A new history of the ubiquitous personality test sheds light on what it can and can’t deliver.
Know thyself. This phrase is inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, which was built in the 4th century B.C. It’s most commonly attributed to Socrates (470–399 B.C.), who often referred to this Delphic aphorism in his teachings. Suffice it to say, this phrase has a long history.
Without knowing its origins, however, one might mistake it for the anthem of our own day. Our society is infused with self: self-discovery, self-help, selfies. Knowing thyself seems to be the root of our daily existence. Yet, for all our self-reflection, few of us would claim success in knowing the depths of our own hearts and souls. If anything, the quest has made us aware of all we don’t know, thereby intensifying our desire to unlock the mysteries within.
The desire to know ourselves is what prompts us, for example, to take those online pop-culture quizzes. We long to know which movie or TV character we most resemble or which Mamma Mia! character would be our BFF. Do you know which Hogwarts house you would be sorted into? Or which iconic ’90s music video you are? We click through the questions, despite doubting the scientific accuracy of the results—perhaps this is the missing knowledge that will finally give us a defining sense of self.
The Quest for the Perfect Personality
Interest in personality testing actually began long before these quizzes. There’s a history here too—not as far back as Socrates, of course, but one full of mystery nonetheless. One test in particular, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is the subject of a new book by Merve Emre, an associate professor of English at Oxford University. Titled The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the …
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