I Hate Personality Tests

Earlier this week I attended a training course that, once again, leaned heavily on colourful “HBDI profiles”. HBDI stands for “Herman Brain Dominance Indicator” and, much like the better-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), it is a personality test with a fancy name. I am lucky enough to have been subjected to both of these tests more than once, leaving me increasingly irritated each time. This has led me to reflect on why personality tests like these are so popular in the corporate world. I suspect that it is because they have much in common with astrology.

Obtaining your HBDI profile starts with answering 120 questions. These include such gems as “How do you hold your pen?”,  “How left or right-handed are you?” and “How often have you experienced motion sickness?” (have a look yourself if you don’t believe me!). Armed with your responses to these questions, a certified practitioner is supposedly able to determine your preference for four distinct “thinking styles”. Like Myers Briggs, the HBDI characteristics have a healthy dose of Jungian psychology, but also have a bit of pop brain lateralisation thrown in: the safekeeping and rational types of thinking are left-brain, while the experimental and feeling types are, of course, right-brain. While there is no doubt that the brain exhibits left-brain/right-brain lateralisation, it does so in a far more complex way* than this cliched analytic/creative dichotomy.

It is not only in its approach to brain lateralisation that HBDI exhibits pseudo-scientific tendencies. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has an excellent critique of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which notes “no behavior can ever be used to falsify the type, and any behavior can be used to verify it” and HBDI is just as slippery. For example, when pressed on details, consultants are quick to emphasise that results only point to tendencies and that everyone can exhibit any of the four different types of thinking at any time.

Implausible though it may seem to me that the HBDI methodology can consistently provide meaningful insights into personality differences, people do seem to lap up the results. The surprising persistence of astrology in the modern era is often attributed to the fact that people have a marked tendency to interpret very general statements in the light of their own particular circumstance. They will focus on things that apply to them and unconsciously filter out things that do not. Known as the “Forer Effect”, this phenomenon was originally observed in the context of personality testing and I suspect that it is the secret to the success of HBDI. The name is taken from US psychologist Bertram R. Forer, who conducted the following experiment in 1948. He asked his students to complete a questionnaire for a personality test, but then ignored their answers and instead gave them all the following assessment:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.

You may have even found yourself nodding in recognition here, and that’s certainly what Forer’s students thought. They were asked to score how well they felt the assessment described their personality on a scale from 0 to 5. The average score was 4.26. The experiment has been repeated since and the average results consistently exceed 4.

So you might think that corporate HR departments could save a little on their expensive accredited HBDI consultants and simply circulate Forer’s personality profile to all of their staff. But wait, there’s more! HBDI takes the Forer Effect and adds a little marketing glitz. First, the somewhat unwieldy “safekeeping”, “rational”, “experimental” and “feeling” thinking styles are abstracted to “green”, “blue”, “red” and “yellow”. This is a deft touch, facilitating easy discussion; think “I’m a red but I tend to fall back to blue under stress…and also, I’m a Sagittarius, but on the cusp so there’s a bit of Scorpio there too”. Second, these colours are presented on a wonderful circular chart, which looks fantastic up on the walls around the training room. Why circular? Well, circular charts are the special domain of the consultant because, let’s face it, you could never charge as much for a simple bar chart.

If you catch me in a generous moment, I will concede that there is a bit more substance beneath Myers Briggs and HBDI profiling than astrology…but not much. The main thing that they have taught me is that I hate personality tests.

* For a look at the science behind brain lateralisation, “The Right Mind” by Robert Ornstein is a fascinating read.

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34 thoughts on “I Hate Personality Tests

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  2. Doug

    Right on Mule, you’re braying my tune.

    Hard to imagine the following providing value to a company

    Template presentation + 3rd party presenter (usually not the school champion) + no prior knowledge of their audience + no significant experience with your company/industry.

    Far better to get back to work and listen to your colleages when they speak.

    Pip pip

  3. Steve Reynolds

    While I agree with a lot of what you say, let me play the devil’s advocate because I doubt anyone else will!

    1. Forer’s test is completely disingenuous and hardly a fair comparison to any serious attempt at a typology. He’s simply described the universal human condition and then asked us if we find ourselves in it. No surprise that we all do. A complete narcissist and a hopeless neurotic would BOTH score close to 5 on his test, though in any brand of psychology they are polar extremes. It is a meaningless strawman. You would not get the same result if you used an actual type description from one of the regularly used typologies.

