I recently read a post on Steven Novella’s Neurologica blog about personality testing – and how it’s a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense.

I don’t disagree that a lot of personality testing is kind of bullshit, especially if you have some knowledge about the more evidence-based Five Factor model of personality (Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience, Extraversion).

The Five Factor model isn’t “scientific”” in the way that we might think of something like… *searching for something that people actually think of as “science” and not some plot by ivory tower elites to cover up a secret cabal of sexual perversion and crony capitalism*…evolution,climate sciencepharmaceuticalsthe way that jet fuel burns, osmosis and fluid diffusion?

Instead, it’s a statistical aggregation of ways of describing people that seem to all vary independently. For example, people who are “generous” are also often “caring” or “tactful.” People who are “talkative” also tend to be “social,” “outgoing” and “interested in thrill-seeking.”

But, you can’t really say anything about how “thrill-seeking” someone is based upon how “generous” they are – meaning that trait Extraversion is uncorrelated with trait Agreeableness.

So, think of the current thinking on personality as having “knobs” that can be turned up or down. And people vary continuously across these knobs – meaning that they can have each of these traits tuned anywhere from 0 to 10.

Based upon this thinking, people do not fall into “types” the way that they do in something like Myers-Briggs, DiSC or Enneagram.

This can result in two major errors in understanding others.

1. Most people fall into the middle of the range of variation on a trait

So, a huge number of people aren’t particularly introverted nor are they particularly extroverted. They aren’t particularly neurotic nor are they particularly not neurotic. 

“Types” in a lot of personality modeling lean on putting people into categories that typically reflect the more extreme manifestations of specific traits, and people tend to be much more “in the middle” than their categories would belie.

2. Traits that many personality typing methodologies view as “opposites” vary independently

Yes, you can have hyper-organized and disciplined creatives (people who are high on both Conscientiousness and Openness). You can have people who are the life of the party but are very socially anxious (people who are high on Extraversion and Neuroticism). You can have a gregarious, back-slapping salesperson who is also extremely systematic in their follow-up (people who are high in Extraversion and Conscientiousness).

Still, despite their flaws, things like DiSC seem to resonate with people because they are true enough to be insightful without being overly complicated or messy.

If you don’t have a model for understanding variations in personality, then other people are unbelievably frustrating and confusing. (Instead of just very frustrating and confusing if you do have a mode for understanding variations in personalityl.)

While DiSC is pretty fluffy, it’s close enough to reality to give people buckets to put people in that at least kind of align with Five Factor variation, so it both fulfills basic human desires to “understand myself” and “understand others” while also being actually useful in understanding the dimensions across which people vary.

Sort of like a “gateway band” – most people don’t get into death metal without having a phase where they listen to Korn along the way.

And, if you have some understanding that other people behave differently than you would in their situation not because they are evil, power hungry manipulators who are trying to kick you down a few rungs on the status hierarchy and ostracize you from the tribe, but because they have personality knobs that are just tuned a little bit differently, then you may have a much easier time playing nicely with others at work.

Personality typing is an example of something being “metaphorically true” as opposed to “literally true.”

If an organization is trying to improve relationships across their team and stop the internal politicking and backstabbing, it may actually be more effective to introduce pseudoscientific, fluffy content like personality testing that allows people to easily categorize each other in “personality types” rather than trying to teach a nuanced Five Factor model that is fuzzier and more difficult to understand.

Most employees aren’t going to be terribly interested in thinking about things in terms of “statistically aggregated traits that are uncorrelated with each other.”

And, even if they are kind of interested, it’s another leap to turn something like the Five Factor model into an actionable framework that results in someone not just totally overreacting to a colleague who basically never actually fully reads an email before firing off a terse, spelling error-laden response (because they’re low Conscientiousness! Low Agreeableness! High “Assertiveness” dimension of Extraversion!)

Instead, it’s much easier and effective to be like “Ok, you’re an Aries, you’re a Virgo, you’re a Pisces. And you? Well you’re a Taurus, my friend.”