Cult of personality quizzes

Hi, my name’s Katie and I’m addicted to personality quizzes.

Nothing would make me happier than to know what kind of pizza I am, or which Hogwarts House I belong in. Bring me your quizzes, I will take them all. And most of the time, I will take that quiz, read the result, go “well that’s not true at all,” and then try again with a new one. Maybe “Which Pop-Tart is Your Soulmate?” will be more accurate. So the cycle continues. This is my burden. I’m at peace with it.

We are very happy together. Photo by opacity via Flickr.

We are very happy together. Photo by opacity via Flickr.

I’m not sure why I love personality tests so much. It could be narcissism. A kinder interpretation might be the universal appeal of self-discovery, of learning something new about myself. What is it that makes me “me”? And yes, I do know that there are no real insights to be found on the Buzzfeed quizzes page. But I can’t be the first person to hope that answering a set of questions might lead to personal enlightenment.

The academic study of personality – a person’s unique patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving – is as old as the field of psychology itself, with giants like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung laying out the first theories of personality around the turn of the century. In fact, Jung’s theories were used as the foundation for the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), perhaps the most popular personality test around today.  

The problem is that the MBTI isn’t scientifically valid. The MBTI sorts people into one of sixteen possible “types”, where each type is a different combination of four separate dichotomous factors. I’m an INFJ, which means I’m a deeply empathetic idealist introvert exactly like Mother Teresa. You’re probably already familiar with your type, and what kind of amazing things that says about you.

Basically me. Photo via wikimedia.

Basically me. Photo via wikimedia.

The major flaw of the MBTI is that it’s not based on data from real people, and so doesn’t stand up to rigorous testing. Part of the problems lies in the MBTI’s basic premise of sorting people into discrete types. For each factor, the test tells you you’re either one OR the other, but in reality the majority of people who take the test fall somewhere in the middle between extremes for a particular factor. So it’s not much of a surprise that psychologists don’t like the MBTI. In fact, it’s the favorite personality test of the corporate world and a million dollar industry.

So if the MBTI is unscientific crap, then what’s the alternative? Where’s the accurate personality test of my dreams? The leading model accepted by psychologists is the Five Factor Model of Personality, also called the Big Five, which measures personality by rating five independent factors chosen by cold, hard data.

Psychologists had people rate themselves on a very large number of personality traits, and then analyzed all those ratings to find which traits were commonly found together in a single person. From this analysis, the Big Five factors emerged as overarching, independent aspects of personality. That means that a person’s score on one of the factors has no effect on their score on another. And unlike the strict categories of the MBTI, the Big Five model rates test takers on a continuous scale for each factor, so you can see for yourself exactly how high you score on a particular factor.

So what are the Big Five Factors? The table below is a short summary of the basic principles, though sometimes different names and descriptions are used. Emotional stability is often called neuroticism, and intellect/imagination is often referred to as openness to experience.

Low scoring traits High scoring traits
Extroversion Reserved, independent, shy, introspective, introverted Outgoing, talkative, sociable, active
Emotional stability Anxious, tense, moody, insecure Resilient, calm, levelheaded
Agreeableness Suspicious, aggressive, uncooperative Cooperative, friendly, empathetic
Conscientiousness Unorganized, impulsive, spontaneous Punctual, organized, disciplined
Intellect/imagination Practical, rational, down-to-earth, conventional Imaginative, curious, enjoys abstract thought

I know I’ve taken several different tests to measure my personality according to the Big Five before, but I just couldn’t remember my scores. I took another test while writing this article and discovered why that is.

A lot harder to remember than the MBTI’s snappy acronym! But also a lot more accurate. The percentile is a way to compare individual results to the general population. I’m in the 37th percentile for extroversion, which means that I scored higher than only 37% of other people. The 50th percentile is exactly average, so as you can see my results on the Five Factors are mostly pretty average.

Though I am surprised I’m not more introverted. Photo via pexels.com

Though I am surprised I’m not more introverted. Photo via pexels.com

Of course, the Big Five Model isn’t perfect. It was built directly from data, but that means there’s no theoretical framework around it – it’s purely observational, not predictive. The method used to build it could be biased, and important personality factors might be missing. It seems like a comprehensive model of personality should be larger in scope.

But personality psychologists are working hard on answering these questions and improving the model, including testing whether it holds up across cultures and languages. Despite its flaws, the Big Five is the best personality model we have right now. So I guess I’ll just be here pondering my 37th percentile extraversion when I’m feeling contemplative, and figuring out which Disney Princess I am when I’m feeling bored.

About the Author

Katie Pieper is a PhD student in the Department of Genetics at the UGA. She studies the molecular evolution of sex chromosomes in fruit flies. In her free time, she enjoys baking delicious desserts and winning at trivia contests. She is also the head tweeter for the Athens Science Café official Twitter account @AthSciCafe. Get in touch with Katie at@kpeeps111or kpieper@uga.edu. More from Katie Pieper.