    2. I’ve done Myers-Briggs several times over many years with different tests and testers, and have consistently had the same result. This suggests to me there is something in it.

    3. Typologies will always be inexact and seem pseudo-scientific because personality and preferences are (probably) not genetically encoded. Being an INTJ is not like having a particular blood type. No one is suggesting there are precisely 16 and only 16 different types of people and everyone MUST fall into one of those categories. Rather, typologies such as Myers-Briggs suggest that there are different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving and that, demonstrably, these tend to be clustered in particular ways forming reasonably distinct “types”.

    4. I have no personal experience with HBDI, but it is widely used in the company I work for. While I don’t find its four categories particularly meaningful, it was successfully used to resolve conflicts in one highly dysfunctional team. However, I’m willing to admit that I believe most of the benefit came from this being the first time some team members had EVER considered the way their behaviour affects other people. That is, they simply developed empathy. This should not require HBDI, but perhaps for some people it does. For all our cultural obsession with the self, self-awareness is not really that popular. If typologies applied in the workplace make up for shitty parenting by giving some people their first insight into their own behaviours and preferences, then I’m willing to tolerate one more spin of the colour wheel.

  4. Doug

    Steve’s obviously done some related studying. Great to see an informed comment.

    In contrast let me (Mr Thick) make a few comments on his well constructed comments.

    1) on point two, we know that these types of test are generally constructed in a similar manner and that peoples personalities are relatively stable. No surprise then that Steve’s results are consistent over time.

    2) On point four – you could probably achieve the same result much more quickly (and cheaply) by saying “everybody is different, understanding this will help you and your team function better in almost everyway. Try to consider this before you act/react each day. Done successfully, you’ll probably all be happier working together, be more productive and get paid more (you might even get a different title!).

    3) There is no doubt that the whole dull, grating, badly presented and stretched out process adds some value to the window-lickers at the back of the class (whose shoes are on the wrong feet and use velcro instead of shoelaces) but is it too much to ask for the rest of us get a one-pager and be allowed to get back to work?

    Pip pip

  5. Timbo

    My dear Sean,

    I’ve finally found your blog!

    Whilst ever so slightly off topic might I suggest having a read of “The Full Facts book of Cold Reading” by Ian Rowland if you are interested in anything related to the Barnum Effect and anything to do with “psychic” readings. It is an excellent debunking of all such things…

    On a more related topic I have found the MB assessments useful as a manager to give me pointers as to a new team’s make up. It also demonstrated that one individual had a completely different opinion of themselves when they saw their assessment she completely disagreed with it (even though the other 14 people around them agreed with it!) and it provided some interesting notes for discussion!

    T in London

  6. stubbornmule Post author

    @Steve: Thanks for the response, you make some good points. Before I respond to them, I’ll expand on one remark I made in the post:

    “If you catch me in a generous moment, I will concede that there is a bit more substance beneath Myers Briggs and HBDI profiling than astrology”

    There are certainly kernels of validity to both MBTI and HBDI. We all know that there are certain broad personality traits that vary across the population, such as introversion/extroversion. I certainly don’t dispute that. I would also concede that MBTI or HBDI can help people with presenting, negotiation, etc. However, I suspect, along with Doug, that this has less to do with the detail of these tests and more to do with getting across basic tips that boil down to “know your audience”. People are social animals and are innately quite good at assessing other people and I think that much can be gained by simply prodding people to use these skills rather than by personality testing.

    Now I’ll turn to the points you raised:

    1. I agree that Forer’s assessment is more generic than MBTI or HBDI, which do introduce dichotomies across a number of dimensions. The point here is more that many people are apt to identify with even fairly generic personality profiles and so if people think that the results of an MBTI or HDBI test appear to be accurate, one should be very careful to take this as evidence in support of the methodology. Also, it is still the case that many of the descriptions these tests arrive at are sufficiently slippery to be very difficult to test scientifically.

    2. Reliability is not the same as validity. The test questions for HBDI (and I suspect for MBTI) do not change and, especially when they include questions like are you left or right-handed, the results are likely to be consistent for many people. However, I could devise a personality test based on the dimensions of your skull that could give very consistent, albeit bogus results.

