Self-knowledge for godliness and ministry (Part 6)

We come now, in our series on self-knowledge for godliness and ministry and our thinking about personality tests as a kind of ‘worked example’, to a weakness of personality theories closely related to the one we saw last time: overvaluing the insight.

4. Relating to a person as though they are a personality rather than a person.

Personality tests are blunt instruments. When you only have four categories (choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic, melancholy), then the implication is that each 25 per cent allotment of the human race has more or less the same defining traits. That’s fine, as long as you realize that brush you have been painting with is so broad, it struggles to fit through doors. Going to a test like Myers-Briggs, with 16 boxes to distribute people around, helps; each personality under that system will have, on average, a bit over 6 per cent of the human race. But even 6 per cent is a large box to go putting people into if you are hoping to get a handle on what makes a person unique and distinct from other people.

It gets worse when you turn to culture or generational theory or class. Putting all people aged 18 to 35 (for example) in the same generation can only work if the traits you identify are fairly generic, to say the least. And to speak of a typical ‘working class’ person or a typical ‘Aussie’ is to be thrown onto descriptions that are impressionistic at best.

And yet, some of us are constantly tempted to relate to people as though they simply are the personality (or whatever other scheme we prefer) we read about—as though they are the description in human form.

There are two basic problems with this. Firstly and most seriously, it is dehumanizing. It does not treat people as persons—as people made in the image of God; it treats them as though they are a bundle of predictable ways of seeing the world and responses to stimuli. They become a rat in a maze, bounded by their personality description and only ever allowed by us to behave in predictable ways defined by their personality description. Yet it needs to be said that people are not rats, and they are certainly not rats in a maze. A person cannot be captured within a box that has to say something meaningful about 6 per cent or 25 per cent of the population. In addition, when we try to force them in, those procrustean boxes end up cutting off from our view their essential humanity, reducing them to a list of traits bunched together.

Secondly, it doesn’t work. A system that groups everyone of an age together, or 6 per cent or 25 per cent of people together on some basis can have worthwhile things to say. But it can only ever be a rule of thumb—a beginner’s guide that offers a few hints about how a person might tick and suggests a few things to look out for.

The perennial complaint associated with personality tests is people grumbling about how it ended up distorting relationships. For example, companies who think that only one or two personality types can be leaders and who therefore shift the focus of promotion from track record to results on a test. Or workplaces, or collections of friends, who take some test and then lock everyone into ‘their personality’—always attributing every action, thought, belief, or desire as just an expression of their personality (“They think we should focus on customer service because they are an ESFP”).

Such schemes are limited in two ways. On the one hand, people break the mould. That extrovert really enjoys spending lots of time on their own. That melancholy is really laid-back. Personality theories work because they group traits that are generally found together. But the key word is ‘generally’. Sometimes some traits aren’t in a particular package.

On the other hand, these kind of theories cannot be all-encompassing explanations. At best, they offer something, not everything. They work because they are only interested in a very, very limited range of traits. But people are so much more than those traits that such theories try and classify. So even once you’ve worked out what you are on Myer-Briggs, what Harry Potter character you are, what class you belong to, what cultural traits you have, and what generational traits you have, you have hardly scratched the surface of knowing yourself. They are all, at best, simply a beginner’s guide to understanding yourself. Human beings, like snowflakes, are genuinely unique, and in the end, each person must be understood on their own terms and not simply as an example of a personality.

The danger here is valuing the insight too highly. The solution is to take personality with a grain of salt and treat it as rough guide to begin with. This is wisdom that Scripture offers—reminding us (especially in a book like Job) of how so much of human knowledge is provisional and limited. But even unbelievers often grasp this point as well: it is the kind of self-knowledge of our own limitations that God often gives quite broadly. ‘Even the pagans’ do this one—which means it really, really shouldn’t be found among us.

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