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Personality Tests: Do We Actually Change as We Grow Older?

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to personality tests lately. First, The New York Times reported that the psychological profession is up in...

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to personality tests lately.

First, The New York Times reported that the psychological profession is up in arms because Wikipedia has reproduced a set of common answers to the famous Rorschach inkblot tests. The psychologists claim that the site is jeopardizing one of the oldest, continuously used psychological assessment tests.

I also happened to take a personality test on Facebook last week. It was the “Which punctuation Mark Are You?” quiz. Here’s my answer, with explanation included:

You are a comma.

You like to spread yourself a little thin, trying to be all things to all people. A bit of a control freak, you try to do the work of 10 people. Relax! Let someone else shoulder some of the burden for once!

Which isn’t so bad, in and of itself, except that it duplicated every personality test I’ve ever taken in my life. I took the first one – the famous Myers Briggs test – when I was first out of college. That’s the one where they evaluate you on four dimensions: extroversion vs. introversion, intuition vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling and judging vs. perceiving. Then you’re assigned a type. I was an “ENTJ” (extroverted/intuitive/thinking/judging), which turned out to be the most extreme of the 16 potential combinations you could wind up with. I raised my hand and asked the consultant what you called it if you had a borderline score on a couple of dimensions – suggesting that perhaps you might easily fall into another “type” – but nonetheless ended up in the 16th box?

“That’s called denial,” she retorted briskly.

Years later, I took another personality test in when I was working in public radio. This time, the categories were a bit different, but the result was basically the same:  I came out as “high dominant” or “High D” for short. The consultant gave everyone a print-out of their results. The idea was to go home and review the list of behaviors associated with your type and use that to improve office harmony with co-workers of different stripes. But the person who seemed to benefit most from the hand-out was not me, but my husband. I came home from work one evening to find him sitting on the sofa – glass of Merlot in hand – poring over the document as if it were an original Shakespeare. He was clearly relishing every word, pausing from time to time to quote back to me from the report about typical “High D” behaviors.

Particularly as we settle into middle-age, it’s natural to want to re-examine who we are and where we’re headed in life. And personality tests are one tool to help us do that. I’m also sure that on some level I should be reassured that my own results are so unerringly consistent across the decades – what statisticians call test reliability.

Still, as someone who has defined herself largely on her ability and willingness to change, I find it a tad depressing to discover – once again – that we actually don’t change all that much over the course of our lives.

How about you? Have you ever taken a personality test and what did you learn about yourself that you didn’t already know?

Image: Rorschach Test by Marie.Carrion via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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  1. Jean Pedigo August 3, 2009 at 7:13 pm #

    Oh Delia…too funny. When Jeff did the Myers Briggs for work in the London office last year, we had the reverse. We sat there for days talking about how EXACT that was for him and how it related to how we worked together as a couple. Self awareness is never a bad thing : )

  2. rachel August 5, 2009 at 11:47 am #

    Speaking as one who took the Meyers-Brigg and was bitterly disappointed to find that on all but one category I scored so close to the middle that my score could be read either way (making me what? an amoeba?), I think you should embrace both the extremity of your type and the definitive nature of your personality!

  3. Sally August 5, 2009 at 10:13 pm #

    I spend some time working in HR. I remember reading the file of a guy who was age 50. At the very back of the file, on thin paper, in faded ink was a copy of his first review after joining the company aged 21. What made me sad reading it was that the personality traits described all that time ago were the ones still tripping him up all those years later.

    I think we do remain essentially the same but with awareness we are able to tweak and change so that we can do things that somehow benefit us even though we have to overcome our ‘preferences’ to do so.

    (ps – have enjoyed reading you for a while now but not commented before – that’s something I’ve recently changed – how I connect with writers I enjoy – so thought it an appropriate post to do so with your blog !!)

    • delialloyd August 6, 2009 at 10:39 am #

      Thanks, Sally. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! I think you are right about awareness. Thanks for leaving a comment…

  4. Jay August 6, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    Having seen my two sons arrive in this world with their personalities more or less intact, I have also heavily revised my thinking about how we become the people we are. That said, I think we can still make a useful distinction between change and adaptation. I’m now convinced it’s very hard for people to change in a fundamental way, but I think we often can — with effort — adapt our behavior to changing circumstances or expectations. And, in the end, that’s really the important bit anyway.

    • delialloyd August 6, 2009 at 2:53 pm #

      Thanks Jay! I also think a lot of personality is inherited…for better or for worse! But adaptation is not only possible, it’s essential.

  5. Laura August 7, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    I’ve been reading your blog for awhile now (found it through the Happiness Project blog), though I never commented. I had to this time! I’m an ENTJ as well, and have tested the same for the past 13 years. I’ve never heard it called the “most extreme” type, though! Regardless – from one ENTJ to another, I think you ought to be proud to be “life’s natural leader.” :)

    • delialloyd August 10, 2009 at 10:15 am #

      thanks, laura. it’s nice to meet a fellow ENTJ….and to know I’m not alone (“extreme” label my own, natch…)

  6. Maribel February 17, 2010 at 4:57 am #

    Hi Delia,

    This is the first time I read a blog, and I am happy to it was yours. I found it very interesting and I had to comment on this one, because my husband is an ENTJ as well, and I absolutely think is true, it is a total reflection of his personality. But he wasn´t so surprised when he did the MB Test and find out he was on the extreme box. He actually always have loved Billy Joel´s song “I go to Extremes” because apart from being a Billy Joel´s fan, he identifies himself with the song. On the other hand I am an ISFP,totally different, somehow (although very difficult sometimes) we get along well, and we´ve been married for 6 years now. I do believe is hard to change your personalities over the years, and I agree with you on adaptation.

    • delialloyd February 17, 2010 at 6:37 am #

      thanks so much for dropping by maribel! interesting that you two are together. you must complement each other well!

  7. Hydro Closet March 5, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Wonderful stuff.. really full of usefull information. I’ll grab the RSS feed and will stay tuned for more. Oh, and I threw you a StumbleUpon vote ;)

  8. Kanaf December 2, 2015 at 8:39 pm #

    I feel like the libertarian cutrlue of Silicon Valley discourages emotional intelligence, though. My father is from a traditional Midwestern background and he’s relatively kind and balanced despite having a Ph.D. in math from MIT and working as an applied mathematician.


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