‘It’s unfair that by answering honestly I was excluded from work. This can’t be legal’

Personality tests are a huge industry. A new documentary suggests they conceal a dark truth

‘Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist and to be classist,’ says disability justice advocate Lydia XZ Brown. Photograph: YouTube

‘Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist and to be classist,’ says disability justice advocate Lydia XZ Brown. Photograph: YouTube

 

Scrolling dating apps in 2015, Tim Travers Hawkins didn’t know who his type was. He didn’t even know what a type was. Hawkins, a British film-maker then new to New York, “noticed something that was very different to people’s profiles in the UK, and that was the use of these four letters,” he says. Curious, he looked it up. “I was like, ‘Huh, that’s different.’”

The four letters issue from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the world’s best-known personality quiz, which categorises everyone into 16 distinct types gleaned from four binaries: people are either introverted or extroverted, sensing (relying on evidence from one’s senses) or intuitive, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.

The four letters appeared again a few years later when Hawkins was reading about Carl Jung. “It dawned on me that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was actually derived from Jung’s work, and that absolutely fascinated me. The pop-culture element, the fact that it was still being used currently in dating apps and the fact that it was this power structure that was brought to bear on people’s lives without people maybe even noticing” – a theme that resonated with his 2019 documentary XY Chelsea, about Chelsea Manning – “that all made me think this was something that I really wanted to look into.”

Critics say these seemingly harmless instruments are profoundly discriminatory and reflective of larger, troubling issues of who exactly is considered worthy and valuable in society

Hawkins’s new HBO Max documentary, Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, investigates the United States’ infatuation with personality testing, revealing the surprising origin story behind the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator while raising ethical questions and criticisms that these seemingly harmless instruments are profoundly discriminatory and reflective of larger, troubling issues of who exactly is considered worthy and valuable in society.

Persona is informed by the 2018 book The Personality Brokers, by the Oxford University professor Merve Emre – also one of the documentary’s executive producers – which traces the history of the two women who created the namesake Myers-Briggs instrument. “I wanted to understand how these two women who had no formal training in psychology had come to design the world’s most popular personality test,” Emre says in the film.

The business of personality typing as we know it was seeded in 1901 in a Washington DC living room. Following the deaths of two of her children, Katharine Briggs was determined to closely monitor her surviving child, Isabel, and conducted experiments on her and other neighbourhood children. Two decades later, Katharine became a devoted Carl Jung acolyte following his groundbreaking 1921 book, Psychological Types. His work provided a vocabulary and validation to her previously discarded projects.

Later, galvanised by a desire to aid humanity during the second World War, Isabel applied her mother’s research to the workforce, designing a questionnaire – again with the help of her own daughter and her friends around the kitchen table – intended to help people find the job best suited to them. This initial version of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was released in 1943. (There have been many iterations since – the four letters were never copyrighted.)

Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, racist, sexist and classist. That’s what happens when you have a test based on norms devised from college-educated straight white men with no known disabilities

About 50 million people have taken the test since the 1960s, and personality testing is now a €1.7 billion industry, growing about 15 per cent a year. Today more than two million people take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator every year, including 60-70 per cent of prospective workers in the United States. All this despite the well-known facts that the test has no grounding in clinical psychology (Jung’s theories weren’t drawn from controlled experiments or data either), its results are poorly correlated with job performance, and embedded within it are false and dangerous ideas about race, gender and class that drive bias and discrimination.

“Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist and to be classist,” says Lydia XZ Brown, a disability-justice advocate. “That’s what happens when you have a test... based on norms devised from college-educated straight white men with no known disabilities. Personality tests are useful for individual people sometimes on journeys of self-discovery. But when they’re used to make decisions by other people affecting someone’s life, they become dangerous tools.”

Four generations of Briggs Meyers women. Photograph: HBO Max
Four generations of Briggs Meyers women. Photograph: HBO Max

Kyle Behm learned that the hard way. In 2012 he applied for a job at his local supermarket; the process included an online personality test. (Employers’ use of online personality tests has surged since the early 2000s in attempts to streamline hiring, particularly for customer-service jobs. They’re now used earlier in the hiring process, to filter out applicants, as opposed to being considered alongside interviews and past experience.) Behm, who was previously diagnosed with bipolar disorder, found out he was rejected from the job because his test indicated that he was likely to ignore customers if they were upset or making him upset.

“I was taken aback, because I’ve worked in customer service before, and one of the things I’ve learned is to completely separate your personal feelings from the job,” Behm says in the film. “It’s not fair that by answering honestly about things that were related to my mental health I was excluded from work. In my head, I’m thinking there’s no way this can be legal.”

In complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Behm, with the help of his attorney father, accused the supermarket – it was part of the Kroger chain – and six other companies of discrimination against people with mental illness through their use of personality tests. (The Myers-Briggs Company claims it stopped selling to companies that use it for hiring, and the Wall Street Journal found in 2014 that Kroger dropped from its hiring test many of the questions the Behms found most troubling.)

David Scarborough, cocreator of the Unicru Personality Test, used by Kroger and numerous other employers, defends the tests as providing a valuable service. “When you steer someone away from a job that they’re not as likely to do well in, you’ve done them a favour even though it doesn’t feel like a favour,” he says in the film.

We’re often drawn to systems that seem to explain the world in a way that’s simple and seems to be neutral, but I want people to be wary

Battling the personality-test Goliaths are groups such as the Hope programme, which helps low-income New Yorkers find employment and prepares programme participants for these tests. But what’s on the horizon is perhaps even more disturbing: video-interview platforms that analyse words and speech with facial movements. As Brown puts it, it’s part of the same pseudoscience as measuring people’s skulls.

Understanding how all these things work has taken new importance in the pandemic age, Hawkins says, with “particularly our work interactions being mediated so much through technology. I think that has accelerated the use of these kinds of psychometric tests. Far from going away, these personality tests are becoming more and more prevalent. Because we are working in more isolated ways via technology, there’s just more windows for this technology to be inserted at different junctures of our interactions.”

Not to mention the added pressure on the job market because of increased levels of unemployment. “Companies cannot deal with the volume of applicants, and so they’re looking for ways to legally cull applicants,” he says, which speaks to the promise of personality-test screenings.

Ultimately Hawkins hopes the film will make us all approach things like personality tests with a more critical eye. “We’re often drawn to systems that seem to explain the world in a way that’s simple and seems to be neutral, but I would always want people to be wary and to think about where these instruments come from. All of these instruments have a past, and if you really delve into them you can start to find out things about why they exist that might make you uncomfortable.” – Guardian

Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests is available on HBO Max; an Irish streaming date is to be announced

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