When I applied for a job last year, I had to take a “personality survey.” I found this odd, since I wasn’t an employee yet, so I asked if I could opt out without it hurting my chances of getting the position. “We just like to see what kinds of people are interested in working with us,” my interviewer said, as if it was totally acceptable to ask a complete stranger to submit personal data without providing any information about its storage, usage or ultimate destination (I was never even given my “results”). “It’s all randomized, of course,” she said cheerily.
It’s difficult for me to see how personality tests are not simply an expansion of the mental-health system, in particular the diagnosis mentality, or the idea that, if we name it, we know what it is and we know what to do with it. Personality tests claim to reveal the various ways we can sort ourselves into boxes when, in reality, they, like the DSM, create the boxes. Generally, the goal of putting people in boxes is to meet the needs of capitalism, a system of ranking people based on performance that decides who will get to eat and live inside and who will be stripped of their humanity should they not be able to produce what those with capital value desire. It’s also difficult for me to see how a person could avoid serious emotional and mental distress trying to survive in a capitalistic system such as ours, which claims that human beings are inherently competitive and arbitrarily assigns worth to certain pursuits and not others. Believing that the aggressive inclinations capitalism instills in us are natural shreds our ability to connect with each other; yet isolation is worse for our health than smoking. Wondering how we afford basic necessities in a society that lets people fall all the way to the bottom and then blames them for falling is a chronic condition for ever more of us, keeping cortisol levels high, adding physiological stress to the psychological angst.
But the diagnostic mentality of the DSM and personality tests alike place the source of any problems or suffering squarely on the individual. If you’re labeled by the DSM, your treatment plan will probably include psychotropic medication. If you’re labeled by the Myers-Briggs, your treatment is a list of suggestions for self-improvement and “style enhancement” — basically, ways to tone down your type so as to fit in better, “get along” with others and be a better employee. In a single breath, the Myers-Briggs and other similar assessments affirm who we are and tells us not to accept that.
I wasn’t able to complete the application for this job without taking the personality test, so I submitted the assessment (I was never told its name or who produced it), which included questions about my likes and dislikes, as well as statements that I was supposed to indicate were true or false for me. I had to consider claims like “when my work upsets me, I find it difficult to talk to a superior to try to remedy the situation” and “my difficult personal life does not interfere with my work.” There was no space for comments or further explanations — you could not, as with most, personalize this personality assessment. So, if your work doesn’t upset you but you find superiors difficult to talk to, is the first statement true or false for you? If you don’t have a difficult personal life but legitimately upsetting national events disrupt your sleep sometimes and affect your concentration the next day because you’re a human being and we live in an increasingly terrorizing world, is it true or false that your difficult personal life interferes with your performance at work? And, more importantly, would a positive answer disqualify you from employment? Human emotions in a capitalist society are inconvenient unless they can be mobilized for profit, if they can’t be gotten rid of entirely.
It turns out, I learned during my first week at this company, that the intake department (it’s still unclear to me who specifically) makes “educated guesses” about what profile each client might get were they to take the personality assessment (“connector,” “advocate” and “listener” are among the options I’ve seen). This educated guess is broadcasted to every employee as part of the new-client email alert as part of the client-onboarding process. This is not illegal because employers are, as they claim, not using it to make hiring decisions but rather to create company culture (which is their prerogative if they’re a private entity) as well as assist employees in how best to interact with clients. Whether or not this data is stored, and how it might be stored (securely, anonymously, etc.), is apparently irrelevant in terms of the law.
This is, of course, because our culture has taken less than a generation to completely normalize all forms of surveillance — first, in the name of safety and security; now, in the name of workplace homogeneity and the regulation of human interactions. Personality tests — the Myers Briggs, the Enneagram, the Strong Interest Inventory, the myriad others — can be fun and interesting when one elects to take them for their own benefit, though there are discriminatory aspects to all of them that privilege compliance dressed as positivity and the forfeiting of one’s one will, needs and hopes labeled “being a team player.” When they are compulsory at the application level of employment, and the law puts the burden of proof of discrimination on the person who wishes to file a complaint, this is thinly veiled profiling. Personality tests codify desirable traits and behaviors, and, because they often can’t help but eliminate gray areas, forcing people to make binary decisions without the chance to explain or clarify, they exclude ways of being that are commonly associated with “mental illness.”
