'They become dangerous tools': the dark side of personality tests

In the documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, the discriminatory nature of a widely used tool is put under the microscope

‘Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist, and to be classist’ ... Persona on HBO Max.
‘Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist, and to be classist’ ... Persona on HBO Max. Photograph: YouTube
‘Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist, and to be classist’ ... Persona on HBO Max. Photograph: YouTube

Last modified on Tue 6 Apr 2021 16.23 EDT

Scrolling dating apps in 2015, Tim Travers Hawkins didn’t know who his type was. He didn’t even know what a type was. Hawkins, a British film-maker then new to New York, “noticed something that was very different to people’s profiles in the UK and that was the use of these four letters,” he said to the Hlcarpenter.com. Curious, he looked it up. “I was like, ‘Huh, that’s different’.”

The four letters issue from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the world’s most well-known personality quiz, which categorizes everyone into 16 distinct types gleaned from four binaries: people are either introverted or extroverted, sensing (relying on evidence from one’s senses) or intuitive, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.

The four letters appeared again a few years later when Hawkins was reading about Carl Jung. “It dawned on me that the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was actually derived from Jung’s work, and that absolutely fascinated me. The pop-culture element, the fact that it was still being used currently in dating apps, and the fact that it was this power structure that was brought to bear on people’s lives without people maybe even noticing” – a theme that resonated with his 2019 documentary XY Chelsea about Chelsea Manning “that all made me think this was something that I really wanted to look into”.

Hawkins’ new HBO Max documentary, Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, investigates America’s infatuation with personality testing, revealing the surprising origin story behind the MBTI while surfacing ethical questions and criticisms that these seemingly harmless instruments are profoundly discriminatory and reflective of larger troubling issues of who exactly is considered worthy and valuable in society.

Persona is informed by the 2018 book The Personality Brokers by the Oxford University professor Merve Emre – also one of the documentary’s executive producers – which traces the history of the two women who created the namesake Myers-Briggs instrument. “I wanted to understand how these two women who had no formal training in psychology had come to design the world’s most popular personality test,” Emre says in the film.

The business of personality typing as we know it was seeded in 1901 in a Washington DC living room. Following the deaths of two of her children, Katharine Briggs was determined to closely monitor her surviving child, Isabel, and conducted experiments on her and other neighborhood children. Two decades later, Katharine became a devoted Carl Jung acolyte following his groundbreaking 1921 book, Psychological Types; his work provided a vocabulary and validation to her previously discarded projects.

Later, galvanized by a desire to aid humanity during the second world war, Isabel applied her mother’s research to the workforce, designing a questionnaire – again with the help of her own daughter and her friends around the kitchen table – intended to help people find the job best suited to them; this initial version of the MBTI was released in 1943 (There have been many iterations since – the four letters were never copyrighted).

Since the 1960s, some 50 million people have taken the test, and personality testing is a $2bn industry, growing around 15% per year. Today more than 2 million take the MBTI every year, including 60% to 70% of American prospective workers. All this despite the well-known facts that the MBTI has no grounding in clinical psychology (Jung’s theories weren’t drawn from controlled experiments or data either), its results are poorly correlated with job performance, and embedded within it are false and dangerous ideas about race, gender, and class that drive bias and discrimination.

Four generations of Briggs Meyers women.
Four generations of Briggs Meyers women. Photograph: HBO Max

“Personality tests are by and large constructed to be ableist, to be racist, to be sexist, and to be classist,” says the disability justice advocate Lydia XZ Brown. “That’s what happens when you have a test … based on norms devised from college-educated straight white men with no known disabilities. Personality tests are useful for individual people sometimes on journeys of self-discovery. But when they’re used to make decisions by other people affecting someone’s life, they become dangerous tools.”

Kyle Behm learned that the hard way. In 2012, he applied for a job at his local Kroger supermarket that included an online personality test. (Employers’ use of online personality tests has surged since the early 2000s in attempts to streamline hiring, particularly for customer-service jobs, and they’re now used earlier in the hiring process to filter out applicants, as opposed to being considered alongside interviews and past experience.) Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Behm found out he was rejected from the job because his test indicated that he was likely to ignore customers if they were upset or making him upset.

“I was taken aback because I’ve worked in customer service before and one of the things I’ve learned is to completely separate your personal feelings from the job,” Behm says in the film. “It’s not fair that by answering honestly about things that were related to my mental health I was excluded from work. In my head, I’m thinking, There’s no way this can be legal.”

In complaints filed with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Behm, with the help of his attorney father, accused Kroger and six other companies of discrimination against the mentally ill through their use of personality tests. (The Myers-Briggs Company claims it stopped selling to companies that use it for hiring, and the Wall Street Journal found in 2014 that Kroger dropped from its hiring test many of the questions the Behms found most troubling.)

A still from Persona
Photograph: HBO Max

David Scarborough, co-creator of the Unicru Personality Test used by Kroger and numerous other employers, defends the tests as providing a valuable service. “When you steer someone away from a job that they’re not as likely to do well in, you’ve done them a favor even though it doesn’t feel like a favor,” he says in the film.

Battling the personality-test Goliaths are groups such as the Hope program, which helps low-income New Yorkers find employment and preps program participants for these tests. But what’s on the horizon is perhaps even more disturbing: video-interview platforms that analyze words and speech with facial movements. As Brown puts it, it’s part of the same pseudoscience as measuring people’s skulls.

Understanding how all these things work has taken new importance in the pandemic age, Hawkins notes, with “particularly our work interactions being mediated so much through technology. I think that has accelerated the use of these kinds of psychometric tests. Far from going away, these personality tests are becoming more and more prevalent. Because we are working in more isolated ways via technology, there’s just more windows for this technology to be inserted at different junctures of our interactions.”

Not to mention the added pressure on the job market because of increased levels of unemployment. “Companies cannot deal with the volume of applicants and so they’re looking for ways to legally cull applicants,” he says, which speaks to the promise of personality-test screenings.

Ultimately Hawkins hopes the film will make us all approach things like personality tests with a more critical eye. “We’re often drawn to systems that seem to explain the world in a way that’s simple and seems to be neutral, but I would always want people to be wary and to think about where these instruments come from. All of these instruments have a past, and if you really delve into them, you can start to find out things about why they exist that might make you uncomfortable.”

  • Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests is now available on HBO Max with a UK date to be announced