October 23, 2021

‘Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests’ offers a glimpse of quiz dystopia

When is a Myers-Briggs more than a Myers-Briggs?

When is a Myers-Briggs more than a Myers-Briggs?

Image: courtesy of HBO Max

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When I was a teenager, I applied for a job at an ice cream chain I ought not name for legal reasons. After filling in my online application, the chain’s website directed me to a series of multiple choice questions that seemed completely irrelevant to the job. I had to select “strongly agree, agree, neutral, disagree, or strongly disagree” to prompts like “I tend to have a positive outlook on life” and thought the whole thing was weird as hell. I was never called in for an interview. 

Later in my career, I worked as an online quiz editor. My job was to write, design, edit, and develop new formats of those super-clickable online personality quizzes that took over everyone’s Facebook news feed in the early 2010s. If you wanted to find out which Disney animal sidekick you were, I was the one deciding you were Mushu (you’re welcome). Writing those quizzes was part social engineering, part fortune telling, and part being a hungover 24-year-old with a deadline, but take it from who has seen the back end of that code: The results are meaningless.

I never expected to connect my failure to secure ice cream employment with my first online media job, but watching the HBO Max documentary Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests brought them together in a terrifying comparison with real-world implications. Persona examines the cultural phenomenon that is the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator and, to a lesser extent, the Big 5 Personality Test by tracking the historical origins of Myers-Briggs, the use of personality testing in hiring practices, and the potentially nefarious social uses of such assessments. 

Persona examines personality testing from several angles, each of which horrify me in different personal and professional ways. There are the Myers-Briggs YouTubers who take their four-letter personality type so seriously they stake their careers on it, the job seekers who take courses that teach them how to “pass” personality tests like the one I encountered as a teen, executives at testing companies that grin into the camera while defending the concept that only 16 kinds of people exist, and a fresh new hell every 15 minutes or so. If that sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is. Persona takes on a lot and only succeeds in making a point half the time. 

The overarching idea behind this documentary is that these personality tests were created by flawed human beings to help individuals understand themselves better. Finding out you’re an INTP, high in Neuroticism, or a Mushu is fun and in the best case scenario may lead to some introspection. Unfortunately, the quiz editors of yesteryear picked up the wacky idea that personality quizzes were somehow definitive and scientific when applied to deciding who’s good at jobs. Now, there are entire corporate entities dedicated to selling personality quiz packages to ice cream franchises so they can screen out people who select anything other than “strongly agree” to awkward, personal inquiries. 

Some of the subjects of Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Test argue that testing for personality in the hiring process is a loophole for discrimination. Mentally ill, neuroatypical, and culturally diverse applicants start such testing at a disadvantage, especially if the rubric for an “ideal” employee at a given company is based on the presumably healthy white men who designed the test. This is a good point. Where Persona fails as a documentary is the follow-up to this assertion of discrimination. 

One of the documentary’s pivotal moments is the inevitable milkshake ducking of Isabel Briggs Myers, one of the co-authors of the Myers-Briggs assessment.

Even though Persona spends some time with companies that provide hiring tests, it doesn’t push them to interrogate their place in what the documentary presents as an outwardly discriminatory system. When a high-ranking employee at a testing company holds the party line that personality testing is designed to slot people into jobs that suit their “natural” tendencies, the implication is that the tests maximize staff happiness by making sure the people hired will love their job. At no point are these companies asked about a hypothetical unemployed person who doesn’t need to find personal fulfillment in corporate sales but would like to have a salary and healthcare regardless. Those unasked questions don’t exactly leave the subjects off the hook, but they do result in Persona feeling like an incomplete investigation. 

One of the documentary’s pivotal moments is the inevitable milkshake ducking of Isabel Briggs Myers, one of the co-authors of the Myers-Briggs assessment. Long story short: She was a white supremacist who believed people with lower IQs were incapable of self-perception and designed her first tests based on the idea that men and women have different natural aptitudes. That triple punch of racism, ableism, and sexism isn’t surprising considering the state of pop psychology in the early 20th century, but Persona brings up this revelation only to drop it a few moments later for one of its many disparate narratives about personality testing. 

Overall, Persona is a documentary that brings up a handful of interesting points about the history and implementation of personality testing without reaching any satisfying conclusions about the practice. Some of that lack comes from the actual state of personality testing in society — no formal legislation to ban their use in hiring has passed — but simply pointing out that taking these tests seriously is weird and bad seems like a given that could have been explored in a shorter format. 

If awareness that these tests have an adverse effect on hiring and have the potential to get much worse is the goal of Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests, then this film is technically a success. It certainly made me think differently about that ice cream job — would I have been predisposed to hate it because of my personality? Was I naturally better suited to making quizzes? Probably not, and it shouldn’t have mattered. As an ex-quizmaster, never trust a quizmaster. 

Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests is now streaming on HBO Max.

167 thoughts on “‘Persona: The Dark Truth Behind Personality Tests’ offers a glimpse of quiz dystopia

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