Magic and Myers-Briggs

Personality tests can be accurate and helpful. People taking these tests tend to scare me. For a long time I conflated the test with its takers and thus developed a longstanding, unthought, ideological commitment to freaking out whenever anyone tried to pin my possible personality type. Phrases like “don’t crush me with your overburdened psychological systems” were common. Deliberately confusing the meanings of “sanguine” and “phlegmatic” so I wouldn’t accidentally associate myself with any particular temperament was a habitual exercise. But the problem I have with personality tests — and ultimately, all tests — is really the mode in which we take it, a mode specific to an age shaking terrified with the thought of being a particular person.

Consider a typical personality test. It will ask a series of questions about what we most often do, something like:

1. When you are criticized for doing something wrong, you become:

a) shy

b) angry

c) encouraged


2. When you face a problem do you

a) make a plan

b) tackle it head on

Real tests would have more nuance and more options, but let us admit the trend of the questions — we reflect on a hypothetical situation and respond with what we would most likely do.

All tests of the Myers-Briggs ilk are tautologies.  They are tautological because their results cannot exceed my input. If out of 100 questions, I 100 times affirm that I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation, all my 100-question test-result really says is that “I am likely to grow angry over criticism and confrontation.” Sure, a test may express its tautological conclusions in words that sound like it has digested our answers and excreted some new diamond — as when we tell a test in 100 different ways that we are most likely to look outwardly than inwardly, and it tells us we are an “extrovert” — but closer inspection reveals that this new “identity” is no more than a simplified expression of what we usually do — an “extrovert” is defined as a person more likely to look outwardly than inwardly. The problem with test-takers is that we conflate words which summarize and offer back to us our habits with words that serve as identities given to us by the test. Tests give us helpful tautologies, but we want alchemy, to birth from the meager iron of what we usually do the gold of who we are.

There is an infinite, qualitative difference between what we usually do and who we are. The test-result gives us the former, but can never give us the latter. I believe we suffer from an inordinate desire to ignore this fact. If the test can give us who we are, we can be freed from the responsibility of becoming who we are. Our identity will be told to us. Gone then, the crisis of the American denizen, who is without God, estranged from family, frightened of marriage, hollowed of culture, free from gender, ignorant of history, bored of patriotism, skeptical of ideology, divorced from the land and otherwise speedily running out of any identity-forming values. No longer is he reduced to a stutter over that question of personal identity — who are you? Now, through the test, he may answer in confidence, “told” with authority that he is a heterosexual, a moderate-conservative, an ENFP, a gift-giver and a bi-romantic tactile-learner with ADD and an IQ hardly worth mentioning.

That this illusion amounts to alchemy is no idle analogy. The most satisfying test-taking experience — the one that leaves us with a feeling of really being something — this only satisfies to the extent that it is a magical experience.

Consider how a satisfying test harbors an air of mystery between our responses and the final test-result. We do not want to “see where this is going” while we take it. There is no fun if we can anticipate the result of our answers. By being able to predict the test we are taking — saying “oh, if I answer it this way, of course it will say I’m an introvert” — we reveal our implicit understanding that the test-result is really only our responses told back to us. We don’t want our responses told back to us. We want an identity. Far better, then, are the questions that obscure the relation between our answers and the final result, asking us for answers we cannot easily connect to some objective personality type. This desire for a hidden mechanism is typical of magical desire — to not know how a result was achieved and to revel in the not-knowing. Can we deny the pleasure we take in this, the powerful feeling that accompanies having our identity so mysteriously given to us, so that we say in astonishment, reading the paragraph that describes our “type” — “How did it know this about me?” It is necessary for us to forget the mechanism of tests if we are to extract identity and not the only thing tests offer — limited reflection.

Another requirement for really enjoyable test-taking is the atmosphere of science.

If we can be assured that a test guaranteeing us new information regarding our sexual identity is a scientific test, we will enjoy the thing all the more, and be far more likely to stand up from it with the feeling of being something — a type. This is not to denigrate the role of the scientific method in the creation of personality tests, but to point out that the test-taker’s faith in the scientific test is nearly indistinguishable from an earlier age’s faith in the shaman, the wizard, or the temple priest. We are not scientific in our faith in the scientific. We are superstitious. We do not assess the test’s claims to “scientific effectiveness” using the principles of repeatability or by an analysis of methodology. We find comfort in the mere claim, in the subtitle “created by a psychologist.” We put our faith in the idea that there is a certain type of person, practicing a certain craft, the wisdom of which is too high for us to attain, reliance on whom will guarantee an accurate result. The massive and trivial trade of Internet personality tests understand this about us, and they advertise accordingly:

Advertisements, because their only goal is to have us click the thing, are useful tools in understanding our motivations. Those hawking personality tests have determined that the best way to get the most click is to use two modes of terminology — magic and science. The tests are “eerie” and “developed by psychologists.”

