February 18, 2020 Austin Spiller

The Dangers of Personality Testing

Personality tests, such as the Enneagram or Myers-Briggs, offer opportunity for deeper understanding and growth in ourselves, and healthier relationships with others. But if we are not careful, these helpful tools can become hurtful, minimizing people to mere stereotypes, and excusing behavior that needs to change. In this week's post, Austin Spiller, a graduate student at Southeastern University's Divinity School, takes a look at how we as Christians can use these tools in a positive way.

I’ve always had a type of love/hate relationship with personality typing systems. On one hand, they provide great frameworks for personal growth and can change the way one interacts with the world; on the other hand, it is often used to minimize the whole of a person, judge other’s aptitude or “fit” for a position, manipulate others, and provide excuses for bad behavior. Whether the system be the Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, or my personal favorite, the Big Five, how Christians use personality tests and systems can have somber consequences.

In sixth grade my teachers sat me down and gave me a personality test which was supposed to reveal my future job proclivities. Somehow it managed to pinpoint three of my top preferred fields: computer science, the pastorate, and psychology/counseling. I was amazed at the accuracy. This began my long journey into studying personality. It was as if a whole new world – which was really there all along – was opened up to me. This framework helped me navigate my social relationships and interact with the world. Further still, I learned more things about myself and how to grow and mature. Now I often teach on personality and it becomes a frequent topic of conversation; props to every patient person who has dealt with my ramblings.

These two purposes – i.e. personal growth and learning about others for better interactions – are essential to a proper use of these systems. The dangers come from a lack of these proper uses.

When personality systems stop functioning as a tool for personal growth and interpersonal relationships, it, instead, becomes merely a system of categorization. There is a subtle tension (and drastic consequences) between personality systems as a tool for understanding and growth versus a system to categorize people. The latter, for example, does not account for the totality of human existence.

When personality systems stop functioning as a tool for personal growth and interpersonal relationships, it, instead, becomes merely a system of categorization.

Personality is only a part of a person; it does not explain the fullness of individuals. Each person has unique motives, contexts, life experiences, abilities, cultures, goals, values and beliefs, and so on – not to mention free will![1] When we view personality as the sole framework of a person, we not only betray the systems themselves, but minimize each person’s uniqueness and humanity. This is why personality systems are often critiqued as “putting people into boxes.” When it’s used in this way, that is exactly what it does.

When we view personality as the sole framework of a person, we not only betray the systems themselves, but minimize each person’s uniqueness and humanity.

The consequences of personality systems as categorization does not end at dehumanization. Sadly, most of us have heard people try to justify their bad behavior by explaining that is “just the way they are”, normally referencing personality, regardless of the type.

“Sorry I’m rude and hyper-confrontational, I’m just an 8”. (No, you’re likely unhealthy or immature. Not all 8’s behave in this manner.)

“I’m a P, so I’ll never be able to turn something in on time”. (Certainly, that isn’t true. Have you done anything to try to grow in this area?)

“I say yes to everyone else at my own expense, but it’s fine because I am just highly agreeable.” (Don’t you matter as much as others? What if you viewed it from their perspective? Can’t this be unhealthy or immature?)

These uses, of course, are egregious. While personality may explain that certain types of people go towards certain behaviors, it does not provide an excuse for them. Doing so completely dismisses the personal growth aspect of these systems. In each type, there is still always room for levels of health, growth, maturity, and improvement. Having certain inclinations does not diminish free will and self-improvement or the work of the Holy Spirit.

While personality may explain that certain types of people go towards certain behaviors, it does not provide an excuse for them.

A correct understanding of personality, aimed at personal growth and better interpersonal relations, should point to the fact that each person has certain propensities towards behavior which should give us grace for them, a revised and informed way to interact and communicate with them, and a tool for pointing out where growth may be needed. If humans are simply stuck in stereotypes of their type, of course there would be no responsibility for behavior – it’s just the way they are.

Superficial understandings of these tools will often reinforce this categorical view. Some teams and organizations, for example, may make a personality test mandatory for applications. While this may seem harmless at first glance, it upholds an atrocious view of humanity. These groups are judging a person based on their category or type, regardless of any maturity, improvement, or growth of the individual – not to mention it dismisses the other aspects of their humanity and presupposes an inerrant personality typing system. It reinforces that people are merely products of their stereotypical type – or at least how they understand their type.

At worst, this can be used to manipulate or abuse people. For example, a church team may accept a bunch of Enneagram 2’s under the pretense that they will do whatever is asked of them without question, will serve more than anyone else at their own expense, and that this can be abused for more efficient workers. In these cases, there is a very fine line between leadership and manipulation. More often than not, I would assume it is landing on the side of manipulation.

Surely, we have come a long way from personality as tool to better interpersonal relations and personal growth. Rather, this use stymies growth and impairs interpersonal relationships.

While all the various personality systems are imperfect, I believe them to be appropriate tools under the right purposes. However, when they are used for categorizing people, it minimizes their humanity, fails to hold people responsible for their actions, and can be used for manipulation and abuse. As Christians we should resist categorization of people but push for better understanding of others and personal growth. These systems are good insofar as they promote this.

A note from your ENFP 9w1 friend: let’s do better together.


[1] Nardi, Dario. Neuroscience and Personality, 18-19.

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