People have dedicated immeasurable hours to the study of personality theory in an effort to understand what motivates our feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Enthusiasts have been known to get so involved in personality typing that they use it to predict a person's health, career destiny, relationship potential, and even their sex drive! Once you've figured out your four letter code, you can spend hours on blogs and forums figuring out what's in store for you based on your personal strengths and weaknesses.
While there's a scientific basis for personality typing such as the theory put forward by Briggs and Myers, evidence from research studies shows us that personality is surprisingly fluid. Personality testing may act as one type of predictive tool, but it's a lot more sophisticated than fitting traits into a box. In fact, there are dozens of variables that matter more to a person's success and happiness than their personality type.
Curious? Let's take a closer look.
"We are what we think," taught Buddha which is a stylish way of saying, you are what you believe you are. We all play roles and we often wear masks that represent the image we want to show to the world. But the real us - the raw, unadulterated form of ourselves - remains the guiding force behind our actions. And that is not determined by a broad set of personality traits, it is determined by our values.
Values are the standards by which we order our lives and make our choices. It is possible to categorize many types of values such as those that relate to happiness, health, wealth, pleasure, success, recognition, tradition, honesty, benevolence, security or family. These are all subjective terms, which means that they will mean different things to different people. And they may even mean different things to the same person, depending on their life stage.
There are several differences between personality and values. Values are what we believe we ought to do. They reveal a lot about a person because they identify how people attach meaning, worth and importance to things. Personality is what we naturally tend to do, alongside others of the same personality type.
Personality traits do not conflict with one another, which means that a person can simultaneously express preferences for Introversion and Thinking, for example, or pleasure-seeking and achievement. Values do conflict. The choices that a person makes to pursue some values at the cost of others is what makes them entirely unique and determines the direction a life takes.
Blindly accepting personality as the determinant of success and failure takes away your power to decide what makes you happy based on your own values. For most people, that's why personality typing is only half the story in getting to grips with their authentic selves.
Have you ever wondered why some people seem to bounce back from adversity while others seem to come undone? People who cope with stress and hardship have what psychologists call resilience, or an ability to cope with difficulties and setbacks. These difficulties might include illness, job loss, bereavement, natural disasters, divorce, or financial problems.
Resilience does not stamp out life's difficulties. People who possess resilience do not experience less tragedy, grief or anxiety than others do. But their resilience allows them to tackle these problems head on and often, emerge stronger.
Some personality types are characterized as being unflappable in the face of crisis. However, psychologists agree that resilience is not an inborn trait, but learned. We know that strong social networks, responsive relationships, social support, and spirituality all make significant contributions to a person's resilience. Those in stable and committed relationships, for example, will experience greater emotional security, improved health and higher self-esteem, regardless of their personality type. These are all factors that help us respond to adversity in healthy ways.
Resilience is important because it has been shown to have a moderating effect on life outcomes. People who are resilient typically experience better health, more psychological stability characterized by the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior, and less stress under changing circumstances. These are the people who succeed, even excel, despite incredibly difficult circumstances.
Personality theories tend to distinguish personality from intelligence, and it's those psychological differences between people that aren't primarily matters of ability that make personality theories so interesting. But being "intelligent" is not only about having a high IQ. It is now seen to include emotional, social and physical aptitude, having great communication skills, logic, musical ability or "life smarts" - and these types of intelligence can largely be acquired through learning.
Put simply, there's a difference between those who love to learn and those who don't. Enthusiastic learners will consider activities that broaden their perspective (such as reading, learning new skills and exploring hobbies) fun. Reluctant learners will consider those activities boring. They might avoid opportunities to learn - and this can have a critical impact on their happiness.
Love of learning, meaning the mastery of new skills and knowledge, whether self-directed or formal, is closely associated with contentment, motivation and a sense of accomplishment that psychologists refer to as "well being." Lifelong learners typically experience greater well being than reluctant learners, which in turn leads to objective outcomes such as better mental health, longevity, productivity, pro-social behavior such as volunteering and a lower risk of anxiety and depression. Learners enhance the odds of success and survival. Clearly this has ramifications for their life outcomes.
Who you are today is the result of all the choices you've made in your life. From exercising three times a week to which brand of toothpaste you buy, from taking an accelerated class at school to attending a job interview, from putting a dollar in the homeless man's pot to walking on by - your whole life is a series of decisions that impact your future. Choices are everywhere, and every single one of them has the potential to make a lasting impact on our lives.
To a degree, our choices are the product of our personalities. It makes sense that a risk-averse person would be suspicious of a choice that might put themselves or their loved ones in danger. But the obvious criticism is that personality theories are based on dichotomies. Are you Introverted or Extraverted? Sensing or Perceiving? It's up to you to decide.
Choices, on the other hand, rarely fall into the simple pattern of either/or. They are infinite. That is why a person who has made one set of choices can experience life so very differently to the other 10 percent of the population with the same personality type.
Understanding your personality type can help you to justify why you've made the choices you've made. But it isn't a blueprint for those choices. Being a Thinker does not mean that you cannot choose to be an empathetic and compassionate caregiver. Being a Perceiver does not mean that you cannot choose to manage a project in a structured, pre-determined way. Our personalities should never be excuses to limit our own decisions - at best, they should provide a schema for becoming the most developed versions of ourselves.
Personality tests are illuminating and quite fun to do. They can help to establish your niche in this crazy, complex world and reveal how you compare to other people. They can also help you tap into a wealth of knowledge about the strengths and struggles that those around you are experiencing. This is what personality tests are designed to do.
But personality theories are also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Scoring your personality won't tell you anything you didn't already know. The tests are based on how you see yourself, and logically, how you see yourself is the sum weight of your values, your resilience, your choices, your learned skills and a dozen other variables that make you both the person you are, and the person you want to be. These, and not your personality type, are the things that make you memorable when you walk into a room.