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.


Joseph Ratzinger on Suffering

“Pain and disease can paralyze one as a human being. They can shatter one to pieces, not only physically, but also psychologically and spiritually. However, they can also smash down complacency and spiritual lethargy and lead one to find oneself for the first time. The struggle with suffering is the place of human decision-making par excellence. Here the human project becomes flesh and blood. Here man is forced to face the fact that existence is not at his disposal, nor is his life his own property. Man may snap back defiantly that he will nevertheless try to acquire the power that will make it so. But in so doing, he makes a desperate anger his basic attitude to life. There is a second possibility: man can respond by seeking to trust this strange power to whom he is subject. He can allow himself to be led, unafraid, by the hand, without Angst-ridden concern for his situation. And in this second case, the human attitude towards pain, towards the presence of death within living, merges with the attitude we call love.”

Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, 95-96.

Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?


John Calvin on the Body, from Psychopannychia

We are better taught by the Sacred Writings. The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body? Whether they will or not, they must be forced to confess, that when we put off the load of the body, the war between the spirit and the flesh ceases. In short, the mortification of the flesh is the quickening of the spirit. Then the soul, set free from impurities, is truly spiritual, so as to be in accordance with the will of God, and not subject to the tyranny of the flesh, rebelling against it. In short, the mortification of the flesh will be the quickening of the spirit: For then the soul, having shaken off all kinds of pollution, is truly spiritual, so that it consents to the will of God, and is no longer subjected to the tyranny of the flesh; thus dwelling in tranquillity, with all its thoughts fixed on God. Are we to say that it sleeps, when it can rise aloft unencumbered with any load? – that it slumbers, when it can perceive many things by sense and thought, no obstacle preventing? These things not only manifest the errors of these men, but also their malignant hostility to the works and operations which the Scriptures proclaim that God performs in his saints.

Aquinas’s Logic of Temptation

This is useful for understanding the relation of body and soul in Aquinas for several reasons. First, the spiritual governs the corporeal, so temptation comes through the body. Second, the movements of appetite make perception more acute, or the body prepares the soul’s cognition. Third, imagination produces appetite, or the soul prepares the body, at least in part.

Summa Theologica, I-II.80.2

Hence, the entirety of the devil’s interior operation seems to focus on the imagination and sentient appetite.


By moving the two of them, he is able to induce a man to sin, since he can operate in such a way as

to present certain imagined forms to the imagination, and he can likewise

bring it about that the sentient appetite is excited with some passion.


For it was explained in the First Part (ST 1, q. 110, a. 3) that a corporeal nature naturally obeys a spiritual nature with respect to local motion.


Hence, the devil, too, is able to cause everything that can arise from the local motion of lower bodies, unless he is held back by God’s power.


Now the fact that forms are represented to the imagination follows sometimes from local motion.

For in De Somno et Vigilia the Philosopher says, “When an animal sleeps and the blood descends to the sentient principle in a large quantity, the movements or impressions that are left by sensible motions and that are conserved in the sensible species descend at the same time and move the apprehensive principle in such a way that the impressions appear in the way they would if the sentient principle were at that time being affected by the exterior things themselves.”

Hence, this sort of local motion on the part of the humors or [animal] spirits can be procured by demons whether the man in question is asleep or awake, and in this way it follows that the man imagines certain things.


Similarly, the sentient appetite is likewise excited toward certain passions in accord with certain determinate movements of the heart and [animal] spirits; hence, the devil can likewise operate to effect this.


And from the fact that certain passions are excited in the sentient appetite, it follows that the man perceives more acutely the sensible movement or tendency that is traced back, in the way just explained, to the apprehensive principle;

for as the Philosopher says in the same book, “Lovers are moved to the apprehension of the beloved even by a slight similarity.”


Again, because the passion is excited, it happens that what is proposed to the imagination is judged to be something that should be pursued;

for someone who is in the grips of a passion (ei qui a passione detinetur) is such that what he is inclined toward by the passion seems good to him. And it is in this way that the devil induces a man interiorly to sin.

The Forbearing Community

The challenge of any community is that we all have ways of being that cause tremendous pain to others. Our own assumptions of what is due to us or just our unconscious drives for love, affirmation, and satisfaction can make life unbearable to others. We sin both by demanding what others cannot give and by not giving what we never even thought of giving. Yet the real pain caused by our inattention and habitual desire is serious. This is why the only real community that can exist is a Christian community. A real community must be sustained by forbearing the pain caused by others. We must be able to say, “This pain I charge not to them, because God has not. In fact, God has not charged to me the pain I am causing them, but has become the great bearer of pain, making forgiveness possible. And since human forgiveness and forbearance is always responsive to God’s forgiving, my forbearing this pain is simply doing less than what God has done for me in Jesus.”

Calvin: Conflating Heart and Will

Calvin does use the word “heart” in many ways throughout The Institutes. But at least when he’s talking about the depravity of the psychological faculties, he takes the biblical uses of “heart” as references to the corrupt will. I think this is a problem, but I make no comment about that here. But to preserve a key example:

God, therefore, begins the good work in us by exciting in our hearts a desire, a love, and a study of righteousness, or (to speak more correctly) by turning, training, and guiding our hearts unto righteousness; and he completes this good work by confirming us unto perseverance. But lest any one should cavil that the good work thus begun by the Lord consists in aiding the will, which is in itself weak, the Spirit elsewhere declares what the will, when left to itself, is able to do. His words are, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them,” (Ezek. 36:26, 27). How can it be said that the weakness of the human will is aided so as to enable it to aspire effectually to the choice of good, when the fact is, that it must be wholly transformed and renovated?

John Calvin, Institutes, II.3.6