A Short History of Personality Tests - Verily

The first time you took a personality test, did anyone tell you what it was?

I was in eighth grade, and the test was not called a test at all, but a “career inventory.” It purported to tell my teenaged classmates and me which jobs we were best suited for. Great! I bubbled in my answers eagerly, thrilled at the chance to get outside confirmation about the future I’d dreamed up for myself as an Atticus Finch-style social justice lawyer.

I was not prepared when the results came back. According to the insolent little pamphlet my teacher passed out, I’d be happiest as a clergy person, or . . . an undertaker. I stared at the words funeral director, willing them to turn into, at the very least, patent attorney. At the time I was not remotely religious, nor did I fancy selling coffins. How accurate could this test be?

In the test’s defense, I never did end up going to law school, and years later I did explore becoming a nun. During one college break, I sat on a neat little bed in my room at the convent I was visiting and cried. It was my first night, the sisters were so nice, and I really wanted to have a “calling,” but it was immediately clear: This Was Not It. The “career inventory” was still a bust, in my case.

You’ve probably taken a similar test yourself at some point in your life. Personally, I can’t stop trying them, along with assessments that tell me how idealistic I am, what my preferred communication style is, or solve less-important problems like “Which Pride and Prejudice Sister Are You?” (Answer: the pretty one, duh). With the help of the internet, it has never been easier to find new ways to discover more about our personalities, from the silly to the serious. Why have personality tests taken over your social media feeds, and where did they come from anyway?

Being placed

One of the best-known scenes in Harry Potter is the moment when Harry and his fellow new students encounter the “sorting hat.” This magical chapeau sits on the kids’ heads, reads their hearts, and assigns them to an academic house that’s the best fit for them. One classmate’s personality stinks so much of ambition that the hat barely rests on his brow before it sorts him into Slytherin, the shady house for students with questionable motives. Harry almost gets assigned to Team Slytherin, too, but ultimately he winds up in Gryffindor, the squad for kids whose personalities could be summed up as “courageous.”

The scene is also a good summary for why personality tests are so irresistible. If a quiz can tell you who you are, perhaps it can also tell you who you will be. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared that “character is destiny,” a phrase which often is interpreted to refer to ethics, but can also include personality traits. Maybe Harry’s fate as a champion was sealed the moment the hat labeled him with a heroic personality? One of the main tenets of psychometrics—the science of measuring and quantifying psychology—is that your personality doesn’t change, no matter how much you otherwise change as a person. Perhaps I quietly suspect that there’s a hidden power humming at my center, and with the right self-knowledge, I could finally pull the sword from the stone in my heart and reign as the “once and future queen” in my life story.

Most of all, maybe people simply enjoy being sorted. A personality test offers an experience that simultaneously confirms how different you are from the mass of humanity, and at the same time identifies a new club for you to belong to: your fellow Guardians, Type 2s, or ESTPs are out there, the results reassure you. It’s the same pleasing “we stand apart, together,” sensation one can get from researching genealogy or pledging a sorority. In her book, Reading People, blogger Anne Bogel says that “understanding personality is like holding a good map.” Think of a priceless document that points out which bridges have trolls, with all the clean rest stops carefully marked. The lifelong mission to understand ourselves and the other humans around us is a perilous adventure. Who would set out on such a quest without decent GPS?

Tests for every occasion

To be frank, the effort to find the right map can take people down strange paths. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that people’s personalities could be divided into four different temperaments, using a system known as humourism. Sadly, despite the name, humourism has nothing to do with improving society through making droll TikTok videos, and everything to do with how much phlegm, blood, and bile you have floating around in you. Lots of blood in your veins meant you were sanguine, friendly and sociable. If you had too much black bile in your body, perhaps the least of your problems was your resulting melancholy personality. Phlegm, in large amounts, was thought to make a person apathetic (sounds about right). The most famous treatment for correcting ill health caused by an imbalance in these “humours” is bloodletting.

While ancient Western thought leaders were focused on bodily fluids, Eastern civilization produced its own dubious approach to personality types. According to the Chinese “Five Elements” system, all of us contain aspects of Wood, Water, Earth, Fire, and Metal, with one or two elements dominating our personalities. Thus, in “energy medicine teacher” Dondi Dahlin’s book, The Five Elements, we read about “Abraham Lincoln—A Watery President.” “Lincoln’s [emotional] disturbances could have been helped by modern public utilities, such as clean drinking water,” Dahlin writes. While I don’t want to downplay the important work of water departments, it seems likely that the president’s melancholy personality was more influenced by the wrenching deaths of two of his children, and the savagery of the American Civil War. I elected not to continue reading the section called “Angie Dickinson—America’s Sexiest Wood.”