    3. Typologies do not have to be genetically encoded or, indeed, clearly binary to be amenable to scientific testing. In fact, much of psychology (which I do consider to be scientific not pseudo-scientific) deals with personality characteristics that vary on a continuum and may or may not have genetic antecedents. The problem arises once these things move to a company whose business is based on the consulting revenue they generate from their testing. There is little incentive to continue to rigorously test the methodology. In fact, quite the opposite. The focus of these organisations is simply to find more ways to monetise the test.

    4. Here I am happy to concede your point that the results can be positive, and Timbo made a similar point in a later comment. However, as I noted above, I suspect that much of the same success could be had with a little less of the pseudo-scientific apparatus of coloured wheels.

    @Timbo: I’m glad you found the blog! Also, thanks for the pointer to the book on Cold Reading. As a regular listener to the Point of Inquiry podcast, I am fascinated by cold reading and the debunking of so-called “psychics”…could be the topic for a Stubborn Mule post some time!

  7. Steve Reynolds

    Hi Mule,

    Thanks for replying in detail.

    Agree with a lot of what you say. Studies that have applied something more akin to scientific testing to the Jungian categories (which are actually the basis for almost all commercial typologies) have found that the traits are not quite as neatly clustered as the commercially-offered typologies suggest. University studies also emphasise the trait continuum rather than the dichotomy represented by each end, e.g. extrovert/introvert. People can and do move freely along the continuum (but almost always prefer not to). You won’t catch most “qualified practitioners” admitting this though! I think this is the crux of your rejection: commercially-offered typologies are pseudo-scientific money spinners that pitch deep and valuable insight but deliver something less.

    One clarification: the test questions do actually change. I can’t speak for HBDI, but most typologies, including MBTI, have multiple tests. For the Enneagram (a reasonably useful 9-type Jungian model that’s sadly been hijacked by New Agers) there are literally dozens of different tests that come at the types from different angles. And I’ve never seen a question on any of these that asked about unchanging physical characteristics such as left- or right-handedness (or skull dimensions! – you should market that one). So I think the reliability of the Jungian type result I’ve had on different tests with different questions over 15 years does argue for some validity.

  8. stubbornmule Post author

    @Steve: I’ve seen HBDI described as “MBTI-lite”, so perhaps updating the questions is a factor underlying this assessment. Interestingly, today I heard a story, perhaps apocryphal (I have no sources to back it up) that the HBDI question about motion sickness was put there at the behest of a pharmaceutical company who was interested in information about sufferers. I’m almost cynical enough to believe this!

  9. Jon Peltier

    I know nothing about HBDI. I have a small amount of experience with MBTI, enough to know it’s somewhat quantitative, but it should be taken as a guide, not as gospel. The HR department of a company I once worked at put way too much emphasis on MBTI, to the extent of not just testing the employees, but training them to estimate someone else’s MBTI scores in an effort to improve communication and relationships.

    On a related note, my wife (a middle school mathematics teacher) took a test recently to assess her level of intelligence in a number of different categories. This test was obviously twice as good as MBTI or HBDI, because it had 8 categories to measure, including such things as logic intelligence, people intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, nature intelligence, and I forget what else. (Obviously there is value in limiting yourself to an easier-to-remember four items.) The chart itself was like an 8-wedge pie chart, with all wedge angles the same 45°. but the radius of the wedge proportional to the score in that category. The descriptions on the web page (I don’t know what the address was) were rather juvenile, so a 5th grader (or a 5th grade teacher) could understand them.

    She scored worst in the Nature Intelligence category, which the legend said related to knowledge of animals and plants. I think it’s because of latent animosity toward the groundhog under our stoop, who has been eating all of the shrubbery.

  10. stubbornmule Post author

    @Jon: All of these testing schemes certainly have a quantitiative basis: most are based on some form of factor analysis. This also goes some way to explaining the consistency in results that many, although not all, people see. My concern is that from this quantitative basis, people tend to take liberties in the explanations that are provided for the factors identified. IQ testing is also based on factor analysis and many of the criticisms that have been levelled at the concept of IQ apply even more forcefully to these kinds of personality factor models.

    Personally, I haven’t tried the test your wife took, but given the antipathy I have been developing toward the fruit bats that have been eating our mandarins over the last month or so, I would probably also have a poor Nature Intelligence score!

  11. Jon Peltier

    @Steve – I would expect neck thickness to be as good a predictor of aggression as face shape ratio.

