Thursday, June 17, 2010

Of Pigeonholes and Personality Tests

One of the more pervasive signs of the modern search for self if the proliferation of personality tests available online. From the ice cream personality test (six flavors, pick your favorite) to the chocolate personality test (sorry, only four choices here) to the color test (rank nine colors in order of your favorite; it will describe your love life) to the other color test (answer a couple dozen questions, and you can buy a book telling you all your secrets, including whether you are gold, blue, green, or orange). This doesn’t count the stuffed animals test, the jungle animal test, several car personality tests, an infinite number of Facebook tests meant to compare you to various real and fictional persons (full disclosure: I composed a Jane Austen one), predictions based on the Chinese calendar and the zodiac belt, and the traditional Myers-Briggs type testing.

To be sure, this sort of thing goes way back—as the zodiac and the Chinese calendar should remind us. Even the complex Myers-Briggs is related to Galen’s four humors (choleric, melancholic, sanguine, and phlegmatic). Then there’s the famous (at least it should be famous) story of Socrates and the physiognomist Zopyrus. Based on Socrates’ physical appearance, Zopyrus accused the philosopher of being dull-witted and a womanizer. When Socrates’ friends protested that Zopyrus was an obvious fraud, Socrates told them that the man’s art was, in fact, real: he (Socrates) had been subject to those vices, but had overcome them through the use of his reason. Physiognomy continued to have a checkered career, and has largely been discredited today; but as long as the art of painting survived (that is, up until midway through the last century) people persisted in using physical features to characterize a subject’s personality. Movies continue the practice today: anyone who thinks getting romantic roles was easy for Jimmy Cagney or Edward G. Robinson had better think again.

Although you can always find tests that will yield uncannily accurate descriptions (my brother is Mr. Goodbar to a T, and I do resemble a Chinese Ox), they can also be horrifically inaccurate. Most often they present a mixed bag: some predictions will be spot on, and others will be way off. Shockingly (or perhaps not) this is nearly as true with the professionally used tests as it is with the “fun” ones. What gives?

To explain the failure of the ice cream test and a host of other tests like it is not difficult: few people seriously expect their tastes in ice cream to relate to their character, any more than they expect the newspaper astrologist to tell them how their day will go. (Although there are a surprising number of superstitious folks out there . . .) The real difficulty comes in with the tests that bill themselves as scientific. One commonly noted complaint about those tests is that their results are variable, and even volatile: the same person taking the tests at different times will get different results. Yet another complaint (true of most of the tests, but not of all) is that they force people to choose between one of two options, when in fact neither may appeal to them, or both, or one may appeal only very slightly. For example:

What is more important for you to have (a) power or (b) self-esteem?
When I travel I like to (a) figure out what to do when I get there or (b) have a preplanned itinerary?
When you are attracted to someone do you (a) take time to analyze the person or (b) give your heart away in a moment?
Most of the time I (a) question authority or (b) assume authority is right?
I take pride in being (a) a creative problem solver or (b) a realistic decision maker?
The way I prefer to cheer up a sad friend is to (a) get them to talk about their feeling or (b) take them out for a good time?
When someone argues with you is it more important to (a) make peace or (b) confront them?
It’s more important to (a) make others happy or (b) follow the rules?
I usually buy clothes (a) because they make me feel good or (b) for practical reasons?

Hm, power or self-esteem? Do I really have to choose? What’s wrong with both? Oh, both isn’t a choice. Moving on . . .

Traveling—planned or not? If I’m going with others, since I rarely get to set the rules, I would prefer to have a plan and stick to it. (Can you tell I was raised in a large family?) I loathe going into a day with one thing in mind, and then finding out that we’re doing something as nearly opposite as possible. But . . . if I were the one calling the shots . . . if we all got to follow my whims . . . then absolutely, I would prefer the unplanned scenario. We get to do whatever I feel like doing!

Do I fall give my heart away in a moment, or analyze people first? I think we need a definition here of “give my heart away”. If we’re talking about a deep, till-death-do-us-part, Brontean psychic connection—then no, I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that “right away”. I don’t think I’m capable of attachment to a stranger on a level as deep as that. On the other hand, I do sometimes feel very strongly about someone I’ve only just met. There’s a difference between biology and what is called, for lack of a better word, love.

Do I question authority or assume authority is right? Well, which authority? What sort of statements from said authority? I accept on authority the number of valences on a hydrogen atom, the existence of China, and the fact that if I do not pay my taxes I will go to jail. I also accept the doctrine of the Trinity, the existence of Henry VIII, and the NASA moon landing. Statements about the size of the US budget deficit, the situation of our troops in Afghanistan, and the facts of Mel Gibson’s latest escapades I accept with a more suspicion. Statements about global warming, promises from our Fearless Leader, and anything having to do with the age of the earth I simply shake my head over. Again, if my parents say a thing, I am far more likely to believe them than my congressmen . (Sorry, Messieurs Warner and Webb.) So it goes . . .

Am I proud of my creative problem solving or my realistic decision making? This is another do-I-have-to-pick? one. There is also a very real distinction between what you think you are and what you would like to be—a distinction that this questions fails to make. Maybe I’m more likely to decide things realistically, but I wish I were a creative problem solver, and I value the few times I have solved things creatively over the thousands of times I have been realistic. Or maybe I’m a very creative person, but my creativity has gotten me into a lot of trouble, and I value the few wise and realistic decisions I’ve made—the ones that keep bread on the table. Maybe I don’t even know which I am, or (worst of all) think I am what I’m not.