Then there’s Diet Right for Your Personality Type by Jen Widerstrom, who is most famous for being a trainer on The Biggest Loser, a TV program not noted for its progressive approach to health. Perhaps it was inevitable that personality testing would eventually collide with humanity’s other great quest, for a flat tummy. “I can simplify the process, removing the downfalls of other diets, and put you in control of your body,” Widerstrom promises readers. “How? By pointing out the one issue that every diet plan consistently refuses to address: you.” To be fair, she goes on to say that one’s individuality should be celebrated and harnessed as a competitive advantage, but the subtext is clear: my personality—my character—made me fat in the first place. For a certain personality type, that’s a downer that can only be processed by finding some pastries to eat. The well-meaning author’s qualifications are less of the “psychology professional” type and more of the “fitness model” variety, so I decided it was okay to set this particular personality assessment, and my emotional containment donuts, aside.

Finding your map

In such a sea of fluff and woo, what are the worthwhile maps? I talked to Susan Olesek, a consultant and “human potentialist,” about the Enneagram, one of the more popular tools for discerning the lay of the land inside. The Enneagram, (pronounced any-ah-gram) sorts people into nine different types, identified with numbers, from Type 1 to Type 9. “The type that we first pick is our entry point that starts to show us something about ourselves, that we feel like is deeply, deeply true, and at the same time may show us things we deeply, deeply wish were not [true],” Olesek explains. “The Enneagram illustrates these patterns that we find ourselves in, our cognitive patterns, the way we think, our emotional patterns, the way we react with these big, core emotions.”

That’s one way the Enneagram differs from other personality systems. It is not good for entertainment. Anne Bogel compares it to writing: “Writing is hard and messy and painful. . . . But having written is something else entirely. In the same way, Enneagramming is brutal. But having Enneagrammed feels pretty great.”

This is not to say that it’s a negative experience. It’s just that taking a real look at our motivations and coping skills can be disconcerting. “My approach has been to use the Enneagram to point us to what’s already right about us, the good stuff,” Olesek says. “Sometimes people are even more uncomfortable telling you what they like about themselves than they are telling you about the crappy stuff. People bring the dysfunctional things pretty readily.”

She works with business leaders, teams, and other clients, but one of her most interesting endeavors is the Enneagram Prison Project (EPP), a program to bring the self-knowledge offered by the Enneagram to incarcerated people. “One of the core things that we teach: I always start with the question, are you willing to take 100 percent emotional responsibility? It seems like a no-brainer question,” says Olesek. When the rubber hits the road, however, owning our own emotions and personalities is easier said than done. “We know that the Enneagram is a tool of self-empowerment; it pinpoints almost the exact place where we give up our personal power. I know a man who murdered another man in a park for calling him a punk—we can give up so much of our own power just for a word.”

The EPP Ambassadors show how effective the program can be. They are a group of former prisoners who have done the hard work associated with the Enneagram and, after leaving custody, now advocate for other incarcerated people to take part. “Often they become speakers about the project, encouraging other people to come into the program, and they are so inspiring,” Olesek says. “It doesn’t matter where we speak, I set it all up, and then as soon as I introduce them, you can feel the room is entirely at their feet. Most of us are trying to understand, how do I get out of that prison that I keep making for myself? And these are people who have literally and metaphorically done that.”

Your heart, and a four letter code

The other most popular personality “map” you may have heard of goes by the name Myers-Briggs. Like the career inventory I took long ago, the Myers-Briggs personality test isn’t officially called a test: It’s an “indicator,” a distinction which is meant to reassure us that there are no wrong answers. The results show that every person fits into one of sixteen types, each described with a sequence of four letters: I am an INFJ, for instance, which stands for Introverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Judging.

In her 2018 book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, scholar Merve Emre tells the story of how the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator began with the domestic labor of Katharine Briggs. Katharine was a homeschooling mom and science buff who, in the early 1900s, used her suburban living room as an amateur child psychology lab, helping the other neighborhood mothers figure out the best ways to raise their kids. She experimented with different parenting methods on their children and on her own baby daughter, Isabel, taking copious notes at her kitchen table. She also became enamored with the new personality theories of the renowned Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung.

In some circles today, Jung is as notorious for sexually abusing a patient as he is famous for his iconic book, Psychological Types. But during his lifetime, his behavior was at best, whispered about, and at worst, winked at, and it’s not likely the details would have filtered down to a housewife like Katharine. She became a single-minded, ardent lay evangelist for the theory that people are either extroverts or introverts, intuitives or sensors, thinkers or feelers, judgers or perceivers. She even wrote magazine articles to spread the good news and composed hymns in Jung’s honor. The journey to understand herself and the personalities of the people she loved was a deeply spiritual experience for Katharine—she compared Psychological Types to the Bible as a means of obtaining salvation.

