OPINION COLUMNS

Cult of personality quizzes

By Jake Harris | Published Saturday, January 17, 2015
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It seems 2013 was the Year of the Introvert.

Psychologists, journalists and sociologists published multiple news articles and thinkpieces about the merits of introverts in the workplace, at school and at home. Author Susan Cain even wrote a book about introverts and the behavioral science behind them, “Quiet,” that spent a significant amount of time on the New York Times’ Bestseller list.

Her TED Talk on the subject, which argues that introverts were moved to the fringe of American society after we shifted from a primarily agrarian social structure to a more urban one, has been viewed more than 10 million times.

Then last year, I started to see a lot more articles about how “ambiverts” are the ideal personality type because they can gauge when to be more introverted or more extroverted. A recent study in Psychological Science discovered that ambiverts outperformed every other personality type when they were judged on their ability to close a sale in a business setting.

They did even better than extroverts, the stereotypical favorite at that skill.

So first, the extroverted personality type was the ideal, then it was introverts. Now ambiverts – people who fall in the middle of the extrovert/introvert spectrum and are equally at home in large groups of people or completely by themselves – are the next big thing.

According to the Psychological Science study, “most people fall into the ambivert range” despite Cain’s claim in her TED talk that “a third to half of all people are introverts.”

So, which personality type is best?

Does it really matter?

Now, more than ever, people can take a multitude personality quizzes to determine their “type.” There’s the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator test, which has been criticized for its “either-or” format. (I’ve taken it five times in the last couple of years and gotten five different results. Currently I’m an ESTJ.)

The Big 5 Test, which has recently become popular, grades you on traits like your affinity for new experiences and how conscientious, extroverted, agreeable and neurotic you are. (According to that one, I’m more conscientious and open to new experiences than average, more extroverted than introverted, fairly agreeable and only a little neurotic. Interesting.)

Now many colleges (including my beloved TCU) are using StrengthsQuest to determine students’ Top 5 personality traits after they answer about 20 minutes’ worth of “Would you rather” type questions. (According to this one, I’m a restorative, including achiever who values input and communication. I’m starting to sense a pattern here.)

It doesn’t stop with psychological studies. Popular websites like Buzzfeed and Playbuzz have a large range of quizzes for users to take, ranging from “Which Disney character are you?” to “Which alcoholic beverage are you?” (Timon & Pumbaa, and beer, respectively. OK, I give up. There’s no pattern.)

Then, in popular culture, there’s the recent smattering of Young Adult books and movies that feature categorization as a major plot point. Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” series organizes its citizens into different factions based on personality, while Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” has characters assigned jobs at 12 years old, never to be questioned.

There’s even a Buzzfeed quiz for “What ‘Divergent’ faction are you?”

These quizzes and movies are fun diversions, sure, but what does it say about us that we so desperately want to be categorized?

I’m as guilty of wasting my time on them as the next person, but why do we insist on figuring out what personality type we are – especially when personality traits usually change over time?

It could be a symptom of my generation. Millennials were told early and often that we could become anything we wanted because we were “special” and “unique” – often without ever doing anything particularly monumental. With apologies to Descartes, “We were, therefore we were special.”

Maybe we’re so enamored with how unique we are that we have to prove to others we can defy their first impressions – “I may be loud and talkative, but the Myers-Briggs says I’m actually introverted, and this Buzzfeed quiz said my ideal future job would be an accountant!”

In our attempts to prove how special we are, we end up becoming what people think we are.

Striving to become anything we want, we continually box ourselves in with personality test results – then we live conforming to these test results in a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Introverted, extroverted, ambiverted, perverted – whatever your score says shouldn’t matter. Real people are more nuanced and layered than any label or acronym.

Maybe I’m just overthinking it. After all, that’s what my Myers-Briggs test score says I tend to do from time to time.

Jake Harris is a reporter for the Messenger.

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