Thus, these tests can be easily co-opted for behavioral management in the working — that is to say capitalist — world, and capitalism, as should be obvious by now, is not meeting even our material needs. Employers can use the data from these tests however they want— to weed out potentially “bad” employees based on assumptions they may or may not verify, to mold behavior of existing employees, to deny service to customers — and are not obligated to disclose anything about it. And regulation seems unlikely to be forthcoming in a culture that willingly forks over massive amounts of data to who knows who to use as grist for more targeted marketing by taking those addictive quizzes on Facebook so we can know what color we would be, what state we should live in, where in the world we should live, and on and on.
Though you won’t avoid being labeled by a client services department, why not just find a company that doesn’t utilize such measures to form its workforce? In the age of Big Data, it would be bad practice not to test people’s personalities; there are fewer and fewer companies that don’t and the only reason it doesn’t seem like it is because there are subtle ways to collect data about people’s personalities without having to disclose that you’re doing so. In Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil, Harvard mathematician and data scientist, details the algorithmicizing of society. “Algorithms decide who gets a loan, who gets a job interview, who gets insurance, etc.,” she writes, but this is not the progress it seems. Algorithms are created by humans; they are not free of bias, but rather they are encoded bias, now with no accountability since we have enshrined computers as unbiased simply because they are not themselves human. Never mind that they were programmed by humans.
This increasingly reliance on algorithms in law, employment, education and finance reveals an underlying disdain for humanness. Applicants are required by more and more employers to take personality tests not because one’s unique humanity is of interest, but to control the pesky fact that employees, for now, have to be human. Personality tests as used by employers are basically algorithms. If you test as an ENFP on the Myers-Briggs assessment but management wants an ENTP, they simply toss out your application without further review. Those with lived experience of “mental illness” are unlikely to test as what employers are looking for since what late-stage capitalism requires of businesses is productivity, constant growth and short-term profits for shareholders.
We take personality assessments because we hope to learn about ourselves, partly due to curiosity and partly because we are told we need to know ourselves. But I was never told what the outcome of my assessment was. Am I “connector?” A “listener?” None of the options seemed particularly relevant to my daily tasks, but I have no idea how management is using this information. I have no idea how it will be used in the future and what if I change? The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in particular asserts that your type is stable over time; however, not only have I gotten different types the different times in my life that I’ve taken the assessment, but the assumption that human beings don’t (or can’t?) change very much is damaging. No one should be forever locked into 100 answers they have to provide in 20 minutes without being able to ask questions or clarify. It’s especially hurtful to those of us whose experience of time, self and reality differs from that expected by the majority.
The problem does not lie with employers. The problem lies with an economic system that depends on infinite growth on a finite planet and unavoidably produces poverty and inequality as a by-product. And now, the personality test is being used to determine which side of the wealth gap people will fall on. Who you are is not neutral — the lens your personality-test results will be viewed through is: “are you a good worker?” Any definition of this will likely exclude psychiatric survivors, those labeled by the DSM and those who see, think, hear, speak and feel differently, where ‘differently’ means ‘anything inconvenient’ to the needs of consumer capitalism.
I took the Myers-Briggs test recently to see if I could reverse the situation and use it to help me find a job rather than having it used to see if I fit a company. While I found my ‘type’ to accurately describe me, the recommendations in the interpretive report seemed to indicate that my scores were deficient. Every character trait I displayed — none of which were framed negatively, which most personality assessments are careful to do — was paired with an equal and opposite suggestion. My ‘independent’ nature needed to be countered with ‘asking for help;’ that I knew my preferences and feelings quickly should make me cautious (I should try exploring other options); my ‘expressive’ nature might overwhelm others, and so on. I hadn’t realized I was taking a test to evaluate what was wrong with me.
It’s not my personal results that provoked this response; all Myers-Briggs types are given pages of these types of suggestions. In our obsession with ‘well-rounded-ness,’ we’ve blunted individuality: if we are supposed to balance out every facet of every aspect of our being, then why does it matter who we actually are? Why take the personality test at all if the goal, as the suggestions my report gave me seem to indicate, is for every human being to perfectly balanced, not in terms of what that would mean for each person but in terms of the alleged spectrum of human experience?
