Do you believe in personality types? Occasionally at networking events in NYC, I’ll see people walk around with “INFJ” or “ENFP” written on their name tags. I must confess, as a child and a teenager, the idea of finding your identity through these tests held an irresistible attraction for me, the same way horoscopes and “What’s your perfume personality?” tests did. But as I grew older, I learned that you find out who you are through making choices and experiencing life, not answering questions of dubious psychological authenticity in front of the computer.
It turns out that my skepticism was shared by scientists. “People have tried to classify personality types since Hippocrates’ time, but previous scientific literature has found that to be nonsense,” says William Revelle, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. Previous personality tests including the best-known Myers-Briggs have been formulated by empirical (observation-based) and theoretical, rather than data-based methods. While it is impressive that Carl Jung single-handedly divided the world into introverts and extroverts–so spot on!–how infinitely many similar “convincing” observations can we add? Lazy versus hard-working; cheerful versus depressed; organized versus messy… And of course, there’s the fact that we are not consistently any one of these things all the time. Sometimes even the most diehard extrovert wants to stay home, and the most self-avowed introvert can be a great public speaker and throw a mean party.
This is why the concept of personality types remains controversial in psychology. But in the first personality study of its kind, Revelle et al. combined a computational approach with data from more than 1.5 million respondents, asking 44-300 questions per person. With the large set of data, researchers were able to find 4 “clusters” of personalities that occur more frequently than random chance. These were analyzed by 5 basic personality traits: neuroticism, extraversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness.
- Average–average people are high in neuroticism and extraversion. The researchers say that “the typical person would be in this cluster.” Women are more likely to fall in this category than men.
- Reserved–emotionally stable and not neurotic, but they’re not open (to feedback or sharing). Reserved people are introverted but somewhat agreeable and conscientious.
- Role models–possibly the most ideal type, they score low in neuroticism and high in all other traits. Women are more likely than men to be role models, and you’re more likely to be a Role Model if you’re older.
- Self-Centered–they score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Both men and women are far less likely to be Self-Centered as they age.
Based on the description of these 4 types, I can safely say I don’t belong to any of them. I’m too neurotic to be either Reserved or Role Model, and too introverted and conscientious to be Average or Self-Centered. Out of curiosity, I took the Myers-Briggs test online and got ENFJ-T, with the heroic title of “The Protagonist”–why, thanks, I always do see myself like a heroine of a novel! It even came with a cute avatar that looks like an Elf from the Lord of the Rings. Reading its effusive analysis, (“Protagonists are natural-born leaders, full of passion and charisma. Forming around two percent of the population, they are oftentimes our politicians, our coaches and our teachers, reaching out and inspiring others to achieve and to do good in the world…”) I couldn’t help but feel flattered–and also think that some of these are spot-on.
But other descriptions felt barely applicable to my true personality: “When they believe in someone, they can become too involved in the other person’s problems, place too much trust in them. If they aren’t careful, they can overextend their optimism, sometimes pushing others further than they’re ready or willing to go.” Keeping boundaries is very important to me, so this obviously doesn’t apply.
At the end of the day, personality types don’t tell you everything you need to know about a person, whether that’s yourself or others. Insofar as it can help identify some of your traits, it can be useful: I sure am glad I found the label to describe how exhausted I feel after hanging out with too many people, which is Introvert. The day I realized that this wasn’t a moral failing, but just a personality trait, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. But will I ever use an analysis that comes with a Lord of the Rings character to determine my ideal job or find my romantic relationships? No. Ultimately, I think the best–and most enjoyable–kind of soul-searching is done through traveling, writing, yoga, even failing–you know, just living.
What are your thoughts on personality types?
Get more like this—Subscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!