West St. Paul, MN. In a day where we feel increasingly disconnected, personality tests promise to fill a gap by offering us insight into ourselves. Whether it’s Myers-Briggs, StrengthsFinder, or the ascending Enneagram, it is hard to escape the influence of these tests. In times past, individuals came to understand who they were by relating to others. Whether it was your family, community, or church, people understood their identity by looking outside of themselves. Those times are fading, and now individuals embark on an endless journey of self-discovery. What does this say about us as a people? Why are these tests so popular, and do they offer us any hope?

In our day, the autonomous self rules supreme, and thus the purpose of life becomes knowing ourselves better. Our slogans reflect this truth: be true to yourself, the heart wants what the heart wants, believe in yourself, etc. If you want a satisfying life, the one thing you must do is find yourself. This gospel resounds throughout our culture in everything from movies to psychology. Whether it’s Disney’s call to follow your heart or Maslow’s declaration that our highest need is self-actualization, as a people, we worship at the altar of the self. As we increasingly look within, our loneliness only intensifies.

Ironically, by searching for the self, we also lose ourselves. The more intently we look within, the more elusive our sense of self becomes. This is the postmodern mood, one of relativism and ultimate uncertainty. The dilemma of our relativistic self-searching is this—how can we seek the self while that very same self is supposed to be our measuring stick? If relativism is correct that truth is subjectively determined, and I haven’t yet found my true self, the determiner of truth, then how can I know anything at all? With no external reference point, what standard do I use to know anything?

The Empty Promises of Personality Tests

Enter personality tests, a seemingly objective standard to find yourself. Answer these questions, and this test will unlock the secrets of you! These tests promise to capture what escapes us—understanding, direction, and truth. In modern lingo, “Want to find yourself? There’s an app for that!” Is it any wonder that personality tests are so popular? They claim to offer insight into the thing we most desire—the self, all in neat prepackaged categories.

There are two major problems with personality tests. First, they are arbitrary. Far too often, people treat these tests with the same veracity as having a blood test at the doctor’s office. At best, the arbitrary categories of these tests are educated guesses. Second, all these tests operate under the dubious assumption that we can accurately know and represent ourselves by answering questions on a test. As a pastor, I see firsthand that people are self-deceiving as they often think better of themselves than reality warrants.

Nonetheless, what personality tests actually reveal is our own self-perception of who we are, which may or may not be accurate. After completing a test, the results force individuals into prepackaged mass categories, which somehow account for everyone who ever existed. While there are some insights we can glean from these tests, our treatment of them as gospel truth is suspect at best and laughable at worst.

What Personality Tests Actually Reveal About Us

What then are we to make of the popularity of these tests? What do they say about us as a people? To start, our fascination with personality tests demonstrate our utter loneliness. Despite being connected in amazing ways through technology, we don’t know how to connect with others in meaningful ways. In bygone days, individuals would come to know themselves and others not by categorizing them according to arbitrary personality types but through living together in community. People found out who they were by relating to others, not by taking a test. In our day, we replace conversations with tweets and community with glowing screens. Without meaningful community in our lives, it is difficult to know who we are.

Ultimately, the loneliness of our day is rooted in our own selfishness. If life is all about looking within, then it is truly lonely. Life becomes all about me and me alone. In this cultural fog, we lose our foundation for knowing anything at all because everything is reduced to subjective experience. In a very real way, it is impossible for us to rightly know ourselves by only looking within because everything is reduced to the self. Is it any wonder so many people are anxious, depressed, and lonely? The only cure is to liberate ourselves from our worship of the autonomous self.

A Way Forward

Such liberation can only happen as we look outside of ourselves. Life isn’t about me, so I must look for someone else, someone greater. I can only truly know myself by seeing myself before my Creator. John Calvin reminds us that all knowledge falls into two categories: knowing God and knowing the self. Calvin recognized that in order to know anything, especially ourselves, we must start with God. God, not the nebulous inward self, is the center of all knowledge. He is the external reference point needed to know who we are, and we come to know God through both his self-revelation (Scripture) and his people (the church). By living in communion with God and others, we come to know ourselves better.

While personality tests may or may not be helpful tools, their current popularity demonstrates our nagging loneliness. For too long, we’ve chased our tails as we sought to find our true selves by looking to ourselves, only to return dissatisfied. Wanting to know ourselves by following ourselves only leads to selfishness and despair. Consequently, we blind ourselves with ourselves. Instead, we must look beyond the self to God and others. We must see ourselves in relation to our Creator and our fellow creatures. This mirrors the two great commands—love God and love others.

