Skip to main content

As an eager college freshman sitting in my Psychology 101 class, I voluntarily suffered through weeks of instruction on theories, concepts, and disorders to finally reach the topic that had initially piqued my interest in the course—personality psychology.

My high school–level skill inventories and career aptitude tests had offered up basic insights into the inner workings of my being. But now at the undergrad level, I thought, it’s time to really get to know me. When the professor passed out copies of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), I dutifully filled in every bubble, reflecting on how I prefer to spend my time, interact with others, and see the world around me. At our next class session, I nervously awaited my results. How will the findings capture the complexities of my personality? Who am I really?

Looking back at that moment, it seems silly that a set of strategically worded questions could elicit such anticipation. Yet we all have a desire to peel away the outer layers of ourselves—the ones we show to the world on a daily basis—and delve into the core of who we are.

But, wrapped up in presenting our best self in person and via social media, we often lose sight of the individual constructs of our DNA that yield traits, desires, and preferences that are uniquely our own and our own only. We look outward to personality tests, horoscopes, or even those entertaining BuzzFeed quizzes that dot our news feeds to better understand what exists inward.

We want to understand who we are.

The MBTI is one of the most popular personality assessments to date, with more than fifty million people around the world estimated to have taken it. The test was developed by a mother-daughter duo in 1943 and is largely based on the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Daughter Isabel Myers wanted to help people understand themselves (and others) more fully in a post-war age, so she went about developing the questionnaire to categorize users into one of sixteen personality types.

These types use four metrics to develop a four-letter type that outlines the most prevalent aspects of your personality: extrovert or introvert (how you interact with others), sensing or intuition (how you access information), thinking or feeling (how you make decisions), and judging or perceiving (how you deal with the world).

I doubt my professor realized how much stock I had put into my first MBTI assessment as I finally glanced down at my assessment results to see “INFJ” emblazoned in bold capital letters at the top of the page. Scanning through the multi-page document, I read more about my type, one that’s characterized by introversion, intuition, feeling, and judging.

The “I” for introversion explained my preference for strong relationships with select long-term friends and family. The “N” for intuition related to my affinity for trusting my innate opinions, while the “F” for feeling captured my oddly accurate gut feelings about people and circumstances. As for the “J” in judging, it described my preference for closure and completion, a mark of my doer personality.

None of these findings particularly shocked me, but there was something about seeing it outlined on paper that added clarity to the complexity of what makes me, me. Turns out, INFJ personality types are the rarest of the sixteen types, accounting for less than 1.5 percent of assessment takers. (No wonder my husband is still trying to figure me out.)

There’s a plethora of websites offering further insights into each MBTI type, which quickly becomes a rabbit hole for personality test enthusiasts like me. One site noted that INFJs are “people capable of taking concrete steps to realize their goals and make a lasting positive impact.” Another said that we “live in a world of hidden meanings and possibilities.”

We are granted permission to be ourselves.

But more than just an ego stroke, results from personality tests have the ability to meld one-off self-assessments. This could include a preference for a quiet dinner with a friend versus a late-night romp at a downtown club with a group of girls or a desire to check off to-do list tasks versus working list-free to elicit the most creative thinking.

Whether it’s the MBTI, DISC or StrengthsFinder (Amazon’s bestselling nonfiction book ever), there’s a lot to gain from this introspection. Self-awareness allows us to honor our core personalities in a way that we may not have been able to before putting all of the pieces together. In a noisy, stressful culture, defining ourselves with the help of personality assessments, and a host of other ways, helps us step forward confidently and authentically.

We want to believe the best is yet to come.

Horoscopes are another way that people seek to understand themselves, particularly with what may lie just around the corner. If you think that horoscopes are a thing of the past, entombed in outdated relics like a tangible newspaper or magazine (gasp!), think again. The American Federation of Astrologers estimates that up to 70 million Americans read their horoscope daily. That’s more than 20 percent of the population.

While many casual horoscope readers view these short snippets of blanket insights and predictions as pure entertainment, others see these blurbs as much more. One study found that 58 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans believe astrology is scientific. Yet horoscope writers like Jonathan Cainer, an astrologer who writes for Britain’s The Daily Mail, admits to crafting columns that purposefully avoid specifics.

“You develop the art of being vague,” he said.

We all want to feel in control or one step ahead of what the world has in store for us. So many of us turn to seemingly innocent “future-predicting” horoscopes for answers. As for trusting the content, people are more likely to believe favorable horoscopes. We want to believe the best is yet to come, and these statements reassure us that a special someone will finally make an appearance or that better job prospects are on the horizon.

Corporations also want to believe the best is yet to come, particularly with whom they hire. Hours of company time and money hinges on selecting the right candidate, so many organizations turn to personality assessments to see if the new hire will mesh with the corporate culture. It’s debatable if these assessments make for better employees in the long-run, but the number of companies using this type of pre-screening continues to grow. The 2016 Global Assessment Barometer used data from more than 2,700 participants in 14 counties to find that online assessment is growing. Fifty-two percent of participants using online assessment, mostly in the hiring process, but also for employee development.

Scott Smith, a human resources vice president, told the Chicago Tribune that he thinks online personality assessments reveal key things that human interviews can miss.

“Oftentimes,” he said, “someone interviews very well, and then we run the assessments and find red flags that were not readily apparent,” such as a tendency to get aggressive under pressure.

Just as we want to understand ourselves, organizations want to do the same. With online personality assessments continuing to become commonplace in the corporate world, having a better understanding of the intricacies of our own personalities can help job-seekers. This knowledge can lead us to positions that fit our strengths and increase the likelihood of eliciting assessment results that jibe with the desired personality traits of the company.

We can’t replace self-introspection.

It goes without saying that individuals are all complex and multi-layered, so many choices are also situational. This makes the accuracy of these types of assessments difficult to gauge. Many swear by the results, posting their strengths or traits on their cube walls for co-workers to see, but others are less than thrilled by their popularity.

There are plenty of nay-sayers that question the validity of these assessments, particularly since it’s nearly impossible to accurately capture the fullest extent of each person’s personality over the course of time and multiple retakes. The Cult of Personality Testing author Annie Murphy Paul said in a 2016 essay that “personality testing is an industry the way astrology or dream analysis is an industry: slippery, often underground, hard to monitor or measure.”

We all want to better understand ourselves, and this starts by investing in the lifelong journey of self-discovery and understanding. So take the results with a grain a salt, but don’t negate the power of these tools. Overarching themes still emerge and provide powerful insights that help us better understand who we are. Especially at the start of a new year, diving headfirst into this quest is a vital part of self-care.