Dear Sasquatch: Are Personality Tests Accurate?
My friends and I have been taking a bunch of personality tests, just for fun, really, but I have to admit that the results do seem to be dead on. Is there a scientific basis to any of these?
The accuracy of a personality test has more to do with the person taking the test than the test itself, although how accurate a test seems and why depends somewhat on the level of detail in the questions.
Some of the really detailed ones do in fact give you specific results that describe how you see yourself. But this doesn’t mean that they necessarily describe who you are. If you answer honestly and are reasonably self-aware, odds are the description of your personality will be fairly accurate. But this is just because you created that description in your own answers.
It’s not the test that’s accurate so much as your description of yourself that’s accurate. So you’re not finding out anything you didn’t already know, although the wording of the description might present what you know in a different way, since you aren’t the one writing it.
Even when you aren’t self-aware or honest, however, the results will seem accurate to you because they will again be based on the answers you gave, which are themselves based on how you see yourself, how you want to see yourself, or how you think you should see yourself.
In this way, personality tests, if detailed enough, will always be fairly accurate if we define accurate as seeming true to the person taking them.
Other tests that are less detailed tend to work like horoscopes. They are just general enough to apply to most people at some point in their lives because our personalities aren’t black and white. In some situations we’re shy but not in others, for example. And most of see ourselves as basically good people, deep down, regardless of our behavior.
They also appeal to how we want to see ourselves, relying on subjective validation and confirmation bias, our tendency to find and even create meaning and believe anything that confirms what we already believe, in this case, about ourselves, especially if it’s positive (but not necessarily—it can confirm something negative that we believe is true about ourselves).
And finally, some personality tests, like horoscopes (and psychic readings, tarot readings, etc.) rely on our tendency to focus on the hits and ignore or rationalize the misses, so what seems true stands out more to us, and any statements that aren’t as accurate are easily forgotten (or rationalized along the lines of “well, this was true this one time”).
Back in the 1940s, a psychologist, Bertram Forer, did an interesting experiment that illustrates how our cognitive biases affect how we interpret information about ourselves. He gave his students a personality test, but then he gave each of them the exact same results, regardless of their responses on the test (without them knowing that they’d all received the same personality description). Here’s what he gave them:
You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Your sexual adjustment has presented problems for you. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.
He then asked them to rate how well the statement applied to them, from 0 to 5, with 5 being the most accurate. The average on that first test was 4.26, with 4.2 being the usual average in the hundreds of repeated tests done by other researchers. This tendency to interpret general statements as being highly personally relevant as been dubbed the Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect).
So personality tests, regardless of how complex they are, tend to provide accurate results in a circular way, either by describing us accurately because we describe ourselves accurately or by relying on the narcissistic tendencies of most humans to read meaning about ourselves in just about anything.
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