As those made in the image of the Triune God, we are designed for relationships, both with God and others. This means coming to know God through his Word and then living in community with other Christians. Within local churches, Christians love one another by bearing one another’s burdens, encouraging each other, praying for one another, serving others, and gathering together to point each other to the greatness of God, not the self. It is only by denying ourselves in the service to God and others that we truly live—and it is only in these relationships that our true identity and personality flourish.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Levi,
    Thanks for this piece. You summarize well the dangers of the autonomous self, and how that all plays out in society. Your connection to personality tests is insightful, and one that I had never thought of.
    Cheers,
    Josh

  2. You have a lot to say here with which I agree. The culture of narcissism and the elevation of the sovereign “authentic” self are at the root of many of the ills of our age (loneliness, meaninglessness, emotional fragility, etc). And your argument that this self-focus partly explains the rising popularity of personality tests is solid.
    That being said, the argument would have been stronger had you not taken time away from it to attack the tests themselves. As someone with a PhD in Social/Personality Psychology, who teaches and carries out research and consulting in this area, I have seen my fair share of awful personality tests, with low reliability and validity, and tenuous theoretical underpinnings (for those reasons I am on record as despising the enneagram). However, many popular personality tests are grounded in solid and empirically-supported theories of individual differences, are backed up by an extensive body of research, and have an impressive track record of predicting outcomes in a wide range of domains in life. If you want to argue that the culture of narcissism encourages the misuse of these assessment tools, I am on board. But I plead “abusus no tollit usum” for the tests themselves.

    • Charles-
      Thanks for the feedback. I think we are mostly in agreement. Of course, there is some helpful insights from the better of these tests (I too share your disdain for the Enneagram). My reaction is more for how they are used in day-to-day life, where the results are taken as gospel truth. All the social sciences work on theories and models and some are better than others, but these are soft sciences. I believe human personality is far more complicated and diverse than even the best of these tests reflect. Moreover, even with all the best questions and checks and balances to avoid deception, the tests do rely on the taker having an accurate view of themselves and for them to answer accurately to how they would act in real life, not just on a test. I know people who have out of tests saying they are extroverts when everyone who knows them knows is simply not true. But the person thought of themselves as one and thus answered the questions according to their self-perception. I am sure these tests try to overcome such things, but it far from an exact science. the reality is, people are often not honest in how they think of themselves. True, the more self-aware a person is, the better the results of these tests, but in the end, these tests and their categories are man-made. While some have a good general correspondence to what is out there, but they are far from objective and universal. So yes, I do not want to through them all out, but I do feel they need to be knocked down a few pegs, especially how they function outside of the more academic realms of life. So no “abusus no tollit usum,” and thanks again!

  3. I am with you Charles (not just because I also despise the Enneagram, but also the other things). The existence of a personality test as a tool to explore neurosis, anxiety, and manifestations of depression are easily flipped into weapons of self destruction – especially in the hands of the data miners in Silicon Valley.

    Fun Fact: The “type A” personality test, now a norm in our lexicon, was created, funded, and utilized by the tobacco companies. (I utilized my Googling skills on this one. I wanted to double check something that usually only surfaces on trivia night, you know, to show my tremendous efforts at academic rigor.)

    While I agree with the need for more human interaction, community, and a relationship with the divine Levi, I respectfully disagree with your assessment of the personality test as a revelation of our loneliness and narcissism. I argue that it is a once tool turned weapon by the gargantuan beast of the so called “social media” industry.

    “It’s much easier to measure the deaths of 480,000 per year due to cigarettes than it is to measure the human suffering at the hands of computer coded and engineered anxiety,” he said with a smirk of irony, as he typed a response in the comments.

    • Colin-
      As much as Social Media is a behemoth right now, the popularity of personality tests pre-dates the rise of Facebook and its cohorts. Surely, social has aided in its boom, but While I agree the tests themselves did not originate in narcissism and loneliness, but that is not my argument. My point is their current popularity reflects our narcissism and loneliness. Again, I am not talking about how these are used by clinicians, but how they function at the popular level. It is no secret, that for many in our postmodern day have made life about finding the true self and things like self-actualization. Moreover, as we have shifted away from more communal living, where people used to find their identities, people have looked elsewhere. One place they’ve looked is personality tests. That is the gist of my argument, and again it focuses on how the tests are used and employed at the popular level in a society that promotes self-everythingism and that also lacks community. I hope this clarifies my argument. Good readings which demonstrate these cultural trends, and how prior generations would not have looked to such things, check David Wells’ series (No Place for Truth, Above All Earthly Pow’rs, God in the Whirlwind, etc). I also found Kevin DeYoung’s book “Just Do Something” also illuminating in comparing how older generations dealt with life’s questions.

  4. Levi –

    Thank you for your well articulated rebuttal. I see your point, and agree the popularity of personality tests do indeed reflect some level of our growing narcissism and isolation from one another. It seems in this brief back-and-forth, we probably agree on a lot of things.

    To some degree, childhood memory recalls the existence of these things in magazines like (albeit an easy target) Cosmopolitan. Mentioning a magazine targeted to a female demographic almost makes me cringe in that I hate singling it out, but unfortunately my mother was a subscriber when I was a child, and it is my only current frame of reference to that period of time. This also triggers the memory of arguments being something of comedy between my parents because of these types of “personality tests.”

    Working as a clinician, I tend to become a bit owl like when I see the use of clinical language in the boiled down cabbage soup form of everyday lexicon. So, clarifying this helps make more sense of your argument (reading it again with a different lens reflects my initial and slightly satirical reaction being a bit unfair). To a certain extent, the desire to rename these personality tests into something like “data mining” feels appropriate.

    Your sentiments about “worship of the autonomous self” presents an interesting dichotomy, regardless of what we define, even separately, as a personality test. From the clinical to the yeoman definition, they ironically reveal a lot about the weaknesses of the human ego.

    Thank you again for engaging in a dialogue.

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