Oranges and Apples Are Fruits, So Is A Cucumber!

“Everything you do right now ripples outward and affects everyone. Your posture can shine your heart or transmit anxiety. Your breath can radiate love or muddy the room in depression. Your glance can awaken joy. Your words can inspire freedom. Your every act can open hearts and minds.”

Wow! What a start to my personality report describing me as an ENFJ.  For a moment even I was swept off my feet with this flattering description of me and was sold on the tool.

It took time for me to come back to earth and start diving deep into my personality report. Its then I realized why it’s one of the most popular tool amongst 3 million fan boys and over 90 Fortune 100 companies.

This report gave me all that I love to hear and in liberal doses and I almost start to believe that its me. It’s like your astrologer who carefully delivers what you like to hear and hides the uncomfortable truths, so he gets to see you again and again and increase his revenues.  When I took the same test a few months later I turned out to be a INTJ.  Had my personality changed, or is this test not all it’s touted to be? I began to read through the evidence, and I found that many of the so-called psychometric tools are  about as useful as some book on zodiac signs which categorizes people into 12 signs and puts a large population under this monthly buckets.

It is but obvious that out of the 100 points stated about you at least 30% may strike a chord in you.  When its about others the focus will be the mismatch of 70% but when it comes to you and your self-analysis, you tend to be more taken in by the 30% match.

We tend to give high accuracy ratings to personality and value descriptions that we believe are written ‘just for us’, when they are typically vague and general enough to apply to anybody.   This is what we know as the Forer-Barnum Effect in psychology and I quickly realized that my test report did not or will not pass the Forer test.

The Barnum Effect refers to the tendency of people to accept vague, generally positive statements about their personality as unique to them even though feedback is likely to be true of most people.

I’m sure you would have taken a personality test at some point in your life and at the end of it came out feeling wow! how accurate the test is.  In fact most of the personality assessment tests use the Forer effect to great use.

Good for selling the tool but is this what psychological tests are meant to be used for?  Can they end up selling dreams and take people away from their reality?  This was termed by one of the psychologist / researcher to be an act of irresponsible armchair philosophy.

Now, if you’re a fan of one of these assessment tools, you might say it’s typical of me as an INTJ to turn to science to defend my position.  But in social science the most important aspect to assess a tool is to look at the reliability, validity, independence, and comprehensiveness of such categorization.    Unfortunately for many of the so called psychometric assessments the evidence points to the contrary.

Research shows “that as many as three-quarters of test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again,” writes Annie Murphy Paul in The Cult of Personaltiy Testing “and the sixteen distinctive types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis whatsoever.” In a recent article, Roman Krznaric adds that “if you retake the test after only a five-week gap, there’s around a 50% chance that you will fall into a different personality category.”

Then your question to me would be “Why then is the MBTI so popular?”  The simple answer is cause of two very important reasons.  One there are thousands of people who are invested in the MBTI as certified trainers, coaches, consultants and it is too hard to let go of your commitment of time, money and resources for something different.  Second is that the MBTI almost always gives the initial ‘aha’ moment immediately after taking the test, like in my example above and you would like to cling on to that as long as possible.  You tend to as Paul Murphy says get seduced by your own ‘ideal self-image’.  Once this happens, any questions on the ‘reliability’ and ‘validity’ will look like you are questioning the taste of the ‘communion wine’

What’s your alternative then?  Is there something more scientific with high levels of ‘reliability’, ‘validity’, ‘comprehensiveness’ and that which treats every human as unique?

Psychologists and scientists have spent over 50 years in building a psychometric tool which conforms to all of the above and that’s the Big 5 Personality Traits.  It meets the standards above. Across many of the world’s cultures, five personality traits consistently emerge: extraversion, emotional stability, accommodation, conscientiousness, and openness.

With 5 Factors and 24 facets providing 87 nuanced scores on a scale of 0 – 100 the Big 5 provides immense insights on the uniqueness of each individual.  In my own experience of administering the Big 5 psychometric test to thousands of people, I have seen that no two reports are same and there lies the power for greater acceptance for people.

The Big Five traits have high reliability and considerable power in predicting job performance and team effectiveness. They even have genetic and biological bases, and researchers in the emerging field of personality neuroscience have begun mapping the Big Five to relevant brain regions.

Why then is the Big 5 not being used widely in organizations?  You can call it poor marketing or simply the scientists and psychologists were too focused on the content and research to make it deep and insightful than spending time commercializing it.

Even before I start to advocate the use of Big 5 to others, I wanted to check if it will pass the Forer test.  For one, it succeeded in not only showing the positive impact of a personality, it was downright blunt in letting people know the negative impact as well, without sugar coating or fogging that is.  Our test groups were administered the Big 5 test within 5 weeks, 6 months and after a period of 6 years and the results were the same.  It therefore passed the reliability and validity tests as well.

I remember one of the CEOs of a large global IT organization who had taken the Big 5 test as part of a program almost 10 years back who was certain that his personality has changed and wanted to check just that.  He took the Big 5 test again and came to the leadership development program we were conducting for his team.  To his shock and not our surprise, he found that his report of old and the new one were same.  Obviously the scores on the Big 5 scales differed ever so slightly, about 1 – 5 points either ways.  This confirmed not just to him and his team, but our own belief that it was truly a reliable tool which has stood the test of time.

Ofcourse, the thumb rule in all cases of using psychometric assessment is that the respondent is ‘honest’ in his responses and is not answering based on an ‘ideal self-image’ of himself.

Although, I must confess that all the psychometric tools achieve one common goal when used in groups – it does start a conversation around the differences in personality and encourages people to look inwards and introspect about both the positive and negative impact of their personality in their transactions with the environment.

With over 30 years spent in administering, assessing and supporting people and groups, I must say that the primary criteria you must consider before choosing any personality assessment tool is whether it passes the ‘Forer Effect’?

Maybe it’s time to get some real deal! Check out the Big 5 test of your personality?

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