The documentary “Persona: The Dark Truth About Personality Tests” is the latest trendy HBO Max investigative story that sheds light on the history of personality tests – and personally, I was horrified.
While horrified may be a strong word, I’m not going to change it, because it’s accurate to my reaction.
The documentary starts off with an investigative journalist describing her first job, where her boss had asked her to take a personality test. Upon getting her results, her boss convinced her that as an ENTJ personality type, she would be the perfect fit for the management sector of the company.
Despite her boss’s vote of confidence, six months into her position, the journalist reveals that despite being an ENTJ [CEO Personality Type] her performance was undeniably awful.
“I was a terrible management consultant… I spent most of my time reading novels under my desk. I quit after six months to become a writer” she explained, “and so I decided to write about personalities. That’s when I remembered the Myers Briggs personality test and decided to do some digging.” Persona, HBO documentary
Then, it starts to get weird.
She discovered that Myers and Briggs were not two men, but a mom-daughter duo with no formal psychological training. (yikes. Then, it get’s weirder.)
Katherine Briggs was a 1900s housewife whom founded the Myers-Briggs concept by studying her daughter Isabel in their living room of their home, referring to the room as the “cosmic laboratory of baby training”. Outside the documentary, I found that there were claims that she had tested many neighborhood children in addition to Isabel– while getting their parents to judge the participants with direct questions like “is your child calm or impulsive?”
When Isabel went off to college, Katherine entered a deep depression. She was unsure what to do with her life, now that her experiment was over.
This led to Katherine doing a deeper dive into Carl Jung’s work, which became the new focal point of her life.
The narrative begins again after WW2. Isabel graduated from college and was inspired to continue the work of her mother in hopes to develop a method for people to understand the different types of personalities in the world to increase empathy and understanding of oneself and others to bring peace.
This is now one of the biggest personality tests in the world.
Why does this matter?
Well, there’s many reasons, but here’s just a few:
Did you know some employers use personality tests in the hiring process of new employees? According to a study, “Data sourced from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology reported that 13% of US employers include personality tests in the interview process, 8% use interest inventories, and 29% of employers use some form of psychological measurement or assessment.”
“The test has been historically based on norms of the white managerial class, resulting in metrics that were extremely divisive; discriminating people based on education, gender, race, and physical/mental disabilities.”
The documentary tell’s Kyle’s story, a young man who decided to apply for a job at the same company as his best friend. Unfortunately, Kyle’s application was quickly denied. Kyle’s friend disclosed to him that he had been automatically rejected due to the results on his personality test. Kyle was severely disturbed by the assumption that was determined by the personality algorithm, which indicated he was likely to ignore customers who were upset. Kyle, who worked for years in the food service industry and had never done that, was devastated. Kyle was forced to answer questions that ask about personality traits that are negatively impacted by mental health conditions. For example, the question, “I have more energy than other people” can be answered differently when someone is depressed and when they aren’t. This has nothing to do with personality and actually discriminates against those suffering with mental health conditions. This is what happened to Kyle-who answered honestly and was “red-flagged” with his answers, which were influenced by Kyle’s bipolar disorder diagnosis.
In the documentary, the investigative journalist states, “personality tests are designed to perpetuate the language of individuality and of the self- for people who already have access to it [the ability to achieve self-actualization]. When you create something [employment based tests] based off personalities, we inherently base it off of values and beliefs- but what happens when these ideals become tied to systems of power? They can harm entire communities of people with discriminatory practices.”
The documentary does agree that personality tests can be helpful for independent self discovery to have a better understanding of oneself.
Our personalities are just an aspect of who we are- which is also influenced by our personal history, genetics, beliefs, values, relationships, habits, etc. Personality traits are not definitive and are proven to evolve over time. Personality is the pattern of thoughts, feelings and behaviors unique to a person. “Personality is a developmental phenomenon. It’s not just a static thing that you’re stuck with and can’t get over,” said Brent Roberts, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Moral of the story, there is more than meets the eye with personality tests- and we should remain skeptical of the science and methodology that developed and perpetuates it. Humans are extremely complex individuals- which is why we should question how Myers Briggs has simplified people into just sixteen categories.
… Also, is anyone else concerned that the inception of Myers Briggs test took place with one baby in their living room by someone who wasn’t trained in psychology….?
Just a thought.