Know Thyself: Personality Tests are Worthless

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated …

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “self-knowledge is enlightenment”.

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world. It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware. It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave .

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the ‘Forer Effect’. Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.

Heraclitus and Freud

It dawned me a little while ago that the human condition is one of ongoing tension between the way the world is (ontology) and the way our mind works (psychology). The world is inherently unpredictable—even our best attempts to make it predictable ultimately fail. We have trouble predicting the weather more than a few days ahead and predicting earthquakes and volcano eruptions are even more unpredictable. Heraclitus had a great insight when he proclaimed that:

“You cannot step twice into the same rivers; for fresh waters are flowing in upon you.”

Heraclitus understood that the world is ever-changing and nothing is ever the same. Our human psychology, however, has difficulties accepting this eternal change. Sigmund Freud thought that we are not as free as we think we are, but are ultimately creatures of habit. Our minds are designed to find regularity, even where there is none. Hume’s sceptical argument of inductive inferences is a great illustration of how this works.

In this respect we also need to jump into the abyss, as argued in my earlier post. This does not imply that we should just accept the chaos and not use our mind to attempt to understand the world. We should, however, accept that all our attempts to grasp the world around us in neatly packaged theories will never succeed. All knowledge is practical knowledge and can only be judged in its ability to produce the desired effects.