Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Between the ages of 10 and 15 I was obsessed with the idea of "personality" and collected lots of books full of personality "tests", mainly involving multiple choice questions. This interest inspired me to take a Psychology BSc, which by that time I was kind of over the whole thing. The problem with personality tests is that they're fun, but like Hannibal Lecter once said "Do you think you can dissect me with your blunt little tool?" And many psychologists would today disagree with the idea of people having stable personalities. Take the old Temperment personality test, which is based on the Medieval notion that we have four types of "humors" or bodily fluids in us and an excess of one or the other will give us a particular temperment. You can either be introverted or extroverted as well as stable or unstable. This produces 4 personality types - stable extroverts are sunny sanguines, unstable extroverts are cholerics, prone to violence and crime. Stable introverts are phlegmatics, sensible and introspective. While unstable introverts are melancholics, pessimists and tending to being miserable. This test lets you work out which one you are. It's a series of multiple choice questions. However, you have to pick one option for each question. Take question 5:

In social situations, you tend to be:
a) Friendly and outgoing, a true social butterfly
b) The one who silently takes it all in, until spoken to
c) Content and passive - you quietly enjoy the company of others
d) The first one to arrive and the last one to leave

I had to think about this. And I couldn't answer it. Because it depends. I can be option a but generally tend not to enjoy parties and am glad when they're over - but there isn't an option for that and b) doesn't really cover it. It depends on what mood I'm in at the time, who I'm with, who's at the party, whether I'm tired or hungry or have had a good or a bad day. There are so many variables that it's difficult to give a default answer. Some social psychologists have dispensed with the idea of true personalities, arguging that we interact with our social contexts and tend to be contradictory. At best, such tests can only really your personality at the split second you're doing the test - a day later, they could be invalid. However, there have been attempts to develop tests that are valid and consistent - so people would score the same if you took them a week or a month later. Some personality tests have repeated questions in them, to ensure that people don't lie or just reply to questions at random.

Despite all this, I don't want to give up on the notion of personality completely, but I don't think it is a fixed entity either - the truth - as with most stuff, is probably somewhere inbetween. With that said, I'm looking forward to reading a new novel by Rupert Thomson called Divided Kingdom. In this book, the people of the UK have been split into 4 zones, based on the old sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, melancholic divides. The book follows a sanguine on a journey throught the four different zones - all boarded up shops and suicides in the melancholic zone, while the choleric zone is a nightmare of crime and rioting. The sanguine zone is the one where everyone wants to be, and people are regularly reassessed and reassigned if their personality seems to be slipping. Despite the fact that dividing everyone into 1 of 4 categories is somewhat attractive, I'm sure people are more complicated than that. Aren't they?


Trashbinder said...

As part of a management course I'm participating in, we had to complete the Myers Briggs personality questionnaire.

According to MB, there are sixteen different types of personalities. I think that it's an extremely difficult science to try and pigeonhole so many individuals into a limited number of personality types.

Having said that, the results of the Myers Briggs had me spot on. ISTJ - for those who have participated.

Fascinating stuff, all the same.

kleverkloggs said...

Are personality polarities, unconciously reversed online I wonder? Er, didn't mean to sound like a tongue twister!

Aethlos said...