There is nothing scientific about a faith in experts that enables us to say that our identity is a “scientifically proven” identity, type, or personality — by which we mean nothing more than that it comes from an authority. Indeed, any scientist worthy of his noble profession would shudder at our age’s blatant abuse of his trade, our superstitious adherence to a vague concept of science unworthy of the name. A scientifically arranged test is, in actual fact, a test created with an awareness of its tautological nature, an awareness that all that is being given in the test-result is a probability, a generalization and a repetition of input, “true” only within the framework of the test and in comparison to other test-takers, severely limited by its own parameters and always in need of improvement. But the honorably restrained scope of science is no good for the person seeking a magical jump from what he usually does to who he is. It is far better if “science” is understood as an atmosphere of authority, one that validates his given identity and fortifies it against doubt.

Now I know the complaint: There is no one who really believes they are a test-result. And while I concede that no one confronted in this way would ever say “the deepest truth about me is my Myers-Briggs score,” I would argue that there are more ways than these to conflate what we usually do and who we are. Chief among these is the introduction of the test-result into the category of ethics.

And that’s where we’ll pick it up next time.

Selling Our Sins
Women Swiftly Running Out Of Things That Aren’t Sexy
7 Totally Epic Rules For Writing on the Internet
The Difference Between a Renaming and a Baptism
  • Mary

    I really appreciate this and found myself convicted of that same love/hate relationship with personality tests and the desire for some authority to explain me to myself. It’s also why I get frustrated because on any given day I can be any number of types depending on how I act in the moment and therefore I can’t categorize myself despite my desire to do so. Also of note is the temptation that it gives a person to act like the personification of their “type” and not seek to improve to some higher ideal. As the countless memes demonstrate, claiming introvertedness is now an acceptable way to say I like to be rude and extrovertedness is now a claim that obnoxiousness is simply who I am. What I’d really like to know is where Christ would be on that Myers-Briggs. My guess is you couldn’t type Him at all. And maybe we could learn from that.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Like my brother- whose scores on the Meyers-Briggs are so center of the road, that he isn’t strongly any type.

      Unlike me. I know now that it is the Asperger’s, but I score more strongly INFP with each passing year. And I see that as a challenge to fight against.

  • Tony

    Speaking as as someone who is a quantitative psychologist by training, has taken courses and done a PhD dissertation on psychometrics, and has also done a MS thesis in neuroscience & biopsychology, I have to say that this guy’s observations are quite insightful, but they are nothing new to researchers in personality trait theory and psychodiagnostic paradigms. It has long been observed by scholars that personality traits and clinical mental health diagnoses can be treated by unwary individuals, even researchers themselves, as tautologies. In other words, it is logically incorrect, as is often done, to explain someone’s symptoms of hearing voices and seeing hallucinations on a persistent basis because they are schizophrenic, and then in another context, to explain why they are schizophrenic by appeal to the observation that they are hearing voices and seeing hallucinations. Personality traits and psychiatric diagnoses are essentially useful heuristics to help map a persons outer and inner behaviors with respect to a particular paradigm of personality and/or mental health.

    There has been much discussion on how to break the tautological circularity concerning traits and psychiatric diagnoses, and many researchers point to neuroscience as a way out. I personally don’t think that is the answer, and that there will always be a certain about of tautology present when it comes to discussing these issues. However, it sure as heck sounds more “scientific” when a researcher or clinician explains someone’s symptoms of hearing voices and seeing hallucinations as due to an imbalance of glutamate levels and/or its receptors in the frontal cortex, or that someone is more introverted because they have larger than normal levels of dopamine-2 receptors in the mesolimbic forebrain bundle. However, I am more aligned with the scholarly camp that argues that such neuroscientific theories, at best, provide a model of risk or propensity to express particular behaviors. No matter what explanatory theory you have, you still need a way to categorize both outer and inner behaviors. In other words, you still need a good theory of personality and/or mental health in order for there to be something to explain with neuroscientific models.

