A curious quirk of the internet era is how we have chosen the online personality quiz as a primary tool of self-examination.
I say "we" not as a royal we but as an encompassing category that I regularly discover via social media includes all sorts of people — elderly relatives, former professors, and so on — whom I would have thought too serious to be lured by the siren call of such trifling endeavors in pop psychology. But lured they are. And more often than I'd like to admit, I am too.
The online personality quiz is a variable beast. Preeminent in its class is, of course, the pseudoscientific Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which purports to offer a four-letter code capable of encapsulating your very essence. MBTI is centered on four dichotomies — introversion vs. extraversion, intuition vs. sensing, thinking vs. feeling, and perception vs. judging — and online analyses with which we can sort ourselves according to this scheme abound. (I am on the border between INTJ and ISTJ.)
Then there are the lesser quizzes, many of which are tied to some media franchise: "What character from Parks and Rec are you?" (Ben Wyatt.) "Which Jane Austen heroine are you?" (Elinor Dashwood.) Most famous of this category is the Pottermore quiz, which acts as the Sorting Hat from the Harry Potter series to place you in one of the four Hogwarts houses: brave and determined Gryffindor, hardworking and loyal Hufflepuff, ambitious and cunning Slytherin, or wise and clever Ravenclaw. (I am a Hufflepuff on the better-quality quizzes and a Ravenclaw on the ones with lots of grammar mistakes.)
At the bottom of the barrel are the garbage quizzes featured on BuzzFeed and its ilk. Where at least the media franchise quizzes can reference a well-developed fictional world, these garbage quizzes exist purely to earn their creators ad revenue and waste participants' time. On BuzzFeed's quiz page as of this writing are such luminous offerings as "How Many Of These 40 Types Of People Do You Hate?" plus "Spend A Lot Of Money On Clothes And We'll Guess Your Favorite Type Of Food" and "Screw Tarot Cards, Create Your Own Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream And We'll Tell You Your Future.” (I cannot tell you what I scored on any of those because I couldn't bring myself to click the links.)
These quizzes and their popularity may be the best available evidence for truly appalling cultural decline, but I get the appeal: The results are so flattering. "People with the INTJ personality type are imaginative yet decisive, ambitious yet private, amazingly curious, but they do not squander their energy," I'm told, while Hufflepuffs are "are just, loyal, true, patient, and never one to shy away from a challenge. AKA: the perfect best friend candidates."
Who doesn't want to hear this stuff? Sure, the MBTI and similarly elaborate quizzes will offer some warnings of potential dysfunctional behavior, or maybe you test as Jerry on Parks and Rec. But, generally speaking, online personality quizzes are designed to make users feel as if they've taken a look in the mirror and found the view is pretty good.
That is why, if we must do personality typing, I recommend the Enneagram as the way to go. This is a set of nine personality types, each identified by their "tragic flaws, sin tendencies, primary fears, and unconscious needs." The system's origins are debated, but some argue it can be traced to an early Christian mystic who identified nine basic sins, a list similar to the better-known seven deadly sins.
So focused is the Enneagram on critical self-evaluation that enthusiasts commonly observe the best way to know if you've accurately identified your type is to ask whether you're thoroughly convinced yours is the very worst type on the list. As one Twitter user succinctly put it, where MBTI is "really positive and about all your strengths," the Enneagram is "This Is Every Reason Why You Are Disgusting."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. For example, I always overwhelmingly test as an Enneagram Type Eight. This type is typically called "the challenger," which sounds like another flattering personality test result until you read a little further. Eights are described with phrases like "ego-centric and domineering" or "intimidating, insensitive, and domineering" or "domineering [because] their unwillingness to be controlled by others frequently manifests in the need to control others instead." ("Domineering" comes up a lot.) This type can be impervious to criticism and social convention, using emotional distance as a self-preservation mechanism. The basic fear is being controlled by others; the basic need is to have something to oppose.
It's not a pretty reflection, and it's not supposed to be. "If we can't self-observe, then we can't self-correct," explains Chris Heuertz, author of a recent book on the Enneagram as a tool of spiritual growth. Heuertz argues that that what makes the Enneagram distinct from most personality typing systems is its interest in character — "what we develop through our inner work" — as opposed to personality — "a collection of fragments," like our interests, experiences, and quirks. That's why the Enneagram draws attention not to our fixed traits, such as introversion, but to our motivating fears and most comfortable vices. It is intended to be a starting point for the hard work true self-examination should galvanize.
The Enneagram is not something I think about daily or even weekly. It has not changed my life, but it has helped. It explained why friends often tell me they found me intense or intimidating when we first met. It shed light on my interactions with my husband, especially in how we both think about long-term plans and career choices. The Enneagram has also helped me examine my own reliance on material goods and money as a source of security, reminding me to ask how I can be more generous and whether I'm buying more than I need. And it challenges me to pay attention to my interest in power, and to whether I'm using that interest well, like to shine light on injustice, corruption, and abuse.
If these sound like valuable promptings for character construction, try taking an Enneagram test. It'll scratch your internet quiz itch, and you'll know the results are right when reading your type's description gives you that sinking feeling that comes when forced to confront your deepest flaws.