Do I cheer people up by getting them to talk their problems out or by trying to distract them with a good time? Depends on who I’m cheering up. Some people are better just forgetting things and others are better for having chewed on their issues for a while. I try to judge by what works for the other person—not by my own preference!

Do I make peace with my opponents or confront them? See the above question. This depends, not only on the person, but also on the issue at stake. How important is it—to me personally, and in the abstract? What will the consequences of each course of action be? How do I feel about confronting said person? In the immortal words of Pitti-Sing: “It all depends! Bless you, it all depends!”

Is it more important to make other people happy or to follow the rules? Heh, heh! Ever heard of tough love? That’s when following the rules actually makes people unhappy short term, and happier long term. In the (not quite so immortal) words of Bertie Wooster: “Complex! My God, how complex!” (You see, blasphemy only buys you temporary fame.) Setting that all aside, I wonder what rules we are talking about here? The ten commandments, or the seasonal color palettes as promulgated by Carole Jackson? The Geneva Convention’s torture code, or the Virginia traffic signs? In the immortal words of Yum-Yum, “It make a difference, doesn’t it!” Then again, there are some people for whom I would bend most any rules quite a bit, and others for whom I would say, gleefully, regarding the lightest bureaucratic regulation, “Have fun with that!”

My clothes. We now come to the most personal, most serious question of all. Why do I buy them? Fact is, I wore hand-me-downs for years, as did all my siblings. (Big family, remember?) And I still try to avoid paying too much for clothes. But . . . although I shop for practical reasons, and won’t buy something I won’t use (I avoid the word need; only South Africans and Hollywood movie stars need clothes), nonetheless I will not buy something unless, unless it also makes me feel good. No, not even if I need it. So maybe that does say something about my personality . . .

It’s quite easy to see, actually, where the inaccuracies in the best of tests come from. The real puzzler is how the funky tests manage to be as accurate as they are. Is there really some mysterious link between my favorite colors and how I view the world? That sounds pretty far-fetched—but not impossible. Is there really a connection between the stars and my fate? Not. Ice cream and stuffed animals, on the other hand . . .

But even more perplexing than the question of how and why such tests and signals work or don’t work, is the question of why we care. Why, in an age that celebrates (or at least gives lip-service to) individualism and multiculturalism, do we try to box ourselves in, place ourselves in pigeonholes, pin ourselves down like so many butterflies to be categorized? Sometimes the motivation is pure vanity: the desire to be someone unique or unusual, to be likened to a famous person (or even one’s favorite chocolate bar), to be told we have certain talents or assured that certain flaws are “not really our fault, just a part of who we are.” For those suffering from this last affliction, Socrates’ response to the doubters of Zopyrus is a stern and salutary reminder. “Such vices were natural to him, but . . . he had got the better of them by his reason.” (Incidentally, Cicero records that when Zopyrus accused Socrates of being “addicted to women” Alcibiades is supposed “to have given a loud guffaw.” Remember Alcibiades? The Symposium, anyone?)

There is another, more sinister explanation for the personality quiz addiction. In an age when all rules have been discarded, and human nature denied—not only the specific points traditionally ascribed to human nature, but the very notion that there could be such a thing as human nature: in a world, in other words, that suffers under the influence of the existentialist spirit—human beings, for whom identity and order and rules are almost as needful as bread,—will seize whatever semblances of identity and order and rule they can lay their hands on, and cling to them like men grasping at flotsam amid the wreckage of a giant ship. Every port calls in a storm.

But while both of these explanations have a great deal of merit, and while I, being the cautious conservative that I am, have taken up stock in both of them (now that sounds like the answer to a quiz question . . .), neither explanation is ultimately satisfactory. The greatest drawback of the existential angst answer lies in its non-universality: it applies chiefly to our own time, and not so well to times before our own. The explanation by vanity is more plausible historically—but not sufficient either. There is no vice so bad, and no desire so foolish, that it has not an opposite or an uncorrupted version somewhere in heaven.

I think, perhaps, that Socrates was engaging in wishful thinking when he heard the god command him to know himself. He wanted knowledge of himself—wanted it perhaps even before the god commanded him to seek it, and certainly wanted it after. Aristotle makes the point in his Metaphysics, that men desire to know, and most of all themselves; and adds that in order to know themselves men must know their cause, since “we say we know a thing when we know its cause.” Hence, for both Aristotle and his disciple Thomas Aquinas (and for St. Augustine and countless other saints as well), knowing oneself ultimately comes down to knowing God.

Not that that’s what most of us are thinking about when we pick Hershey’s Dark over Krispy Krackle Krunch.

Nevertheless, the next time your coworker hands out the candy bars at work, and announces to the room that you are an All-American team player—just eat it. Remember, there are many roads up the mountain, and some include chocolate. Humor him. It’ll be good for your humility.

To him that overcometh, I will give the hidden manna, and will give him a white counter, and in the counter, a new name written, which no man knoweth, but he that receiveth it.—Apocalypse 2:17.


  1. Haha, good article. I want to nitpick, though, just because I can. Aristotle brings up the claim that man desires to know in his Metaphysics, but it's a psychological statement--a preamble to the real good stuff.

    Oh, and Bertie Wooster is immortal. Otherwise spot on.

  2. Sure it's a psychological statement--but in the context of a theocentric universe even those have ramifications! Unless I misunderstand your point . . . ?

    Ah, Bertie . . . perhaps with a little purgatory. On the other hand, Jeeves has all but taken care of that.

  3. Oh,I want to nitpick too! You are the never wore hand-me-downs.

  4. Not true! I had cousins who were older than I. And my mother shopped at thrift stores. ;)