To know a label is not to know a person, according to Northwestern University psychologist Daniel McAdams. No understanding of a person is adequate without these traits, but alone they yield little beyond a “psychology of the stranger.” To truly know a person, argues McAdams, is to understand their goals, defense mechanisms, coping strategies, and skills—none of which are easily compressed into a questionnaire. There’s a final level needed to understand others: how they see themselves, the events of their lives, their personal narrative.
Understanding that narrative is difficult. It takes time. “Life is complex and hard—you know that,” Roberts says to me. “How many people do you have to deal with on a daily basis? Of course we look for simplicity in everything we do, but that comes at a cost.” His team is constantly surprised by people’s desire for self-knowledge. They slap an in-progress test on a website, and six months later twenty thousand people have visited in hopes of gaining just a little more insight.
We have always tried to boil people down any way we can: by gender, by race, by income, by personality. Though personality tests began as top-down tools for institutions, they are now firmly entrenched in popular culture. They beckon from magazines and websites, promising a new opportunity for self-knowledge, one that is just about us—even though the academic field is still focused on trends and groups and doesn’t necessarily translate into better understanding of individuals. That’s the funny paradox about personality tests. They are a means to feel understood and, at the same time, the exact opposite: a way to be stripped to our most bare, obvious parts, with most of you not seen at all. The push for personality typing will continue, but our job is to remember that people are messy, strangers even to ourselves. We can be categorized but never perfectly, given a type but never wholly reduced.
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Angela Chen is a science journalist and writer. Her first book, ACE, is forthcoming from Beacon Press