Friday, June 18, 2010

How Personality Tests Affect the Way You See Yourself

The Myers-Briggs and Big Five are two personality tests that psychologists commonly use. The Big Five is more popular currently, but while I agree that the Big Five is more thorough, I think that it's missing an important quality of the Myers-Briggs test.  First, here is an explanation of both tests:

Myers-Briggs: Everyone is either:
Introverted or Extroverted
Sensing or Intuitive
Thinking or Feeling
Perceiving or Judging 

In this method, a person's personality type is a combination of four traits, one from each pair. For example, my type is INFP, which means that I'm introverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. There are a total of 16 combinations.

Big Five: Personality is a measurement of five traits:
Openness
Conscientiousness
Extroversion
Agreeableness
Neuroticism

A person's personality is usually presented as a bar graph which shows how much of each trait they possess, from 0 to 100 percent.  For a more detailed analysis, each of the five traits can be broken into 6 facets, for a total of 30 traits.

I can understand why the Big Five test is more popular now.  The Myers-Briggs types are based on threshold values; a person is either one thing or the other, but it does not take into account where a person falls on the spectrum, whether they are really on one side or are closer to the middle. Each of the 16 Myers-Briggs combinations are considered to be a distinct type, but the Big Five does not classify people into types as a whole. For example, a person who takes the Big Five test might be told that they have high openness and low conscientiousness, but the test itself does not try to correlate these two pieces of information into one type.  Because of this, the personality combinations on the Big Five scale are almost infinite - especially if you do the detailed analysis with 30 traits, it's unlikely you would meet someone else who had the exact same personality as you.

But my issue with the Big Five test is that it only measures five traits, but not their opposites. As an introvert, I don't appreciate the fact that introversion is just defined as a lack of extroversion on the Big Five test. On Myers-Briggs, introversion is a quality in and of itself.  The Myers-Briggs spectrum made it seem like either choice was okay, but on the Big Five scale, you have a certain amount of each trait.  The Big Five traits have more indications of social desirability (ex: conscientiousness is good, neuroticism is bad) whereas the words on the Myers-Briggs test are more neutral.  Since the Big Five traits are either good or bad and the test measures the amount of each trait that you have, there is a clear inclination of whether each trait score is good or bad.  The Big Five test may be more accurate, but the way that it measures personality can really make people feel bad about themselves; each of the 16 Myers-Briggs types is just as good as the next, but the Big Five test actually has an "ideal" score: 100 points on the four traits and 0 points on the last.

I think that the Big Five test can still work, but it can be presented in a way that is more similar to the Myers-Briggs test so that people would feel better about themselves.  When I took the Big Five test online, I got one score for each of the five traits and bar graph showing these scores out of a possible 100%.  As an experiment, I made my own graphs out of these scores, but instead of using a vertical bar graph, I used a horizontal graph with two different colors, so that the entire 100% was filled in with color. For example: if my score for a certain trait was 20 percent, the first 20 percent of the bar graph would be dark blue, but then the other 80 percent would be filled in with light blue. Both sides of the graph would have a label - one for the original trait and one for the opposite trait, using neutral, non-socially-desirable (or undesirable) words. When both sides of the graph are filled in, when you're given two numbers instead of one, you always feel like you are something, rather than feeling like you're not something. It's a simple change in presentation, but it makes all the difference in how we feel.

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