PERSONALITY: PSYCHOLOGY OR PSEUDOSCIENCE?

the true self is perhaps never really understood by the individual. As many people seek answers, a range of industries has developed to assist us in our search.

By Anna Alford: Arts Columnist


A quick Google search of ‘Personality Test’ and you are met with hundreds of thousands of quizzes that claim they can give you a scientifically valid description of yourself based on real psychology.

But, these are often muddled up alongside content from BuzzFeed, such as classics like ‘What kind of toaster are you?’, and ‘This personality quiz will reveal what kind of bean you are’. Although BuzzFeed quizzes are a bit of harmless fun, is there any truth to the tests that claim to have scientific backing?


What is personality?

The contemporary idea of individual personality came about in a culture shift originating in the Renaissance, a period in European history marking the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity. The shift correlated with great social change, embracing a new way of viewing ourselves.

In Medieval Europe, sense of self was associated with social roles such as ‘the household’, ‘the guild’ and ‘the corporation’. Individuals were dependent on family and without such were considered nothing.

Modern sociologist and psychologists noted personality as an amalgamation of attitudes, values and feelings with influence from environmental factors such as education, politicization and mass media. By the 18th century we came to our contemporary idea of what personality is, with the word pointing to the traits that make a person a distinct individual.

The 20th century saw the rise of systems designed for mass classification of humans, including personality tests. They appealed to a new spirit of individualism, and a little bit of egotism, as well as our endless quest for identity.

The Myers-Briggs test, developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, is an introspective self-report questionnaire indicating different personality types. The typical model regards these types as similar to left or right handedness; people develop preferred ways of perceiving and deciding.

Myers-Briggs sorts psychological differences into four opposite pairs, also known as ‘dichotomies’, giving rise to 16 possible personality types. They state that you are either prefer:

  • Introversion or Extroversion
  • Intuition or Sensing
  • Feeling or Thinking
  • Perception or Judging

Point scores on each dichotomy are assigned by a long series of questions about, for instance, how you are in social situations, and how curious, focused, organised, or sporadic you are, resulting in a personality type represented by 4 letters. For example, someone who is a ENFP has extraverted, intuitive, feeling and perceptive personality traits.

Personality tests are often used by psychologists and counsellors, but even the most popular assessments were put together by non-experts and autodidacts.



MACKAYAN: PERSONALITY. PSYCHOLOGY OR PSEUDOSCIENCE?

For instance, Briggs and Myers had no formal training in psychology or sociology and instead thought they understood individual personalities and interpersonal relations due to their role as wives and mothers managing the household and tending to the emotional needs of their children and husbands.

As such, the validity of Myers-Briggs has been subject to much criticism. Some have likened the accuracy of the Myers-Briggs test to that of Chinese fortune cookies, labelling it as no more than a self-discovery ‘fad that won’t die’.

Personality tests rely on exploitation of the Barnum effect, followed by confirmation bias, with individuals searchingly attempting to fit the result of the test. The effect is so called after American showman and hoax promoter PT Barnum’s famous line, ‘we’ve got something for everyone’.

The effect describes a psychological phenomenon whereby individuals rate accuracy of supposedly specifically tailored descriptions of their personality very highly, when these are in fact general characterisations that could be attributed to a wide range of people.

The effect can also provide partial explanation for widespread acceptance of practices such as fortune telling, aura reading and astrology.

Contemporary Western astrology manifests itself as horoscopes that proclaim to explain features of an individual’s personality and predict major life events based on positions of celestial objects such as the Sun, Moon, and planets. Relative positions are analysed by their progression through the ever-familiar twelve signs of the zodiac.

Your April 2015 horoscope was probably no different from this year’s, which may have told you your finances will be looking up, you are about to be creative, and that you should expect a shocking revelation from a stranger, or [insert other generic horoscope line here]. Terribly unrealistic, but yet we still find them, and results from personality tests, compelling.

They offer an appealing illusion that you can be defined, and therefore more easily understood or validated by others.

Studies have even shown that those who follow horoscopes religiously conform significantly to their sign definition. This means they can be greatly influential, even to the point where people twist their personality to fit what the description says.

For evolutionary reasons, humans are obsessive pattern-seekers, and horoscopes can give some meaning to otherwise random events in our lives. If we can blame it on Mars or Saturn, we may feel a bit better about going through a breakup or not securing our dream job. After all, it just ‘wasn’t meant to be’.

General interest in logic and rational has yet to dent our allure to any of the generalisations horoscopes and personality tests rely on. Humans are all slightly superstitious, and it is this that gives us the ability to unlock our imagination. It helps us make sense of the inconsistent and ever-shifting world around us.


Meet Anna on the Team Page & Visit the Arts Department.