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Merve Emre: working on a book about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator helped illuminate the test’s seduction

(Christian Nakarado)

I never had much interest in knowing myself. As a project, it seemed like an idle pleasure, an undeserved indulgence.

When I took my first personality test – the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator – as a new hire at a prestigious consulting firm, I was baffled by the artlessness of the questions. They were addressed with absolute authority to a person I could not imagine existing, someone honest and industrious and eager to take life at face value. “Do you prefer to (a) arrange dates, parties, etc. well in advance; or (b) be free to do whatever looks like fun when the time comes?” I could not answer because I did not know what one considered “well in advance” for a date. I had spent college working hard and had occasionally shown up to places with people whom I did not like enough to think about in advance – and left while the campus buses were still running on the quarter hour.

“Do you often let (a) your head rule your heart; or (b) your heart rule your head?” I had to put the pencil down.

When I picked it up again, I discovered that the more questions I read, the harder it became to resist answering. I found I could suspend disbelief. I could see myself as the kind of girl who arranged dates, discretely penciling the names of men and restaurants into a handsome diary. I could see a dinner party in a bright apartment where people sat in white leather chairs and filled glasses and laughed at the very cutting stories I told about the times I let “my head rule my heart.” I could see a life lived with all the clarity and order of a character in a novel.

“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald of Jay Gatsby, his most famous and delusory creation, a man who was not a man at all but a series of impressions, of slow smiles and champagne toasts. Each question I answered became, for me, one of these successful gestures. If I kept answering, I could believe in this shadow self. I could even believe that she was me. This, as much as anything, provided the genesis of my book, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing.

It is hard to see the romantic potential of self-discovery if all you see is the monotony of an answer sheet. Having one’s personality assessed can be an artistic experience. “Who are you?” the test asks and you are free to answer however you want, to conjure whatever version of yourself you want to be. The questions are prompts for the imagination, and though the imagination is hopelessly contingent, it is easy to believe in its permanence – to believe that the diary and the dinner party and the cutting stories reflect who you are, not who you are according to a deeply idiosyncratic system of self-understanding.

Spend a little more time with the test and you will realize that its mentality is impenetrably bourgeois: a world where people flit from work to parties, their desires respectable, their dilemmas undramatic. The questions assume that everyone is a professional; that everyone plans vacations, goes to restaurants, meets new people. What the romance of testing obscures is how the test seduces you, expertly, with its fantasies of class.

This is why one need not be neutral or honest when taking a personality test; the questions are neither neutral nor honest. “Which is a higher compliment, to be called (a) competent; or (b) compassionate?” Before I could register the falseness of the choice, I imagined a gathering of serious people – all men – nodding their approval of my “unusual competence.” This was a more familiar story. My life until then had revolved around demonstrating my competence to men. It was not a romantic story. It was a petty, helpless one.

When I started writing The Personality Brokers, I was embarrassed to recall how easily my sense of self was impressed by brute power. I was embarrassed, too, that I did not realize how predictable I was. I was a commodity on what Erich Fromm called the “personality market” of white-collar work. I had sold myself to my employer, who then sold my services to clients. On the personality market, Fromm wrote, success depended on “how well a person gets his personality across, how nice a package he is; whether he is ‘cheerful,’ ‘sound, ‘aggressive,’ ‘reliable,’ ‘ambitious.’” A person was not concerned with self-knowledge but with “becoming saleable.”

I did not like the stories I had to tell to sell myself, the clichés of the diary, the dinner party. I left the job shortly after I started it, never knowing whether I was ruled by my heart or my head. It no longer seemed like an important question to answer.

Merve Emre teaches English at the University of Oxford. The Personality Brokers is published by Random House of Canada.