Personality testing has critics who are skeptical of its validity. The list of detractors includes a few working psychologists and some academics who question the theories of the experts who created the tests. Also included on the list are lay people who don’t think the Myers-Briggs, Enneagram or Big Five tests have any connection to real life.

There’s also a third category of critics – those who say that personality testing is nothing more than stereotyping. They see the type descriptions as too simple or rigid. They believe the tests take a few legitimate observations about human behavior and convert them into a caricature of what people are really like. Rather than offering important insights into psychology and emotional makeup, they say personality tests put people in fixed categories that don’t capture the true complexity of human beings. 

Is the stereotyping charge accurate? Or is the concept itself a stereotype based on a misunderstanding of what personality testing is designed to do?

Stereotyping and the risk of overgeneralizing

The fact that personality tests like the Enneagram and DISC assessment are so popular is a testament to their usefulness. They offer a range of fascinating insights that are helpful for people who are trying to find the right job, advance their careers, build better relationships or grow as individuals.

But if you take a shallow view, personality tests may seem to offer a rigid or stereotyped version of how people think, act and respond. Let’s look at a couple of examples to see how this might work.

Let’s say you’re in a warm and loving relationship with an INTP. You may wonder how a Myers-Briggs type you’ve seen described as detached, analytical and inwardly focused can be so good-humored, affectionate and passionate with you. So, you decide that personality testing is stereotyping, since the person you know doesn’t fit the image of how an INTP is supposed to behave.

Now suppose that you, or someone you know well, is an Extravert in the Big Five or Myers-Briggs system. Yet you (or they) get so much enjoyment out of solitary activities like writing, painting, or taking long walks in the forest by yourself, and that doesn’t seem to fit the extraverted type description at all!

In reality, nothing here conflicts with the results of personality tests. Look deeper into the INTP profile and you’ll see that this type can be playful, imaginative and enthusiastic in their relationships, and can make great partners for those with whom they have chemistry. Likewise, Extraverts can still thrive in situations where they’re alone with their own thoughts for a while; they simply don’t do it all the time. 

The analytical nature of the INTP, or the people-orientation of the Extravert, will be very much in evidence much of the time. But that’s not all these people are because no personality is that narrow. 

Healthy vs unhealthy personalities, and everything in between

Personality categories are meant to apply to everyone who takes a test and produces a similar result. But within each of these categories there are levels of “wholeness” that can lead to real differences in how personality traits are expressed. In other words, one person who tests as an INFP might be well-adjusted while another might have been impacted by troubling experiences or a difficult childhood. This can lead to differences in how they behave.

Here are a couple of examples. 

You may have read that Enneagram Type 7s are adventure-seekers with short attention spans who are always moving from place to place or thing to thing. So, you may be puzzled as to why your Seven friend is so competent and skilled, and so able to invest their energy wisely on projects that will further their long-term goals.

Or perhaps you work for an ESTJ boss who is supposed to be judgmental, inflexible and prone to demanding workaholic-levels of commitment from their team. Yet the boss you serve is receptive to your ideas and strives hard to maintain a healthy-work balance across the workplace.

These examples show the distinction between well-adjusted personalities and those who are living out of balance. An Enneagram 7 who has developed good judgment and ample self-control can channel their energies in productive directions, while the stable and self-aware ESTJ will have learned to moderate their stubbornness and be more relaxed in their social interactions. ESTJs are naturally family-oriented. They won’t neglect their loved ones for their careers when they are not driven by an unhealthy compulsion to prove themselves over and over again.

Rising above the stereotypes

The stereotyping charge against personality typing is the classic example of projection, as those who put the ‘stereotyping’ tag on personality testing are actually the ones doing the stereotyping. Personality systems leave a lot of room for diversity which is why the stereotyping charge falls flat. 

Fundamentally, personality tests are not meant to define every aspect of a person’s life. They simply offer fresh tools to help you answer questions about yourself and your life.

Among their benefits, personality tests can help you develop greater self-awareness and self-consciousness. Up to now, you may have been mystified about why you tend to act or react in particular ways. Knowing that you are an Enneagram 6 or an ENFJ, for example, will help you understand why you behave the way you do so you can lean into what’s working and work to improve any parts that are getting in the way of your success. This can improve your chances of building more constructive relationships with the people you encounter in your professional or personal life.

Anyone who takes a high-quality  personality test will recognize themselves in the in-depth report they receive. But some parts will resonate more clearly than others – and that’s okay. No one’s individual character will be 100% reflected in the results of a personality test, because tests are only meant to evaluate tendencies and inclinations.

The best personality tests are multi-layered, nuanced and fully grounded in reality. But they won’t answer every question you might have about why you are the way you are. The insights they do give you can be significant and even life-altering, and that is what gives them their value.

Nathan Falde
Nathan Falde has been working as a freelance writer for the past six years. His ghostwritten work and bylined articles have appeared in numerous online outlets, and in 2014-2015 he acted as co-creator for a series of eBooks on the personality types. An INFJ and a native of Wisconsin, Nathan currently lives in Bogota, Colombia with his wife Martha and their son Nicholas.