Anirudh Goyal

Jan 22, 2021

10 min read

A Love Letter to Personality Typing

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We all view the world in different ways. For a physicist, the world is a beautiful soup of atoms and molecules, which interact in myriad intricate views. For an economist, it is the eternal class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. For an astrologer, it is a world full of gullible people, and those who have a mind of their own.

What if, we choose to look at the world, not through the lenses of atoms and money, but something innate to all individuals- our personalities? This is what the psychologists thought, and set about their mission to find these fundamental aspects of personality.

The psychologists wondered what should these core aspects of our personality be? We may each be God’s special little snowflakes, but what is the snow which binds us all together at the core?

There are a couple of characteristics a trait must have, to be characterized as a part of our personality. Firstly, the trait should remain roughly consistent across a lifetime. A trait that keeps changing, is a preference rather than part of our personality.

The personality trait must also be useful to be measured and have an impact on standard measures of quality of life. Chocolate may have been your favorite flavor of ice cream ever since you were big enough to steal food from the fridge. You may believe yourself to be an incarnation of Willy Wonka himself. But, it does not impact how well you will do on the math test next week. Although we may think chocolate being our favorite flavor says something about ourselves, it is deemed a preference.

With these two criteria as the filters, social psychologists conducted a mass survey that measured and grouped all possible traits. They found five such traits that satisfied the above criteria. This formed the big five model of personality. The psychologists then finally had a way to view people through the lens of personality.

Criticisms of Personality Typing

Before delving into my unhealthy love for personality typing, it is important to reflect on its criticisms. It helps provide a balanced view and helps put its usefulness in context.

Loss of Individuality

In today’s world, we value individuality deeply. While the industrial age looked at people as cogs in a machine, today’s postmodern age places great emphasis on the agency of individuals.

Personality typing is seen to be at odds with such a worldview. It seems contradictory to value individuality and then group people by their personalities. People feel being typed robs them of what makes them unique as individuals. Nobody likes to be told they are similar to 10% of the entire population.

However, it is an error to think about personality typing this way. In one of my favorite scenes in movies, in the movie Good Will Hunting, the therapist Sean tells Will, “You think I know the first thing about how hard your life has been, how you feel, who you are because I read Oliver Twist? Does that encapsulate you?”.

This quote applies to personality typing. Each of us is a universe within ourselves. We are made up of special little details. We all have our unique experiences that shape our worldview and our annoying little quirks. Being assigned a personality type in no way diminishes these details. It merely aims to describe the high-level abstractions behind our thinking. It is a great naivety to think we have a person all figured out just through their personality type. It is just a tool to help us understand them a little better.

Celine always knew what’s up

Reliability of Personality Typing

Personality typing is often compared with horoscopes, due to which it’s importance is often undermined. People start looking at it as similar mumbo-jumbo, where they have a laugh or two looking at cute animations.

However, there is a crucial difference between the two. One has no control over the day on which he is born. Sun signs, as a result, are determined, literally at birth. Personality type tests on the other hand require answering questions to a test. They require a degree of self-introspection while answering, which is completely absent in horoscopes. As a result, they present a result that is more personal to the individual, as it is guided by his responses.

Moreover, the zodiac has no statistical or scientific backing for the claims they make. It doesn’t take long to find a charlatan who blames his coffee order for being wrong on Mars being in retrograde. Personality typing models, like the big five model, however, are determined strictly statistically by social psychologists. Other models, like the Jungian personality model in specific, were developed by the acclaimed psychoanalyst Carl Jung. Personality tests are deeply rooted in science and psychology, which makes their theories more credible.

Immutability of Personality Types

There is often great resistance to learning about the immutability of personality typing. We would like to believe we can achieve anything with enough determination. Being told one’s personality is fixed creates a sense of helplessness among individuals. However, this belief is grounded in a misinterpretation of personalities.

An introvert shall remain an introvert by temperament. However, it does not imply he can not be as or more adept in social situations as an extrovert. Social skills can be mastered with practice; it just comes easier to an extrovert. Personality traits are fixed in on themselves, but they place no limitations on the adaptability of an individual to acquire new skills.

On the flip side, people often claim their personalities change too often. Since personality tests involve self-reporting, the results can vary with the time and mood of the person while taking the test. The changing results are akin to the difference between weather and climate. Though the weather is ever-changing, the climate of a place is fixed. Once in a while, a dessert may see some rain, but we would see no tourists going there to look at palm trees. When people are mistyped, it is important to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some results have to be discounted as being the metaphorical rainy day in the desert. Although this method of hit and trial is not ideal, it is the risk that reported tests always carry.

Benefits of personality typing

Promoting Self Awareness

As children, we are told each of us is unique, and we must follow our calling and passion. At the same time, however, we are expected to do well in each subject, regardless of our abilities and interests. Those who do not live up to these ridiculous expectations are deemed less intelligent. It goes on to destroy their confidence in their pursuits which they are passionate about. As a result, they face the double hell of this self-fulfilling cycle. The pursuit for our passion often continues into our teenage years and beyond, seldom fully realized.

One of my favorite quotes has always been “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”. I was rejoiced to find this quote was not actually said by Einstein, to whom it is often attributed, as it shows great wisdom can come from anywhere. But how can the fish realize it is meant to be a swimmer when it is surrounded by chattering monkeys everywhere? Maybe the fish should take a personality test.

