Personality tests are increasingly popular. But how valid are they?

myers briggs
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator represents 16 possible personality types. The types all embody different characteristics. ESTJs, nicknamed “the executive,” are known for being driven and organized, while INFPs, nicknamed “the mediator” are known for being artistic and dreamy. Photo illustration by Cassidy Keola

When freshman screenwriting major Sarah Bloom was going through the emotionally difficult years of middle school, she turned to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to learn more about herself and her personality.

“I got into it when I was 12 years old,” Bloom said. “When I was young and insecure, I could identify myself with this type that I both related to and admired, so it made me feel better about myself.”

The idea of using a personality test to accurately categorize people into 16 categories began in 1942, when Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Briggs, started developing an assessment to help people learn about themselves through their personality type.

After completing the test, each person is assigned four letters to explain their personality. Each letter represents one of two opposing personality types, making 16 total possible combinations. The options in letters are E (extroversion) or I (introversion), N (intuition) or S (sensing), F (feeling) or T (thinking) and J (judging) or P (perceiving).

“Like any good personality inventory (Myers-Briggs) has demonstrated reliability and validity,” said psychology professor David Pincus. “Any good psychological assessment instrument has to demonstrate reliability and validity.”

Despite the fact that the Myers-Briggs indicator fits this criterion, the indicator can still be inaccurate, Pincus said.

“Personality is enormously complex,” he said. “To some extent, personality is always changing over time. (Tests like Myers-Briggs) try to use statistical techniques to simplify personality to make it look clearer and more stable than it really is.”

Test takers are given a detailed composition of their personality: strengths and weaknesses, romantic relationships and friendships and information about career paths and workplace habits.

Despite the in-depth explanations, not everyone supports the test’s validity. Thomas Grebert, an undeclared freshman, has his suspicions.

“There’s so much more to people’s personalities than four letters,” Grebert said. “Depending on the situation, people might fall into different categories.”

When asked about his own personality result, ENFP, he said he only partially relates to the test’s interpretation.

“If I look into it, I can be like, ‘Oh yeah, that could be me,’ but at the same time, there’s not enough there to make me feel like, ‘That’s me,’” he said.

More often than not, people feel that their type accurately reflects their personality, said Jeanne Walker, director of Chapman’s Student Psychological Counseling Services.

“I definitely will still use (Myers-Briggs) if (the test) comes to mind, with someone who is talking about, ‘Why am I so different? How come I can’t be so social?’” Walker said.

The Myers-Briggs test is also used by workplaces to see how coworkers can cooperate and form successful teams. Businesses look to Myers-Briggs because it is one of the most used personality inventories in the world, according to Forbes.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was taught to Pincus and fellow psychology students as a workplace tool, he said.

“(The test) was something we learned as part of our industrial-organizational psychology. It wouldn’t be part of a clinical assessment,” Pincus said.

This differs from Walker’s experience. She believes that people use the indicator for personal reasons and that sparked it to become important to the workplace.

Grebert said the indicator is more worthwhile when it is not connected to work.

“If you want to do it yourself rather than as a workplace thing, you are doing it because you want to do it,” he said. “If you’re doing it because you want to do it, you’ll pay more attention to the results and you’ll actually care about it.”

Bloom found that the Myers-Briggs test helps her understand not only herself, but also her friends and family.

“I start noticing things more because of the test,” Bloom said. “Sometimes I’ll notice, ‘Oh, my friend is showing extroverted intuition, which is when they’re coming up with fast ideas.”

Walker said the test can help students feel more comfortable with how their personalities work, because they can start finding answers to deep questions about their lives.

“You’re growing up in a place where now you’ve got to figure out, ‘How is it that I fit in this university? How do I fit in this world? What is it I want to do?’” Walker said. “All of that is part of just getting to be an adult. You keep learning as you grow.”