A CASE OF MISTAKING IDENTITY:
The enduring popularity of the dubious Myers-Briggs Personality Test — A recent take by Dominic Packer & Jay Van Bavel
If you’re like most people, you are probably familiar with the Myers-Briggs Personality Test. You could be one of the 1.5 million people who take it each year, or you may work at one of the 89 Fortune 100 companies that use it as a metric.
Psychologists have long been warning us that the test is unreliable and misleading, not really that much different than knowing your astrological sign or taking the Harry Potter test.
Could you imagine organizing teams based on what Hogwart’s house a person sorts into or what sign they are? I am sure not and, yet, the Myers-Briggs types are used to inform millions of hiring, personnel, and evaluation decisions.
Why does Myers-Briggs, despite evidence to discredit it, continue to be the most popular personality test out there?
Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer asked what’s going on behind the widespread use of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test in their new newsletter, The Power of Us. (Their book about these same subjects comes out in September and is similarly titled: The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony.)
The answer, as Packer and Van Bavel explain, is identity. Specifically, we have an ingrained desire to name our identity.
Every day, we carry with us a complex web of personality traits, ethical values, political beliefs, and numerous other preferences that serve to define what we are. The identity we cultivate over our lifetime plays a central part in guiding our decisions and behavior. Our identity guides our actions and our actions, in turn, guide our identity.
But what exactly are you?
Our identity is a messy and complicated thing. We spend a lifetime trying to define our identity in ways that make sense to us. Wouldn’t it feel comforting to distill our identity into two words? (Especially when that two-word identity sounds so appealing.)
After taking the Myers-Briggs test, you get to just that. The test puts you into one of 16 categories.
Behold: You are an Insightful Visionary or a Logical Pragmatist or a Compassionate Facilitator.
An identity like that will most certainly satisfy that craving for self-definition and this is precisely what makes the test so persuasive, in the same way and through the same mechanisms that astrological signs are so appealing and popular. (Weirdly, many of the same people who scoff at astrology are evangelists for Myers-Briggs).
The problem, as Packer and Van Bavel note, is that these categories of Rorschach-like identity markers contradict the contemporary psychological literature of personality.
As Laith Al-Shawaf explained in a recent article they cite, most experts agree that personality traits are continuous, not definitive. Labelling someone a “logical pragmatist” may feel as if it has explanatory depth, but it certainly doesn’t tell the whole story.
Despite its drawbacks and simplifications, we can still learn a fundamental lesson from the success of Myers-Briggs. Our identity is crucial for operating in the world and for our well-being. The problem is that we attach so much importance to our identity that we will fall for any variety of schema that tempts us with the promise that we can peer deep into who we truly are.
“LESS” CAN BE MORE:
But “more” always seems like more, so that’s the way most people go —New findings on how we overlook subtractive changes
We all face decisions that involve trying to figure out how to make things better. We already have something in place, like the code for an app, or a hiring process, or a syllabus for a class we’re teaching. Or we might be trying to think about the past and what we might have changed to get a better outcome than we did.
For whatever reason, we try to make the code better by adding to it. We think of additional questions for the hiring rubric. We come up with additional subjects for the class we’re teaching.
Last week, I read a recently published paper in Nature by Gabrielle Adams, Benjamin Converse, Andrew Hales, and Leidy Klotz that sheds light on this overlooked behavioral bias–that people systemically overlook solutions that involve subtractive changes.
Adams and colleagues conducted a series of experiments to answer the question, “Do people tend to search for additive changes more readily than they search for subtractive changes?”
The answer is yes. And overwhelmingly so.
To use a simple example from the study, they found that participants who were asked to make the pattern of blocks on a grid symmetrical, when one of the grid’s four quadrants contained additional blocks, were more likely to make the grid symmetrical by adding blocks to the other three quadrants, rather than just removing the extra blocks from that one quadrant.
They found similarly low rates of subtraction among participants across other tasks such as changing essays and itineraries.
It may be possible to nudge people to consider subtractive ideas. Without a nudge almost no participants came up with a subtractive solution. By contrast, in one subtraction-cue condition, 61% of participants produced a subtractive transformation.
What’s more, asking the participants to “improve” the original or to “make it worse,” also increases the percentage of participants who generate subtractive solutions.
This suggests that explicitly cuing people in that adding stuff can sometimes make things worse helps prompt more consideration of taking something away to make something better.
I’m excited about this research because it sheds some light on another way we may be functioning sub-optimally as decision-makers. If we automatically default to additive changes whenever we are considering important life choices, then we can seriously limit our options, potentially ignoring favorable choices.
Frequently, the improvement could come from subtraction. And, of course, we’re always going to have limited options if we only consider additions.
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