How a New Definition of Personality Wrecked a Generation (or Two)

My father wrote his dissertation in the 1980s, when the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator was in full vogue. His topic required him to administer thousands of tests to students in music school and assess them based on their choice of focus.

He turned up some significant results that contributed to the ethos of the time: your personality is baked into who you are and is probably secretly determining many of your choices in life. Your job is to discover your personality and then find the right role for yourself in life so that you can find happiness without doing violence to your true self. (Remember how they wrote "never change" in your yearbook?) 

In the course of my father's study, he administered the full test to me probably 6 times or so, and each time I grew more frustrated with the whole process. I grew tired of having to discover my inner self. What was I supposed to do with this information anyway? Merely acquiesce and be happy with that? Basically, yes. You have an operating system in you; let it operate. That was the message of this whole enterprise. Discover who you are and be content.

I never liked that attitude. I wanted to know something different. What traits should I cultivate and adopt to make me into the person I ought to be? I don’t mean ought in a moral sense. I mean it in a professional or life-success sort of way. What do successful people do and what kinds of behaviors, values, and attitudes do they have that have made them successful? That was a far more interesting question to me.

What Is Personality?

So these tests always made me uncomfortable, and not only for that reason. I always had that sense that the whole apparatus was built on a tautology. Are you reserved and shy in a crowd? Yes. You are an introvert. What’s an introvert? A person who is reserved and shy in a crowd. You can continue this tautology to a huge range of complexity, further defining, slicing, dicing, and reassembling traits to build dozens or thousands of variants.

This week I picked up a book published in 1939. It is Building Your Personality, by Hattie Marie Marsh. It opens with this sentence: “This book is based upon the idea that personality is ever changing and that each individual can, by her own directed efforts, shape and change her personality to a great extent.”

It doesn’t deny “natural” and biological inclinations. But it observes that if they are there, they probably can’t be changed. Instead, the book argues, you should focus on what you can change. If you fail to do that, you have failed to realize your potential. Reading along, you come to realize that the author is working from a completely different sense of personality than anything we know today. It is truly a different term.

“Many people think that their personalities are so well established before birth that little can be done. This is far from the truth.” The author gives an example of a person who has talent for playing the piano but if she never tries to play or doesn’t practice, she will never be good at it. Further, “a person may have inherited a quick temper, but by early training he may be taught to control it.”

The entire project of this book from 1939 is about achievement in life as the basis of personal happiness. “Contrary to the teachings of some psychics, palmists, phrenologists, and astrologers, personality is not miraculously given, and it can be transformed.” Thus does the book reject from the outside the view that “blondes are flighty” or that “a long line in the center of the palm denotes great intelligence.” So too many people are drawn to “zodiacal signs.” Why are people drawn to the theory that personality is a given part of your constitution? “Many accept these beliefs because such acceptance relieves them of any responsibility for self-improvement.”

Wow. Yes. Indeed.

Thus does the book proceed to focus on behavior and good choices. It explains how to project your voice, how to speak with good grammar and pronunciation, how to breathe properly and have a good posture, what to wear to various events, how to groom yourself, how to set a table and deal with a finger bowl, how to interact at a cocktail party and introduce people and be introduced, and so on. Most all of the book is directed toward cultivating a personality that will bring you personal success.

"As a rule, the road to personal betterment and achievement is hidden behind things people do not like to do. Those who are too lazy to perform these tasks never find the road. They never blame themselves, but complain about 'fate' and 'never getting a break'." 

Don't we know it! 

In the 21st century, this is a shocking way to approach the whole problem of personality. It contradicts everything I was taught, and it contradicts pretty much everything most anyone under the age of 30 today thinks. This is now the generation of Myers-Briggs: you are who you are and it is contrary to nature, even violent to human spirit, to break outside the personality type you have been given by birth. In other words, your job is not to aspire but to acquiesce.

Amazing.

This 1939 book, which went through five printings and two editions, now seems completely foreign. We just don’t think this way anymore. It strikes me as very possible that, without entirely knowing what we were doing, that in the course of a few decades, we replaced a view of the human project that was inspired by human choice, personal ambition, and individual achievement with a completely different view that insists that aspiration is utterly pointless and probably even dangerous. We’ve replaced a sense of personal responsibility with a sense of the fate of destiny that is baked into the unique way we are made: our true selves.

The Personality Industry

To get a sense of how this happened, I downloaded the very interesting book The Personality Brokers, by Merve Emre, which provides a history of the Myers-Briggs test. In 1939, the idea of testing for personality was not common. They existed, yes, but were seen as inventories to guide direction for personal improvement. By the late 1950s, the test as self definition had swept through management circles, and tests were everywhere in government and high-end corporate culture. They were seen as the answer to how people could be placed, and place themselves, in a role that would lead to great happiness. What began to develop was a culture of deference to what is innate rather than a culture of aspiration to what anyone can become.

Myers-Briggs was the most popular but it spawned a massive industry that flooded the world with personality tests, not with the goal of inspiring people to get better but with the ambition of pigeonholing everyone in a way that will maximize personal satisfaction. And now the corporate world is swimming in confusion about why young workers are so unadaptable, spoiled, undisciplined, and unambitious. It’s really no mystery: we told them that this is the right way to be: be only yourself and nothing more.

As the author told NPR, “I think it really shifts you away from that language of accomplishment toward a language of the self. ... I think that can be an incredibly comforting fantasy… I think it can make you feel like you don't have to take responsibility for changing.”

That’s precisely what my 1939 book said of any theory that says you can’t create your own personality. We once knew this, but the fashion for personality science changed that view, gradually and imperceptibly, and without our knowing it. We replaced one practice of life management with a different view entirely, one that has worked to disable individual volition and encourage a fatalistic and feudalistic outlook on the life project.

Merve Emre writes about how people are smart enough to very quickly learn how to game the tests to produce whatever result is desired on the part of the testers. I know this feature well. My father gave me these tests at a young age. I got better at taking them, answering all the questions according to my perceptions concerning what kind of person I was supposed to be.

My father was confused as to why every test I took produced a different result. Where is the true me? It turns out that the true me, and the true everyone, is to become something better than you are. We once knew this. This is what it meant to build a personality. We were better off for it.

None of which is to say that curiosity about our innate personality features will go away. For those who are curious, they maybe find enough satisfaction in the surprisingly insightful medieval theory of four temperaments. It is probably no more less scientific than what we came to embrace in the 1950s. And they are broad enough to very clearly give plenty of room for personal improvement. 

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Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker is Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research. He is the author of many thousands of articles in the scholarly and popular press and eight books in 5 languages. He speaks widely on topics of economics, technology, social philosophy, and culture. He is available for speaking and interviews via his emailTw | FB | LinkedIn