 63-64.

“Let me display the inescapable need for a tradi­tional framework first in one example of great mod­ern endeavor, which may then serve as a paradigm for other intellectual and moral progress in a free, dynamic society. My example will be the pursuit of the natural sciences. This may be surprising, for modern science was founded through the violent rejection of authority. Throughout the formative cen­turies of modem science, the revolt against author­ity was its battle cry: it was sounded by Bacon and Descartes, and by the founders of the Royal Society in their device, Nullius in Verba, What these men said was true and important at the time, but once the adversaries they fought had been defeated, the repudiation of all authority or tradition by science became a misleading slogan.

“The popular conception of science teaches that science is a collection of observable facts, which any­ body can verify for himself. We have seen that this is not true in the case of expert knowledge, as in diagnosing a disease. But it is not true either in the physical sciences. In the first place, you cannot pos­sibly get hold of the equipment for testing, for ex­ample, a statement of astronomy or of chemistry. And supposing you could somehow get the use of an observatory or a chemical laboratory, you would probably damage their instruments beyond repair before you ever made an observation. And even if you should succeed in carrying out an observation to check upon a statement of science and you found a result which contradicted it, you would rightly assume that you had made a mistake.

“The acceptance of scientific statements by lay­ men is based on authority, and this is true to nearly the same extent for scientists using results from branches of science other than their own. Scientists must rely heavily for their facts on the authority of fellow scientists.

“This authority is enforced in an even more personal manner in the control exercised by scientists over the channels through which contributions are submitted to all other scientists. Only offerings that are deemed sufficiently plausible are accepted for publication in scientific journals, and what is re­jected will be ignored by science. Such decisions are based on fundamental convictions about the nature of things and about the method which is therefore likely to yield results of scientific merit. These be­liefs and the art of scientific inquiry based on them are hardly codified: they are, in the main, tacitly implied in the traditional pursuit of scientific inquiry.”

Lamentations 5:12-22

Princes they hung by their hands, respect they stripped from the elders

Young men rattle the millstone, boys stagger under their loads

Wise elders have abandoned the gates, young men quit their songs

Our hearts have abandoned their joy, our bodies that danced now mourn

The crown has crashed from our head, woe to us, sinners

In all these things, our hearts retch, in all these things our eyes swim

Mount Zion is desolate, foxes forage, scavenge its hill

You, YHWH, are enthroned forever, from generation to generation

Why do you forget us forever? Why have you forsaken us so long?

Bring us back to you, so we return, and renew the days of old

Unless you have utterly rejected us, and are settled in your anger

Lamentations 5:1-11

Lord, remember what has happened to us; look at us; see our disgrace

Our possessions were given to strangers, our homes to squatters

We are fatherless, orphans, our mothers are widows

We pay for our water, and also our wood to heat and to eat

We are constantly exploited, we are weary without rest

We’ve pledged to Egypt and to Assyria, simply to eat our bread

Our fathers sinned and are dead, while we bear their iniquity

Slaves delight to rule us, we’ve no escape from their whip

We exchange our lives for our food, the sword sneaks in the wilderness

Our skins burn like fire, the fever of hunger

The women of Zion they raped, the virgins of the city of Judah

Lamentations 4:15-22

Outraged, they cry, “Turn aside! Unclean! Turn aside! Do not touch us!”
The roaches scatter incoherently; “they cannot stay,” it is said among the tribes

Personally, YHWH has shattered and scattered them away from his protective watch
The priests are not esteemed, the elders not revered

Ragged, weary eyes failed, vainly peering for unpromised help
From exposed towers we watched for a nation that would not save us

Steps marked by enemy hunters, poachers sighted us in deserted streets
Our lives had been spent, their days counted to the bitter end

Those who stalked us swooped deadly swift like the eagles of the heavens
Relentlessly pursuing us onto the mountains only to ambush us in the wilderness

Unexpectedly, our breath of life, YHWH’s anointed king, was caught in their snare
Of whom we had said, “We live in his shadow, his shelter from the nations”

Well up in triumph! Rejoice! Daughters of Edom, who dwell in the land of Uz, for now!
You too will drink from this cup; you will be drunk and exposed

Your iniquity is full and finished, Daughter Zion, the exile will not always endure
But YHWH will avenge your iniquity, daughter Edom; he will expose your sins

Lamentations 4:8-14

Humiliated, they now vaunt black visage, sooty features grimace,
Not recognized in the streets, shriveled tree-bark skin shrouds bones

It is fortunate to have died, better to be violated by the sword than by hunger
Wasting slowly, pierced by pangs of the fruitless wasted fields

Juicy morsels of children have grimed the compassionate fingers of loving mothers
They, delicate fare for my cracked daughter people

Kettle whistling, the boiling wrath of God was fit, fiercely to pour;
He scorched Zion melting its foundations

Long unimaginable, neither the kings of the land, nor the inhabitants of the world
Could brave belief of an enemy entering the gates of Jerusalem

My eyes have seen it, by the sins of her prophets, by the iniquity of her priests;
They poured out an offering in the midst of the people, the blood of the righteous

Noxious, unclean, the blind men wander madly in the streets
Defiled by the blood they poured, so no one risks touching their garments