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22 August 2018

From Myers Briggs to the Love Languages: the renaissance of the personality test

After being dogged by years of scepticism and derision, personality tests are making a comeback. 

By Sarah Manavis

Most afternoons in my early Noughties tweendom were spent in front of a computer screen, taking online personality tests. I spent hours labouring over life’s greatest questions: what type of ice cream I was, what country I should live in based on my favourite songs, and what all of this meant for my future marriage prospects.

For millennials, personality tests were an integral part of growing up, an element of our childhood to savour with friends, siblings and alone, secretly, while our parents ran errands. They were as ubiquitous in tween content consumption as they were in Eighties and Nineties women’s magazines and television shows from Blind Date to The Newlywed Game.

But after their online iteration, personality tests were marginalised. They lost their lustre in all forms, becoming “uncool” for tweens-turned-teens, who migrated from Facebook to less quiz-friendly platforms (such as Instagram and Snapchat), and similarly repelling adults, who learned that the quizzes were concocted by lifestyle writers looking for an easy way to fill magazine pages.

From the mid-Noughties until recent years, scepticism dogged personality tests, which were ridiculed globally as being devoid of basis or reason. A particular target was the popular Myers-Briggs test: a self-report questionnaire based on Jungian theory and first published in 1944 by American teacher Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers. In 2015 the US website Vox denounced the method as “completely meaningless” and argued that personality tests in general were of no use to companies, governments and humans making hiring, firing, and romantic decisions.

Yet despite such international derision, personality tests have enjoyed a renaissance – this time in a more sophisticated, adult-friendly guise. They have re-emerged: not as “What does your bra size say about your sex life?” or “Tell us how many cakes you’ve had and we’ll tell you about your dating prospects” but instead as the Love Languages, the Big Five, and Belbin. And, above all, in the renewed popularity of the Myers-Briggs test.

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This resurgence began quietly, with only a few articles appearing in mainstream publications in the last three years. The pieces spoke of tests, surveys and questionnaires, not childish quizzes, and were adorned with pseudo-academic trimmings and earnest testimonials to convince readers that they would offer unique insights. Even the stately New York Times published a now seminal article “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love”: a list of questions for potential partners to ask and answer.

Since then, a deluge of articles have appeared, slating, “stanning” (internet slang for being a huge fan of something), and spotlighting the tests. “I Almost Broke Up With A Guy Over His Myers-Briggs Results”, “Is adding in your Myers-Briggs personality type the game-changer your Tinder needs?”, “I Took the ‘Love Languages’ Test With My Partner, and I Get Why People Swear By It” are headlines to just a few of the thousands of pieces that appear after a cursory online search. Teenagers and adults alike are embracing personality tests, not as the inane creation of an online quiz-maker, but as a genuine probe into the depths of our character.

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In a forthcoming book, What’s Your Type? The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing, Merve Emre, associate professor of American Literature at Oxford University, explores the enduring appeal of the test.

One aspect of the resurgence is a millennial fascination with horoscopes. As Amelia Tait recently wrote in the New Statesman (10-16 August), millennials are turning to the mystical sphere to answer life’s questions, crediting cosmic patterns with bad national news, failed relationships and their fraught interaction with Sandra in marketing.

“I’d somehow managed to hone in on the most inappropriate approach to personality tests: take the results as rigid rule,” wrote Haley Nahman, deputy editor of the millennial lifestyle website Man Repeller, in the piece about nearly dumping her boyfriend over his test results. And perhaps this is the key to personality tests’ renewed popularity – as much as millennials know they largely have no basis in reality, it’s hard not to take their insight as your own personal gospel. 

[See also: There is no such thing as the self]

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This article appears in the 22 Aug 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Will Labour split?