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The truth about personality tests (according to a 20-year study)

a woman with curly hair has completed personality tests

The use of personality tests to identify character traits and predict human behaviors has grown exponentially since the early 1900s. The first mainstream test was probably the Rorschach test created by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in 1921. It’s based on how a user identifies a series of inkblots. Analysis of the user’s perceptions is believed to give insight into their thought patterns.

But Rorschach certainly wasn’t the first to identify patterns in human thinking and behavior. Back in 460BC, Hippocrates suggested that humans have distinct personalities that he divided into four temperaments or personas.

Between Hippocrates’s theory and Rorschach’s personality test were many other pioneers of psychology, including Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Although theories abounded, personality tests only entered the workplace as the number of office workers grew.

In 1900, white-collar workers in the USA stood at around 18%. The rest of the workforce were employed in farming, mechanical and manual labor. By 2002 white-collar jobs had risen to 60%. In 1952 a third of organizations in the USA were already using personality tests to assess applicants before making a hiring decision.

Today, many of those same personality tests are still standard in HR departments, universities and governments globally, despite scientific evidence that they’re inaccurate.

Table of contents
Old habits die hard
Why personality tests will get you nowhere
What types of personality tests are good then?
Let’s drill down a little more
Personality tests in rehabilitation
No single 'trait' dooms you to failure or guarantees your success
To sum it up

Old habits die hard

Because mainstream personality tests have been around for decades, companies cling onto them and job seekers chase after them.

Why do so many students and professionals believe that a personality test will lead them to their best-forever-dream-job?

Because that’s what we’ve been told over and over again!

Accepting what's not good for us

In marketing, the Rule of 7 mostly prevails. Tell a consumer something seven times, and they’ll start to buy into the idea. Pop-psychology tells us that you have to repeat an action or routine for 66 days for it to become a habit. And if you eat an unfamiliar food ten times, you’ll develop a taste for it (or not).

Fact is that we’re psychologically wired to accept things that we’re exposed to repeatedly.

On a darker side, this also happens in abusive and toxic relationships (personal and in the workplace). We adapt our perception of the experiences to make them acceptable so that we can cope. So instead of leaving, we stay and justify our hurt and the other person’s bad behavior.

When we’re thinking of a career choice or change of career, we immediately assume that we must identify our personality traits so that we can match them to what we’ll love doing at work. Sadly for most of us, personality tests don’t point us in any real direction.

A great example of the failings of personality tests

I could take you through loads of scientific data as to why personality tests don’t work (there is plenty of it), but that’s boring. A much more interesting example is a television series called Married at First Sight that first started in Denmark.

The show spread to different countries, so we can consider the results to be reasonably accurate in layman’s terms. In the show, entrants are assessed by psychologists and relationship experts and then matched up based on their personality traits, interests, etc. They get married, without meeting beforehand, for a trial period during which they get professional support. The trial period is six to eight weeks. After that, they decide whether to stay together or have the marriage annulled.

In 2019 the show had a success rate (couples who decided to stay married) of 28%. The remaining 72% of couples opted out. In a lab environment, that’s a failed experiment. And jobs aren’t that different from relationships if you consider just how much time and effort we invest in our career.

We all want a great relationship and a successful career. And just like a failed relationship, a wrong career move can cause us anxiety, disappointment, emotional pain and loss of confidence.

Why personality tests will get you nowhere

In the workplace career tests and personality tests go hand in hand. Michelle Duval, CEO and founder of F4S, explains that career tests are just as limited as personality tests, despite the latter often being touted as being more accurate.

Personality tests are a static snapshot of a complex, changing human

The overriding problem is that they’re a portrait of the user on the day they take the test. Results can be influenced by the user or external factors. The environment, circumstances and frame of mind that are prevalent when someone takes the test can have an impact. Everything from fear to lack of confidence and health issues can influence the results. 

Someone with a splitting headache, say, or who feels intimidated won’t be concentrating. The same applies to good feelings. Maybe you’re excited and overconfident, so you overestimate certain traits because you’ve already subconsciously decided what result you want.

We (subconsciously) try to 'beat' personality tests

Let’s assume you’re aiming to become a sales executive. (The power of the subconscious mind is vast, so you might not intentionally be trying to manipulate the personality test.) But you think that to be successful, you have to be extremely extroverted. Your responses lead to those options. 

What you’re doing is subconsciously figuring out how to pass personality tests. The truth is that maybe you’re not an icebreaker by nature; you tend to open up more when you’re familiar with people. You have extrovert traits but not to the extreme. Because you’ve told the test that you can easily mingle and chat with total strangers, the test believes you and delivers a result that’s not so accurate.

The result: you end up getting the job (that you so much wanted), but you start resenting the cold calling aspect. It’s understandable that you won’t do your best work (for long anyway) when you resent what you’re doing every day.

There are no accurate stats, but fear of rejection and the unknown rank very high in innate human fears. People who boldly face both are in the way lower percentile of the population. It’s easy to see how you can misrepresent yourself in a personality test.

What types of personality tests are good then?

If you’re using them for entertainment and take the results with a healthy dose of skepticism, any personality test can be a fun way to waste some time with friends. 

But tests that measure attitude and motivations are far more accurate, and a much better use of your time if your main goal is to find your dream career. Michelle explains “personality tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) have no scientific foundation and are based on assumptions that personalities are static and unchangeable.” 

Our understanding of personalities have evolved significantly since the creation of MBTI, and emerging science shows that personalities are not static. 

So why do we continue to use tests that are based on outdated science to help us determine something as important as what work we should do for the rest of our lives?

The background of MBTI personality tests

The MBTI personality tests were formulated by mother and daughter team, Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, over a 40-year period. The test was copyrighted in 1943 and converted to a professional assessment tool in 1968 with the help of Professor Mary McCaulley of the University of Florida.

