Personality Tests: The Sorting Hat

despite the widespread popularity of the Myers-Briggs test, it’s generally not held in high regard by top psychologists who study personality.

.. VEDANTAM: Validity and reliability – these are two of the most important scientific factors to consider when judging the value of any psychological test.

GRANT: Reliability is about whether the test measures what it claims to measure. And so you could look at that in terms of, do you get the same result over time or if different people rate you, did they give similar answers?

VEDANTAM: So if you have a test for HIV, does the test actually give you the answer that you have HIV every time you use the test?

GRANT: Exactly. Does it give you an accurate score? And then validity is essentially, does the test predict anything? So, you know, can it predict what kind of jobs I’ll be happy in or what kind of person I should marry?

.. VEDANTAM: And your thesis about the Myers-Briggs test is what?

GRANT: Well, it doesn’t do very well in reliability or validity. It falls well short of most conventional reliability standards, and the Myers-Briggs proponents themselves will tell you that it doesn’t predict anything.

VEDANTAM: The thing that concerns me about personality tests is less the stuff that might be inaccurate but is mostly just fun, and more the stuff that is increasingly being used to gauge who should be doing what in the workplace, who is best suited for which career to select the people who you want to rise within an organization.

GRANT: It’s a great way to weed out all kinds of diversity. There was a company in Canada not long ago where there was a major acquisition made, and the CEO gave every single person who was acquired the Myers-Briggs and then fired everyone who didn’t match his type.

.. VEDANTAM: Many personality researchers put greater stock in a test known as the Big Five. It measures things like how much you care about the opinions of others versus your own judgment. It also measures qualities such as introversion and extroversion. At first glance, there are similarities between this test and the Myers-Briggs and other personality tests. But Adams says the Big Five has large amounts of peer-reviewed data to back it up. That data, he argues, makes for better predictions.


.. According to Chinese tradition, there’s no better year for a child to be born than the Year of the Dragon. Dragon kids are destined for greatness. Xiao-Qi was a doctor at one of the province’s largest hospitals. He knew it was going to be a crazy year. Pregnant women were already pre-booking rooms at the hospital. Births were going to skyrocket. It was the same all across the country. It seemed that pregnant women were everywhere, dreaming of the greatness of their coming Dragon babies.

.. VEDANTAM: They decided to prove their hypothesis that Dragon kids would fare worse than other kids at school. As it turned out, the Chinese government has a treasure trove of data – the academic performance of middle schoolers, demographic surveys, interviews with parents about their own education and household income. And so the two economists collected all the data, controlled for different variables and crunched the numbers. And they found that in middle school, Dragon kids did better than their peers.

MOCAN: They actually have higher test scores in middle school.

VEDANTAM: These kids also outperform their peers in high school.

MOCAN: Even at the standardized nationwide university entrance exams, Dragon kids score better.

VEDANTAM: And they did better in college.

MOCAN: Individuals who were born in the Year of the Dragon – they are 14 percent more likely to have earned at least a bachelor’s degree.

VEDANTAM: This was not the outcome that the economists expected to find.


.. MOCAN: So if everybody tells them, oh, you are superior, you are smarter than everybody, you are destined for greatness and good fortune, you know, they may believe that this is the case. And their self-esteem – you know that from other research that self-esteem is important in learning. People – kids who have more self-esteem, they do better in school.

VEDANTAM: But when they looked at how children reported their own beliefs about their IQ, there was no difference between Dragon kids and kids born right before and right afterwards.

MOCAN: And Dragon kids are not more confident about their own abilities or about their own future.

VEDANTAM: In fact, the Dragon kids weren’t really smarter. They scored the same on IQ tests. So what explained their success at school?


.. VEDANTAM: It turns out, the success of Dragon babies doesn’t lie with the schools, or the teachers or even with the kids themselves. It’s because of parents like Xiao-Qi and Yangcheng.

YU: (Speaking Chinese).

VEDANTAM: From the moment Han was born, his parents had sky-high expectations for him. That turns out to be the case with many parents of Dragon babies.

MOCAN: The parents of these Dragon children, they are actually more likely to believe, in comparison to other parents, that their children will obtain at least a high school education, at least a college degree. And Dragon parents are more likely to believe that their children will become a leader in professional life in the future. So Dragon parents are different from other parents in the way they sort of believe in their kids’ future.

VEDANTAM: These beliefs become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Parents who believe their kids are destined for greatness act in ways that help their kids achieve greatness. Han’s parents pushed him, giving him master’s-level textbooks in middle school and telling him as a toddler that his goal in life was to get a Ph.D. in America. As Han chatted with his parents, I asked if he could translate a question for me.