How Personality Tests are Helpful

All models are wrong but some are useful
— statistician George Box

I was startled this morning by my friend Todd's (not his real name) example of how personality tests are reductive and unreliable. According to the Enneagram, his personality type tends to avoid emotionally charged situations. Todd then cited a recent instance where he encountered a crying coworker in the elevator and instead of walking away, he approached her and listened to what was going on. He easily stepped outside the box of his personality type: Todd 1, Enneagram 0.

Contrary to common perception, the Enneagram is not witchcraft. It has some Christian roots.

The problem with personality tests like Myers-Briggs, 16PF, and DISC assessment is some people swear by them and these fanatics tend to see everyone and everything through the lens of the test, often in reductionistic and deterministic ways. So in a conversation, I might say “I ate too much last night and I feel terrible today.” And an Enneagram fanatic might respond “That’s because you’re a 7, you’re impulsive and eat to avoid pain”. Impulsivity may describe a facet of my temperament but it certainly doesn’t mean every time I see food, I will compulsively stuff my face.

To examine how to make personality tests helpful, let’s start with some assumptions about reality: Just as there is no scientific model that can accurately depict every aspect of our universe, there is no personality test that can accurately diagnose and categorize the intricacies of any one personality. Each person is unique. And there is absolutely no personality test that is predictive or deterministic of behavior. No one knows exactly what anyone will do in a particular situation, including the actor himself - there are simply too many factors. This unpredictability is what makes life interesting.

So if none of that is possible, what’s the point of a personality test?

A stranger overheard my conversation with Todd. He explained the purpose of the Enneagram as a hybrid of typology and character. It’s not so much about putting someone in a box but rather identifying areas of development and thought patterns. It’s a test that helps you unravel how you approach life by pinpointing what you fear most. That’s not so much a fixed trait like extroversion as much as a core value. Core values are shaped early in life but can be molded. The articulate stranger introduced himself as Randall (also not his real name), a self-described “itinerant fool”.

Randall called the Enneagram a “reflective surface”. He didn’t say mirror but that’s precisely what a mirror is. A mirror is a perfect reflective surface. On the other hand, if you view yourself through a smudged car windshield, the image is distorted because of the curvature of the glass, light variance, reflective property of the tinting, transparency, etc. Personality tests are like using a smudged car windshield as a mirror. They can tell you if you’re having a bad hair day but probably won’t pick up the tiny piece of spinach in your teeth.

Does that still make them helpful?

Absolutely. Any person interested in self-awareness will benefit from a variety of reflective surfaces. Therein lies the rub. No single reflective surface can accurately depict the complex reality of who one is. Rather, we rely on a combination of reflective surfaces to assemble a composite image of who we perceive ourselves to be.

Therefore, I superimpose the Enneagram’s picture of me with the other pictures I have of myself - as revealed through others, my life experiences, through the Bible, etc. and look for the intersections. I don’t have to reject the entire image because a couple data points don’t line up. Rather I look for the broader patterns that are common in all the images.

But what’s most helpful isn’t the points of commonality but points of divergence. Weak personality tests confirm things we already know, like our strengths. More helpful personality tests draw lines between seemingly disparate qualities. The Enneagram is powerful because it makes connections between your strengths and weaknesses and then connects those to your greatest fears and desires. Most personality tests emphasize only positive attributes but the Enneagram also highlights our fleshly aspects. One writer describes a good personality test.

A writer puts it well: "That's why the Enneagram draws attention not to our fixed traits, such as introversion, but to our motivating fears and most comfortable vices. It is intended to be a starting point for the hard work true self-examination should galvanize."

Todd also brought up the problem of confirmation bias and reductionism. Randall responded that’s a human condition and not particular to any personality test. We all see what we want to see and we all deal with complexity by sorting things in boxes. Again, the question is if there’s some helpfulness in the sorting mechanism and can overcome some confirmation bias by understanding how our particular personality approaches bias.

In 2018, my goal is to suffer well. I’m a 7 on the Enneagram (known as “The Enthusiast”) which means I love to jump from one idea to the next. Over a decade ago, I also took the Murray’s needs test and discovered I’m highly motivated by succorance, dominance, and aggression (and not motivated at all by order and endurance). I enjoy novelty but avoid pain and negative emotions. This pattern of chasing pleasurable feelings weaves together my strengths, weaknesses, and fears. I want to reshape this core value by learning how to sit with and endure discomfort and in doing so, participate with Jesus in his suffering.

I’m thankful for the Enneagram, Todd, and Randall (and many others) for acting as reflective surfaces by which I see myself and others more clearly.

This blog post originally appeared on Fred Mok’s blog, Rant of the Exiles

Fred MokGarden City Church