Why Avoid Personality “Type” Tests

Last updated on June 10th, 2024 at 08:55 pm

Type tests are like fortune tellers.

A class of personality tests, known generically as “type indicators,” places clients into one of several categories based on responses to a series of questions and then provides broad descriptions of the category. Some examples of “type indicators” include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the very popular Enneagram. 

Type tests are so much fun! It’s fun to see which category you (or your clients) fall into, what other movie stars or sports figures align with your profile, etc. “Oh, I’m a 5 on the Enneagram? So was Albert Einstein.” (But really, was he?). These overly simple categories make “type” tests easy to understand. Therefore, they’re often popular with well-meaning advisors.

Warning: Use Type Tests with Caution

If they are so much fun, what’s the problem with type tests? Type indicators are notorious among psychologists, particularly those in industrial psychology, where “type indicators” are often seen as the answers to prayers by well-meaning practitioners who want an easy way to understand employees. Psychologists who focus on the measurement of personality, psychometricians, have long argued that the type tests are too simplistic to be effective or valuable for either prediction (e.g., predicting leadership success) or employee development. These deficits are because many type tests lack statistical evidence of reliability and validity. For a test to be helpful and as accurate as possible, we need to ensure that it is reliable (yielding the same results repeatedly) and valid (the test measures what it says it’s measuring). Unfortunately, type indicators often have little evidence of either of these characteristics.

Even still, they are popular. If you’re using or thinking of using a type indicator in your practice, here are a few things to think about: 

  1. Type indicators can be similar to fortune telling. We love reading descriptions of ourselves and are gullible when doing so. This phenomenon is called the Barnum effect, where we are inclined to believe in vague or generalized descriptions of ourselves. The example the APA gives in their definition is “such as those [descriptions] offered by astrology.” Do you want the personality test you use with clients aligned with astrologers? Probably not.
  2. Type indicators could pigeonhole clients. We love categorizing people because it makes life easier. In theory, that should make personalizing the client experience easier, too. The trouble is if we place a client in a category erroneously, or the client is just “barely” an ENFJ (for example), should we use those results to “personalize” the experience for the client? Similarly, in financial coaching or therapy, it is hard to tease out the specific factors where the client could be guided or coached. Again, an example can help: if I’m an INFJ, which areas should I focus on if I’m trying to improve my investing-related decisions? Is it that I’m too introverted, too feeling, or too judging? It’s not clear. It’s difficult to tease out the factors I should improve or focus on to achieve my goals. Type indicators are too simplistic to tell us what to do to change (or how we can serve our clients best). 
  3. Type indicators tend to lack evidence of reliability or validity.  There is little evidence that type indicators are related to other, more well-researched personality tests, for example, those based on The Big Five or the OCEAN model (you can take an example of that kind of test here). If you rely on a non-scientific test and your client asks you about the science behind it, what will you tell them? They are more like Cosmo tests (short, fun, unscientific quizzes) than accurate personality tests. 

Align Purpose With Your Choice of Test

Why do you want to know your client’s personality? If only for entertainment or simplistic client personalization, then type indicators are sufficient for your practice. If, instead, you’re trying to predict what clients might do or you want to coach them to be better household CFOs or investors, then consider a test that focuses on specific personality factors. Most of the advisors we work with use tests to have deeper conversations about life experiences, patterns of decisions, and future goals. In those cases, they use specific factor scores (for example, a client’s score on Volatility Composure) as a starting point for further exploration into how the advisor can help the client.

For an excellent overview of type indicators, see Ben Hawkes’ LinkedIn post that will “never die.” It seems that “fun” personality tests might be here forever. The question is: should they be used in your practice?

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