The following article contains spoilers for HBO Max’s Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests.
The first time I remember taking a personality test similar to The Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (the one I took was a free, rip-off version of the actual test) was on a late-night road trip from Iowa to Illinois with a close friend. As I drove and sipped gas station coffee, my friend asked me questions such as: “Do you agree or disagree that you’re very sentimental?” And: “Do your emotions control you more than you control them?” When she read me off my results (the test pegged me as a classic ENFP), I was fascinated. I shared the quiz around my group chat, and my pals and I spent the next year or so saying things like, “You’re such an INFJ!”
But, as I learned in the new HBO Max and CNN documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and similar self-assessments such as “The Big Five,” or “Five Factor Model,” have an insidious side. The documentary, which was released on March 4, asserts that while personality quizzes seem harmless and fun, when they’re used in the workplace and similar contexts, they can be racist, ableist, sexist, and generally discriminatory.
When a potential job asks you to take a personality test to measure, say, your level of extraversion and neuroticism, they’re not just asking because they want to know how best to manage you. They might be collecting this information so they can see if your preferences and idiosyncrasies match those of their best employees. After determining your attributes based on the way you answer questions, they may “red light” or “green light” your application, filtering out people they don’t deem “good fits,” the documentary explains.
But personality tests are, by and large, based on norms devised from college-educated, straight, white men who don’t have any known disabilities, notes Lydia X.Z. Brown, a disability justice advocate interviewed in the documentary. As such, they're set up to benefit the white, managerial class alone.
In Persona, we hear from a person named Kyle Behm, who wasn’t considered for a job at his local grocery store because of a personality test he took during the application process. Behm, who said he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, discovered this after a friend who worked at the grocery chain told him what had happened.
In the documentary, it's implied that the store may have used his responses to the personality test to ascertain that he had a mental illness — and rejected his application based on that information. “There’s medical papers out there demonstrating how you can diagnose mental illnesses using The Five Factor Model,” said Behm, referring to a test that may have been similar to the one he was given.
“Under The Americans with Disabilities Act, employers can’t ask employees about their medical information,” explained Ben Dattner in the documentary. But, companies could use personality tests in a discriminatory way.
“It’s not fair that by answering honestly about things related to my mental health, that I was excluded,” Behm said in Persona.
“The Myers-Briggs Company has for decades taken a public stance against using the MBTI® tool for hiring or selection,” a spokesperson from the company told Refinery29 in a statement. “We do know that Isabel and Katharine created the MBTI with the intention of bridging differences and bringing people together.”
The documentary also delved into the troubling roots of the MBTI test, which many modern personality tests have taken cues from. While researching a book on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Merve Emre, PhD, an executive producer of Persona and the author of The Personality Brokers, discovered that Isabel Briggs Myers (who, with her mother Katharine Cook Briggs, developed the test) had written a wildly racist novel. “You have this woman who, on the one hand, is committed to a certain set of progressive ideals, particularly for her time, and on the other, everything she’s doing is weighed down by a very troubling set of ideologies,” Dr. Emre says in Persona. The test contains traces of her racist, sexist, ableist, and classist ideals, Dr. Emre says.
In the documentary, Briggs Myers’s family say they think that she had good intentions. “I think there are ways it’s being used that she’d want to get in there and correct. I don’t think she’d ever want to see it used to discriminate in hiring,” Kathleen Hughes, one of her granddaughters, says in the film.
Persona leaves room for the idea that Myers-Briggs and tests like it can be used on an individual level to further our personal journeys and to help us understand ourselves. “What the tests offer the individual is different from what they offer the institution,” Dr. Emre tells Refinery29. But at the very least, it’s worth taking a hard look at how these tests were created, and the biases they may carry.