Personality tests assume a such a spectrum exists, and they amputate extreme states by failing to consider the why of any answer. Whatever spectrum the test is working with, it is completely blind to the fact that my best friend and I are the same Myers-Briggs type and could not be more different individual human beings. Employers relying on a set of four letters would miss this completely, and that’s because neither they nor the data they’re relying on know why people answered the way they did on these tests. There’s a section on the Myers-Briggs assessment that asks you to choose between two words — like “logic” or “feelings,” “abstract” or “concrete.” The test is careful to frame nothing as a negative choice, but even the 15-page report your answers generate doesn’t explain why you’d prefer one over the other. I’d choose “logic” as a word over “feelings” as a word any day, but does that mean I don’t care about your feelings or I struggle with mine? Is “abstract” a verb, the brief explanation of an experiment, a vague symbol-like concept? Do I like any of those more than cement — which is not literally the same thing, chemically, as concrete, but you get the idea. (In the pair “literal” v. “figurative,” I probably don’t have to tell you which one I picked. But I — and only I, not the test — would be able to tell you why.)
I’ve found that knowing myself is only as helpful as knowing what to do with the information I know. And one thing I don’t know is what employers are doing with the information their personality assessments are giving them. Another thing I don’t know is if my answers to these personality tests, or even just the way my resume is formatted and worded, are getting me automatically ejected from the pool of consideration. But I do know, for example, that my preference for “criticism” over “compassion” would actually be an asset to the right employer rather than the social failure it appears to be. I also know that if, according to a Gallup study done in 2017, 51 percent of full-time employees aren’t engaged at work and 16 pcercent are “actively disengaged,” then employers are misusing the personality data they are collecting and that is their fault. Not that I’m advocating for capitalism, but that’s exactly why employers should care about who people really are. Unhappy people aren’t just unproductive; they can actively undermine and sabotage their place of work.
I guess that’s why we’re developing machines to do every job humans can do, though. Rather than create a society in which personality tests, if they must be used at all, indicate places of exclusion and inaccessibility so we can repair them, we continue to fork over intimate data bits about ourselves — we hand over our hopes and our weaknesses to forces that by nature sift and sort us into haves and have-nots based not even a little on who we are or what we need but on what will keep feeding the beast.
As long as we insist on capitalism, we’ll need workplaces, which are inherently discriminatory, since this is an environment where it is an acceptable and expected practice to measure a person’s worth, at least financially, based on their performance on tasks that may or may not matter to them or that may or may not have any intrinsic value in and of themselves (it’s also based on how much money the employers or business owners believe they need to keep for themselves, but that’s for another discussion). Personality tests, insofar as they perpetuate the name-it-tame-it mentality common to the diagnostic approach to mental health, don’t look at causes, formational environments or do much to question the current structures that oppress some and privilege others.
Maybe you’re “introverted” because both failure and success were punished in your family of origin. You need a lot of time alone, but our society prefers extroverts so you’re told you’ll never succeed unless you become more outgoing, “get out there,” practice networking by making friends, etc. You join the family for a game night instead of staying in your room and reading, and your mother snarkily remarks, “So you’ve finally decided to join us.” Trauma isn’t the only thing that informs our personalities, though. Our culture has little room for inherent differences among the way human beings inhabit and interact with the world, beyond the lip service of the “new” psychology that says we each perceive reality a little differently.
Unlike the DSM, personality tests are more tolerant of these differences between human beings — that I am an introverted thinker and you are an extroverted senser are both okay, or at least neutral. But workplaces are not neutral, and personality traits like “creativity” or “introversion” are not neutral in the workplace. Employers have profit goals, if only to stay in the black, and many are beholden to shareholders. Using personality assessments to create the workforce they need to meet these goals is discrimination with a smile. By objectifying a trait (like introversion), employers can ‘diagnose’ problems in their workforce before they get in the way of the mission of the organization, which is always informed by late-stage, extractive capitalism. Personality tests in the workplace are simply another way of managing and controlling for neuro- and psychological diversity, which will always be at odds with the current economic system and the goals of those who benefit immensely while creating massive mental, emotional and physical suffering. Our obsession with naming and labeling, demonstrated by the DSM and the proliferation of personality tests, allows oppressive systems like capitalism and the mental health system to continue to avoid responsibility for the harm they inflict by keeping us believing that the problems lie within the individual.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.