Sunday scaries

Why one popular personality test is "pseudoscientific at best"

What experts in the study of personality say about the enneagram test.

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According to the free enneagram personality test I took online, I am a Type Three. Depending on where you’re looking, type threes are categorized as “the achiever” or “the performer” — the goal-focused, efficacy-oriented cousins of Type Fours (“the romantic”) or Type Nines (“the mediator”). It’s not a great look for me, but ultimately, unsurprising and oddly comforting in the way horoscopes can be.

While the enneagram test has been around for decades, its popularity is picking up speed. In work settings, it’s used for team-building and bonding. On social media, it’s used as a way to describe one’s place in the world and is popularized as a tool for introspection. On TikTok, for example, the hashtag #enneagram is associated with more than 50 million views, with users sharing enneagram-based videos with captions like “apparently this test is supposed to make you cry” and “when someone calls out an enneagram 3/7/8 for making themselves the center of attention.”

But is the enneagram test actually legit?

In two words, not really. The experts I contacted were less than enthusiastic about it. Sanjay Srivastava, the director of the Personality and Social Dynamics Lab at the University of Oregon, says it doesn’t originate in a validated scientific theory, and his skepticism is largely based on an absence of evidence. Rodica Damian, the director of the Personality Development and Success Lab at the University of Houston, explains that if someone was interested in a valid and reliable personality test, they should take a look at the Hogan Personality Inventory or the Big Five personality test — though there is also criticism of its universality.

Luke Smillie is the director of the Personality Processes Laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He tells me: “Frankly, the enneagram is probably at the top of the list of ‘tests I would not recommend.’ It is pseudoscientific at best.”

What is the enneagram test?

Its approach is based on the teachings of Óscar Ichazo, who Smillie describes as a “kind of spiritual guru.” According to a 2020 paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, its basic elements were synthesized by Ichazo in the mid-20th century and were adapted and introduced into the United States in the early 1970s by psychiatrists who were excited about using it as a part of psychoanalytic training.

The nine numbered personality types are associated with specific strengths, core beliefs, limitations, and approaches to relationships. The idea is that people are a core type and then neighboring “wing” types. My test told me I’m a 98 percent match with Type Three and a 96 percent match with Type Two — that would be my wing.

But while the enneagram test is used across an array of contexts, ranging from human services to some academic communities, it’s generally agreed that there’s a lack of rigorous scientific research on its application.

Smillie explains that its classification of categorical types is problematic because personalities vary by degree, not by kind. The categorical types are also not derived empirically from data; they are not the result of an effort to carefully observe and quantify the different ways people are psychologically different from each other. Instead, he describes them as “‘top-down’ projection of ideas that particular individuals [like Ichazo] had about the human condition.”

“Those ideas might not be inherently ‘bad’ or ‘wrong,’ but they were not developed and tested out scientifically,” Smillie explains. “This means that their validity as descriptions of what people are actually like, and how people differ psychologically from one another, is highly questionable.”

The point of personality — Not all personality assessments are created equal, and there’s risk of misapplication.

Decades of research supports the existence of a multidimensional framework of personality consisting of about five to six traits, Smillie says. He considers the leading models to be the Big Five and the HEXACO, a six-dimensional model developed by psychologists in 2000. He also believes there’s “a wide range of practical settings where personality assessment can be useful,” including advertising, educational settings, dating services, and organizational psychology.

There’s also criticism that some companies overly rely on personality tests for personnel choices and diagnosing office issues. At McKinsey & Company, for example, incoming associates are asked to take the Myers-Briggs test, which experts say is lacking in evidence for accuracy. And while studies show the Big Five test effectively predicts behavior, there’s argument that many of its online versions are designed to give sexist results, reports Quartz.

Evaluating how personality tests can be misused is a valuable exercise, Srivastava says.

"To use personality assessment well in the workplace, it is not enough to pick a good test," he explains. "You need to be ready to consider a wide range of ethical, legal, and technological factors that guide how you are using it."

Critique of these tests doesn’t mean that the examination of personality isn’t worthwhile.

“For me, personality is the most fascinating topic in psychological science,” Smillie says. “It’s the study of what people are like, and seeks to describe and understand human individuality.”

Psychology, he notes, is ultimately about people, and personality plays a role in many phenomena that psychologists examine. Smillie explains the answer to many questions in psychology is “it depends” — meaning, it depends on who you are and what you are like.

Understanding your personality can also be helpful. It gives you insight into your strengths and limitations, the kinds of pursuits you might be suited for, and why you might react to various stressors and challenges in your own unique way.

Srivastava notes that if people want to use personality tests for their curiosity or amusement, they should go ahead. But when these tests are applied in high-stakes situations like workplaces and schools, and issues of ethics and fairness become involved, that's when it becomes necessary to work with experts and make sure you're using a test that's based in science.

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