    @Sean – I’ve been reading an interesting book, Change Your Brain – Change Your Life by Dr. Daniel Amen, which goes deeper than just outward measures, not of personality, but of personality disorders (depression, anxiety, obsession, etc.). He’s performed brain activity scans on individuals with various conditions, and based on activity levels in certain regions of the brain, has come up with unexpected groupings of conditions, which lead to more effective pharmaceutical and therapeutic treatments. (A far cry from Meyers-Briggs.) This book is now ten years old, and his ideas are spreading through the field.

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  13. Jodie Miners

    Hi Sean
    Thanks for this excellent and thoughtful post… Having done both the HBDI and the MBTI I can say that I absolutely love the concept of the HBDI. I did it many years ago (10+ years ago I think) and it really really helped me to understand things about how I work. I am a very detailed thinker (my reading is just about off the chart) and not a very good people person, so I have a very skewed HBDI profile, but I work really well with those who are are good at the big picture stuff and are much better at empathy and people stuff than me. So it has really helped me to understand how I fit in and who I fit in well with, and if there is conflict, why that might be.
    I put much less emphasis on the MBTI (I’m an ISTJ) as I feel that it’s more about fun than a serious tool.
    I would love to do another HBDI profile to see if anything has changed, and to see if my people skills at least have improved a bit, however I would be really disappointed if it had not showed an improvement.

  14. Elias Bizannes

    Nice post, but you are missing the point about HBDI.

    It’s not so much about personality as it is about thinking style. You can’t “fail” or even game a HBDI test, because you are simply responding to how you prefer to react under that scenario provided in the question. There are also multiple questions that may seem irrelevant, but are actually to prevent any bias and ensure your answers are consistent.

    So the fact that I am a big picture yellow and analytical blue – doesn’t mean I am not a interpersonal red or a detail-orientated green. It simply means I prefer to think in those quadrants. For people that are in the same quadrants as me, we just get each other when talking as we are on the same wave length. We use the same language as we would prefer. Wheras someone in different quadrants thinks differently, and so I can get frustrated when my girlfriend in arguments uses the emotional way of thinking rather than the break-down-the-facts approach I prefer.

    We all think in all the quadrants and it’s simply about recogninig different people have different thinking styles that they prefer (it’s made clear in the test that we are capable of all of them). I think it is one of the most valuable pieces of training I received at my firm. When I give a speech for example, I try to cater for all quandrants: I summarise my arguments for the yellows to understand the point; I provide signposts during my presentation so I can structure it for the greens; I breakdown my examples and tie them to the core argument to get the blues on side; and I use personal anecdotes to get the reds to enjoy my presentation.

    Once you realise this is a tool to underatand how people *prefer* to think and communicate, you realise how valuable it is.

  15. stubbornmule Post author

    For those who haven’t seen it, I’ve posted again on the topic of personality testing. This time, I’ve shared some thoughts from a psychiatrist friend of mine.

    @Elias: thanks for your comments. I take your point that I’ve played a little fast and loose with the term “personality” and that HBDI do prefer the language “thinking styles”. Even so, I don’t think that saves it completely from some of my criticisms that it relies more on people eagerly finding themselves in the results than on a sound scientific basis. If you haven’t already read the latest post on the subject (link in the previous paragraph), I’d be interested in your reaction to the observations there.

    @Jodie: Regardless of my criticisms, there is no doubt that many people enjoy the process just as you did. Also, even if my criticisms are valid (and I am prepared to accept that as a nay-saying skeptic I may go too far), that does not mean that HBDI and other tools cannot be value not so much in their own right, but as a catalyst for self-reflection. Whether or not we are honest with ourselves, is another question, of course!

  16. Leon Stander

    Hi Sean

    Came across your blog while I was trawling the web for info on brain profiling for a series of blog posts on mind myths. We seem to have some of the same concerns – and equine blog names! Mine is Occam’s Donkey.

    I have blogged a number of times on brain profiling (and the HBDI), all of which I am very critical of. The neuroscience behind these ideas is very outdated and evidence for effectiveness in my field, education, limited.

    I have taken the liberty of using your image of the brain profile inside the Zodiac, trust it’s OK – I have acknowledged you. The blog post was dated 24 September.

  17. stubbornmule Post author

    @Leon: I’m more than happy for you to use my Zodiac/HBDI mashup. I read your post and was alarmed at the idea of these sorts of profiles being used on kids. As you say, shades of Gattaca!