All progress begins with self-awareness. A personality test is to self awareness what cocaine is to partying. It is not essential, but it fucking helps. Different personality traits affect our strengths and weaknesses differently. A knowledge of such traits helps us to understand ourselves better and make sounder decisions. For example, the personality trait ‘Openness to Experience’ correlates highly with creativity. A person high in that trait will find new ways of conceptualization come naturally to him. His creative strength can then aid him in his artistic ventures. Similarly, a person who is high in extroversion will revel in forming social bonds.

As we gain an understanding of our strengths, we find that those same strengths are a double-edged sword. They are the dark side of the moon. Our weaknesses are nothing but the flip side of the same strengths. The same person who has great creative abilities will find work dealing with details overwhelming. Work that requires precision and accuracy, like those of lawyers and accountants will not suit him. An extrovert will find that although his social skills help him better navigate the social dynamics, there is no avoiding sitting down to get the work done.

The newfound self-awareness helps us better understand what advice is better suited for us. While a diamond is formed under pressure, bread rises when it is allowed to rest.

As part of our modern culture, the advice to work hard or die trying is often thrown around. We admire those who succeed and look down upon those who cannot, as lazy and incompetent. For a person low in trait conscientiousness (A trait that measures how dutifully one approaches work), it can be a source of guilt. He can start to blame himself for his inability to work harder. However, if he understands that his temperament is not suited for that advice, he can find work that rewards quick on-the-spot intense thinking, like that in negotiations and conflict management. He might be better suited to working in intense bouts of energy, rather than low-intensity work for long hours. As we become aware of our blind spots and weaknesses, it helps us to strike a fine balance between doubling down on our strengths and working on our weaknesses.

Promoting Empathy and Compassion

The self-awareness we garner is ultimately a path to self-love and increasing empathy. We often build up identities in terms of our deficiencies. We take our strengths for granted and focus obsessively on our incapabilities. In Indian society, we label kids who take up the arts as people who can’t do math and those who select the sciences as those who can’t create art. We are constantly fed the diet of being told we are special, without actually being told how.

A personality test gives us the first steps to empower ourselves, and recognize ourselves for who we are. When we mess up, as we inevitably will, we learn to be a little more compassionate to our own selves. We can recognize if the error was a genuine mistake or one of our temperamental blind spots. We can go a little easier on beating ourselves up over that mistake when we know it was just our blindspot.

In the process of learning to love ourselves more, we learn to recognize and appreciate others’ efforts as well. This helps make one more empathetic. When we become aware of our struggles with self-discipline, we learn to admire those who do put in the effort diligently. We stop looking down on them as robotic automatons who live life on a schedule. While we all deeply admire the work of creatives and artists, knowledge of personality traits helps us see nobility in the work of a laborer, who puts in his best efforts toiling away. We recognize their work as invaluable, in laying the foundations of society, both literally and figuratively. It is the mutual respect and compassion for each other’s abilities, that makes a better society, from the ground up.

Providing a Community

Quite a few of us go through life feeling like perpetual outcasts and misfits. We can find ourselves thinking we are different from everyone around us, but can’t pinpoint how.

The Myers-Briggs model of personality typing classifies people into intuitives and sensors. This parameter measures how we gather information. Sensors interact with the outside world using their five senses, while intuitives use abstract reasoning to interact with the world.

Intuitives can often feel like misfits. Since they predominantly use abstract reasoning, they feel disconnected from the external world. They are the perpetual daydreamers and space cadets. Even statistically, sensors are a majority, which further reduces the number of people who process information the same way as intuitives.

In the TV show Game of Thrones, the Dothraki did not have a word for ‘Thank you’ in their language. It was indicative of their culture, which was characterized by domination and aggression. It goes on to show the strength language carries in reflecting a culture’s values. Similarly, having a personality trait describe how one feels, helps put words to feelings.

A knowledge of being classified as an intuitive can help confirm his intuition of feeling disconnected. It comes as a huge relief to know that they are not crazy to feel this way, and there is nothing ‘wrong’ with them. They can then seek out others who feel similarly. Knowledge of their personality trait helps provide a sense of relief and community for people.

Providing a Sense of Identity

Today’s postmodern world is strange. Even the most basic parameters of one’s identity, like one’s gender, are now ambiguously defined, and up to personal choice. While it has benefits in that it helps people who do not fit into traditional brackets, it does not come free of consequence. Constantly questioning one’s own identity can lead to nihilism. As boundaries become blurred and ill-defined, it can lead to a sense of loss of identity.

In such times, a personality test can stand like a rock for one’s identity. Since personality traits describe a high-level overview of oneself, they are value-neutral. There is no personality which is deemed better than the rest, each has their strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, it varies greatly within individuals in how the personality traits manifest themselves, even when they are of the same type.

The value-neutral judgments thus do not carry the same historical baggage of subjugation of one particular community, as in the case of blacks or women. It enables it’s use by everyone, regardless of their background, without weighing on anyone’s conscience.

It is a complicated world we live in, and the people who inhabit it, even more so. It can be impossibly difficult to understand this beautiful chaos.

Mathematicians often describe an ephemeral feeling when they encounter a beautiful theorem. When I first read about personality typing, I felt I experienced the same inexplicable sensation. Something in my brain clicked. The pieces of the puzzles came together, to reveal a vivid lucid image.

Suddenly, the world seemed to make a lot more sense.