Even though MBTI is outdated, 88% of Fortune 500 companies still use it today, and 1.5 million people take the online test every year. That means that people are still being led to believe that they can be scored into one of sixteen rigid personality types; pigeon-holed into a “type” that will never change. MBTI is used in career guidance, training, self-development and even by dating “experts”.

Michelle continues “what we know now is that people change. Our attitudes and motivations evolve and impact our careers as we go along. This is what dictates career success or failure.” 

Michelle knows this from scientific studies undertaken by F4S based on 20 years of data accumulated while coaching and studying the world’s top performing leaders and their teams. 

There are distinct patterns in attitude and motivation that separate those who succeed from those who don’t.

Let’s drill down a little more

If we accept that our personality remains static from the cradle to the grave, then we have to be excluding learning, development and the maturing process we all experience. Let’s use the trait of extroversion again.

Our understanding of 'traits' that align with success aren't always accurate

The common perception of an extrovert is that they’re outgoing, enthusiastic, have large social networks, think out loud and make quick decisions. And that’s correct to an extent. But within those traits are things that can trip you up if you’re a sales executive.

If you enjoy meeting new people, making quick decisions and being the center of attention, you could be prone to paying little attention to what people are actually saying. Your fast-paced enthusiasm means that you could sometimes miss nuances in conversations.

While that’s probably okay in social settings, it can cost you in business. F4S measures two areas to identify listening skills in a sales environment, neutral communication and affective communication. These two behaviors dictate how well you communicate words in written communication and pick up on non-verbal clues.

To succeed in sales, it’s essential to convince prospects through well worded and structured verbal and written communication. You must also be able to pick up on non-verbal clues when meeting people face to face. 

A good salesperson can immediately pick up on buying signals, even when the customer is saying “mmm, I’m not sure”. They identify the incongruence between verbal hesitation and the emotional interest in the product.

Measuring your unique work motivations (over static traits) is the way to go

That’s what sets F4S apart from personality tests. It analyses attitudes and motivations that distinguish career success from blind spots that could potentially undermine your career trajectory. So if you’re struggling in your role as a sales executive, you could be unaware that how you communicate is what’s tripping you up.

Personality tests in rehabilitation

To further demonstrate that personality tests can’t predict the best career path or help with career development, I want to take a quick deviation. I delve briefly into personality tests in the rehabilitation of offenders or recovery from mental health issues.

Personality assessment cannot predict future criminal behavior or indicate a successful recovery. They’re used by some psychologists to gain insight into someone’s mind at the time, but face to face counselling takes precedence. 

If a psychologist opts to use personality assessments, they’ll be conducted over months to gauge changes in thinking and approach to life.

Logic follows that if personality tests were an accurate predictor of what career choice you should make, they would also be able to predict an inclination to criminality. However, through ongoing counselling (coaching in business), a person’s self-awareness and self-actualization can be developed. 

They gain a new perspective on their role in their own life and life in general. This equips them with tools to change, grow and lead a normal and healthy life.

Did you know that successful entrepreneur Martha Stewart was convicted of crimes and incarcerated?

No single 'trait' dooms you to failure or guarantees your success

“Personality tests pigeon-hole you into a simple 'type' and leave you to fend for yourself with a set of fixed personality traits that (according to personality theory) you can't change. This doesn't account for the complexity of an individual, nor does it capture a person's potential for change, whether due to awareness, life events or coaching.” says Michelle.

“The F4S app helps you identify and amplify your talents and understand and overcome blind spots. You also have access to online personalized coaching in real-time. You can measure the effectiveness of your coaching and personal efforts, while consistently improving over time. With consistent use, our users find it easier to achieve their professional goals, have fewer team conflicts and find more fulfillment and joy in their work.”

Our personalities aren’t static. We evolve as we move through different life experiences, changes and stages. A blind spot isn’t an indication failure; it identifies an area that needs attention once you’re made aware of it.

F4S also provides benchmarking and comparisons between teammates and colleagues. This allows team leaders and members to optimize their strengths and abilities to create a highly functioning environment.

That’s why personality tests don’t work; they give you a rigid result with highs and lows that are apparently areas where you can excel and others that you should avoid. If you consider how rapidly the workplace is evolving, it’s clear that measures that are decades old don’t work anymore. Career opportunities have changed and are changing all the time.

Humans change and adapt to our rapidly evolving society

Where previously an entrepreneur needed significant capital, a degree and an elaborate business plan, many of today’s corporate giants had humble beginnings. 

Look at Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg wrote software for a website called Facemash in his Harvard dorm room in 2003. He roped in a few of his college roommates, and they launched TheFacebook in early 2004. What followed doesn’t need any further explanation…

We can, however, only hypothesize what could have happened if Mark Zuckerberg limited his abilities to the rigid results of a personality test. Instead he went from a shy tech geek to CEO of a billion-dollar company with over 45K employees.

The world of business outgrew personality tests a very long time ago.

To sum it up

Personality tests take a blanket approach to the population. There’s no adaptation to include cultural and cognitive diversity or benchmarking to job roles or emotional maturity (we grow as we age). Rigid results don’t offer much help with career development.

If you’re looking to make a career change or find your right career path, you need to follow your unique motivations as your best guide, not your personality.

But what about the pricey tests that have been endorsed by big business and governments for decades? In the words of Michelle, “these personality tests are antiquated. They don’t match job roles, are very expensive and offer no value to employees. They also usually belong to the employer. F4S is designed for employees to have full control over their results, and to be able to monitor and improve their own personal growth and career development.”

If you’re about to pay for an expensive personality test, or take a free one online – stop! Sign up for free with F4S instead for science-backed insights that will help you find your perfect job.

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