  18. stubbornmule Post author

    Further to Leon’s comment above, his Occam’s Donkey blog (no afiliation!) has a post on brain profiling which discusses HBDI. Here’s a quote that fits my theme: “Herrmann International claim that the HBDI is valid and reliable, but according to Prof. De Amato in the The Eleventh Mental Measurements Yearbook, 1992, both validity and reliability are questionable.”

  19. Dawning Truth

    I have tried the HBDI and other personality tests. I think they are reasonably reliable in a big picture way. The problem is they force you to make a choice. This biases the results, and can lead to tremendous inaccuracy, as you are effectively forcing a stress response.

    I think a preference method that allows you to rate how you are, and what you prefer would be more meaningful.

    Also context can play a big role. When I’m writing php source code, I’m very analytical. When I communicate I tend to be more strategic. When I’m with my wife more emotional.

    However I do still have a dominance for Strategic thinking, and Driver. Which was identified by HBDI, as well. And verified by my wife, when I argued the results. HBDI said I’m good at business, which is true. I am a natural entrepreneur.

    I’ve had bosses before who were administrative, and I didn’t get on well with them. Which is predicted by HBDI.

    So I do see validity, even though the Brain Science is a bit wonky, the principles can be easily empirically verified.

  20. Murray

    Have vaguely read comments, apologise if I repeat.

    I am an INTP though was 1st deemed an ISTP. I’m sure this problem was a result of my inaccurate answers due to the time stress and aggrovation from excessive questions.

    I would recommend those unsure of their type to read quick summaries of similar types and see if they are more accurate.

    Oh, and when I say I’m a INTP, I mean I’m 80% INTP, 15% ISTP and 5% INFP.

    Also, Finding this out about myself has ended a 3 year period of uncertainty in my life, convinced me to trade business degree for science, and hopefully will help me with women… hahah what a loser.

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  23. A

    Helping people to realise that everyone is different – good. Pigeon-holing people and focusing on differences – argh. Yet they’re somehow addictive. I feel like I’ve wasted quite a bit of my life worrying about my Myers-Briggs type (I guess it shows that I’m one of those flaky INFPs – or was that INTP? Or INFJ?). But I simply can’t be reduced to, or my fate decided by, a string of four letters.

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  25. Claudia C Evans

    Great post. I hate personality tests too – and often like to point out to MBTI fans that it originated with a mother daughter duo (a Ms. Briggs and Ms. Myers) who never had any specialized qualifications on the subject of psychometric testing. I found this in Ken Robinson’s bestselling book, The Element.

  26. Sara

    Just tripped across this blog and enjoyed it thoroughly. I do enjoy personality tests – the same way that I enjoyed taking Teen Magazine’s quizzes on what hunk I’d end up with as an adult. It’s more of a fun thing than a serious scientific study. That said, we did the HBDI assessment recently and while it didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know (shocking – I know who I am!), it did provide a good way to explain to others who I am and why I struggle with certain issues. We also had a great instructor who used it as a tool to raise awareness and provided us with pointed examples of how to tailor our messaging and proposals to clients based on their preferences and/or to appeal to the widest spectrum of people possible. This was something I found incredibly helpful. Oh – and the packaging was pretty. Really – it was spectacular. :)

    I think there is a place for the HBDI and other personality “assessments”, but I believe you have to take them for what they are – aids to remind people that we are all different rather than studies to support scientific fact regarding how our brain functions. Sad to say, but simple messaging (“everyone is different”) doesn’t make the lasting impression that pretty colors on a wheel can do, particularly when those pretty colors are plastered on every office window and cube where you work.

  27. LLB

    @stubbornmule I am a certified practitioner across several behavioral assessments including HBDI and Birkman, and have participated in many others, including MBTI, DiSC, StrengthsFinders, etc. Your facilitator should have explained to you that the inquiries regarding handedness, motion-sickness, etc…are for research only and are not part of your HBDI thinking preferences scores:) That being said, I could almost guess your profile from your comments. The point is MOST people see the world through their own preferred lens and are often oblivious to just how different individuals’ needs are, and when needs are not met, stress is produced, which changes behaviors. HBDI is intended to increase self-awareness, respect for others, and enhance team integration, productivity and satisfaction. It also provides a common vernacular to drive difficult conversations without creating pure chaos in the workplace. I agree that if everyone “just listened to each other and respected others” these “tests” would not be needed nearly as much, but that is just not reality.

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