Boxes for the Masses

If you’re into horoscopes, a typical ice-breaker to conversation might be, “What’s your sign?” Ostensibly, if you know someone’s particular sign of the Zodiac, you already know a great deal about them. Many people read horoscopes with the same enthusiasm of reading a fortune cookie—they’re seen as merely forms of entertainment, never taken too seriously. Like fortune cookies, horoscopes are written so vaguely that they could be made out to agree with almost any account of future events.

A new book by Annie Murphy Paul, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves, sees the same parallels in a number of popular personality tests, such as the MMPI, Myers-Briggs type indicator, and others. In an interview with Salon, Paul says:

These descriptions have a little something for everybody. They hint at things that we all would like to think about ourselves. Or they’re hedged carefully enough so that, sure, they could apply to me. They could apply to anybody. All it takes is for our imagination to fill in the gaps and say, “Oh my…that’s exactly me, they really hit the nail on the head.”

This reaction echoes my experience to some degree. There are always elements in the descriptions that the tests return that seem remarkably true. The funny thing is that I think I could have read through all the “descriptions” and picked the same personality type without even taking the test. Are the questions in these tests even necessary?

Having recently written (briefly) about the questionable depth of such tests, I find Ms. Paul’s thesis intriguing. The author challenges the notion that such tests are effective means of measuring human personality. The human personality is much more complex than a 100- or even 500-question test can measure, and these tests give snapshots that could mislead if given too much creedance.

While neither the MMPI or Myers-Briggs instruments claim a 100% foolproof result from their tests, the results are used extensively in many areas. The Myers-Briggs website lists about a dozen uses with the addendum, “And new uses are coming up every day!” These tests have become the de facto standard for understanding personality in workplaces, schools, and churches.

The “spiritual gifts” tests that are administered in many churches (here’s just one of many available on the internet) are strikingly similar to personality tests, eliciting answers to questions about the respondents likes and dislikes. I’ve been in many Christian settings where boths tests were used. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but churches and Christian organizations need to beware the danger of allowing these psychological devices to supplant theological living.

With regard to spiritual gifts, I’ve encountered many Christians who are quick to define their spiritual gifts with the results a test. The danger is that they may just be picking out something that they like to do, rather than what they are truly gifted to do. For example, someone may like being a teacher, but that doesn’t mean that they are especially gifted by the Holy Spirit to do so (as an aside, I tend to think that spiritual giftedness will tend to display itself on its own as a believer matures in Christ—a believer’s life serves as a better “spiritual gifts test”).

Much of this dependence on psychological data has to do with trends in the culture at large. As sociologist James Davison Hunter notes:

There are sociological reasons why psychology has emerged as the framework for understanding the moral life . . . With theology in all its forms discredited as a public language, psychology has offered a seemingly neutral was to understand and cultivate the best qualities of human personality. It is “science” after all, and science, we are inclined to believe, is “objective.”

James Davison Hunter, The Death of Character, p. 82

Psychology is useful in many ways, and should not be discarded. However, we must always be careful that our theology informs our psychology. Christian theology says that God made mankind in his image. However useful they are, personality tests that group people into identifiable boxes must always be a little suspect to the Christian.

1 thought on “Boxes for the Masses”

  1. Interesting post. I have read many of the books about personality types and have found them fascinating. I noticed when my first two children were younger, that they were very different in many ways, and that they seemed to be consistent in those differences. Caleb would consistently see the bigger picture when we would be reading a book and would be able to ascertain what might have motivated the characters; while Anna would only be able to tell me the facts that were obviously stated. There is much more to it than that but alas, this is your blog spot!

    A friend of mine who is a Psychologist, thinks all of the personality stuff is bogus and also recommended the book you mentioned above by Annie Murphy Paul. I was reading some sections of that book the day before yesterday at Barnes and Noble, and I found myself disagreeing with much that she had to say. I need to just get the book and read the whole thing though, then I shall blog about it!

    That other book you mentioned The Death of Character,sounds interesting also.

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