But it was her daughter, grown-up, married, and named Isabel Myers, who actually created the MBTI as we know it. Isabel (type: INFP) was a stay-at-home mom and titled her journal, “Diary of an Introvert Determined to Extrovert, Write & Have a Lot of Children,” which makes me wish I could hug her. Only two children survived pregnancy, and after mediocre reviews for her potboiler detective story called Murder Yet to Come, she put her writing career on ice. In the end, it was Isabel’s decision to pick up where her mother's work on Jungian personality theory left off that would be her legacy.

Working in her dining room, she created a questionnaire to help people tease out which of the sixteen types they might fall into. She named her invention after both herself and her mother, calling it a “people-sorter”—shades of J.K. Rowling’s sorting hat. In the early days, she successfully marketed the Myers Briggs Type Indicator to the government (to match the right spy with the right secret mission during World War II) and to small businesses (to determine which job applicant would make the best beer salesman). In the late 1950s, Isabel and her questionnaire caught the attention of Educational Testing Service (ETS). You know them best as the company that, even today, is responsible for the highly-controversial torture exam called the SAT. The men at ETS thought the MBTI might be useful, so they hired Isabel as a consultant and decided to “validate” her questionnaire.

The partnership didn't go well. Isabel’s resume—a liberal arts degree from Swathmore in 1919, when few women went to college; a brief stint as a mystery writer; decades as a housewife—did not impress the professionals at ETS. They were males who didn’t think much of the work of Katharine and Isabel, two amateurs whose insights came from close, intimate, real-world observation of people in their families and communities, dispatches from a female sphere which could hardly compete with the output coming from academic institutions men like them were in charge of and had access to. “Mrs. Myers was not trained in psychometrics. She was simply a very bright lady with a lot of enthusiasm and the belief, validated by her experience, that she could do absolutely anything she wanted to.” Personality Brokers records that snarky comment from Jay Davis, one of a series of young men assigned to be Isabel’s handler at ETS.

Eventually, it was decided that the MBTI wasn’t scientifically valid—the biggest problem, though, was that ETS couldn’t figure out how to make any money from it. After paying Isabel’s $250-a-month consultant fee, the company was barely breaking even. They cut her and her questionnaire loose, which almost finished off the MBTI once and for all.

Almost.

Near the end of Isabel’s life, family and friends came together to try to find a new home for her work. Acting on a tip from some allies at ETS who were disgusted by Isabel’s sexist treatment at the company, they reached out to a small California publisher called Consulting Psychologists Press. CPP agreed to acquire the MBTI in 1975, and the questionnaire seemed to eventually acquire CPP, which is now known as the Myers-Briggs Company. In just a few years, they sold one million units. Today, about two million people take the MBTI annually.

Katharine Briggs and Isabel Myers both speculated about how type could be used to enhance romantic relationships, and now there’s an app to help those millions of people apply the MBTI to their love lives. Two sisters, Jessica and Lou Alderson, based in the United Kingdom, created SoSyncd, a dating app that uses the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to match potential partners.

The idea for the platform was born from personal experience. “I moved to Australia with my boyfriend two or three years ago, and then we broke up,” Jessica told me. “I came back to London, quite excited to date. I just went on bad date after bad date, and I thought, “this is nuts, there has to be a much better way to do this.” Of course, there are plenty of dating apps already in existence, which provide an experience ranging from atrocious to merely appalling. The sisters wanted SoSyncd to be different. “Personality is so core to attraction. So why do dating apps not take that into account?” Lou notes.

Their system does not take a dogmatic approach to personality. They’ve found that the types that tend to be most compatible aren’t mirror images of each other; rather they have a mix of similarities and differences. Nor should a conflicting personality be treated as a dealbreaker. “A lot depends on the individual’s maturity level . . . if you’ve got a really incompatible type but both people are mature and willing to learn about each other and understand each other, it might not be as easy, and it might not come as naturally, but it definitely can be done, and it can be rewarding,” Jessica said. “There’s no ‘wrong type,’ really.”

The personality-focused approach creates a different experience in other ways, too. On most dating platforms, the membership is heavily overweighted by guys, and the culture is very casual, to put it kindly. “We were worried we’d be on the opposite end of that,” Lou says, given the stereotype that men are less introspective. In fact, they’ve found that the male-to-female ratio is just about even, with a more balanced climate to match. “Innately, the people it attracts are just kinder.”

“These are people who take the time to learn about your personality type, so it’s not [about] hooking up,” Jessica notes. “We get messages every single day from people saying they’re having these really deep, meaningful conversations.”

Meaning is the connecting thread uniting all these tests and quizzes and systems, even the ones that are too woo for words. It’s both a treasure we long to find and a destination we’ve never quite arrived at. Ann Bogel is right: the world is full of strangers, but at least with a set of well-drawn maps, you can make yourself one fewer.