    • Sarah Hamilton Karnouk

      curious then, what do you say about dx like ADHD and Autism where they are now finding true brain chemistry differences? Do you believe that these differences are causative? or just a by product of a different way of thinking and being in the world? Chicken or egg? I tend to think the fact that they are finding these differences in children does lead to the neuroscience approach holding some water in these examples.

      • Theodore Seeber

        But as my own experience with undiagnosed Asperger’s shows, these are primarily tendencies caused by brain chemistry. With enough willpower, they can be overcome, for short periods and at a cost.

        • Sarah Hamilton Karnouk

          See my son is dx and I do not see will power helping that much, it drives him more metal to have to use will power. I think his brain truly is wired differently. Using will power assumes a knowledge of what is “normal and expected” in terms of behavior, my son does not always have this knowledge, and this is where medication can help to help the brain. When children as young as two and three are being dx I do think it might point to the neursoscientific viewpoint holding real weight.

          • Theodore Seeber

            Medication can’t give him knowledge. It can only stop behaviors that are outside of what are “normal and expected”.

            I would suggest watching these guys videos:

      • Kate Cousino

        Both/and? I have ADHD, as does my son. Meds help me tremendously…but they don’t substitute for all of the good habits of mind that were outside my scope when I was unmedicated. My son was medicated for three months, and improved so much that the ‘effects’ remained when he decided he wanted to try going off meds. In those three months, he caught up in many ways to his classmates, because he had the extra boost he needed to build helpful adaptive habits…what Francis de Sales would tell you are virtues.

        My hope is that judicial use of medication when warranted, targeted virtue training, and pruning of maladaptive mechanisms will actually result in my son forming better and more ‘normal’ neural connections than I did at his age. The brain is amazingly plastic–in adulthood as well, but even more so in childhood. And more and more I see that traditional Catholic spiritual guidance – de Sales and Ignatius of Loyola, especially – are centuries ahead of the methods to make use of this plasticity that current neuroscience and psychology are just beginning to understand.

    • SJMazurek

      I am afraid that the over-zealous use of neuroscience reduces human beings from living creatures to mere machines. Ultimately the result is not a good one.

      • Kate Cousino

        It depends on the neuroscience. :-) We form our minds with our actions, just as much as our minds shape our actions. We are always becoming, and that’s pretty darn mystical, and not very mechanical.

  • Gabriel

    You should read this book.
    The MBTi does not say we are one specific temperament but lean towards one the most. We are all of them in different stages and places in our lives. This book is a way to use your strong temperament in a way that will help you grow in your faith. You external tendencies, or as you say “what we do” are representative of who we are. The MBTI helps us understand, not define, the most representative aspect of who we are. Also, nothing can be proven by science. If we understand all forms of philosophy we know that science is inductive and not deductive. We observe and make conclusions, the same would be for who we are. We observe what we do to help us see who we are, but we will never fully see who we are. The only way to do that would be, as similar to Kant, is to remove our rose colored glasses and see ourselves from Gods point of view. Then and only then will we know who we are. Do not mix your strength in wisdom with a lack knowledge.

  • oregon nurse

    Our culture just loves to label people. It makes things so much easier when we can react to/judge a label instead of a very complicated person.

  • Andrew

    … An outstanding article, captures the potential dangers, and possible opportunities of psychometric interventions. Magic and Alchemy … I liove it!

  • Andrew

    Apologies … An outstanding article, captures the potential dangers, and possible opportunities of psychometric interventions. Magic and Alchemy … I love it!

  • Spectrall

    There is an infinite, qualitative difference between what we usually do and who we are.

    On the contrary, I think people are what they behave like.

  • Paradox

    A person is not identical to their behavior, nor are they identical to their personality. I can potentially switch from being labeled as an INTJ to an ESFP at any given time. But all I can ask is “so what?” As long as a person is so-and-so, that is their personality.
    The test is a way of giving a convenient label (definitely bad), for the sake of telling people the way you think before they converse with you (the jury is out on this, but I personally consider that any possible good is negated by the label). Telling a person who they are with one of these, definitely stupid.
    I guess all I can do now is quote-mine invoke a better word than my own.
    Use, do not abuse… neither abstinence nor excess ever renders a man happy.