Column Lisa Becking: Colourblind

A personality test that resembles a horoscope? Do we really want that?
Text: Lisa Becking

I’m holding a report that promises to unfold the mystery of my personality. As I read it, I realize that the mystery will prevail. Based on 25 questions, a computer has generated inconsistent sentences: ‘You’re adventurous and you avoid new situations.’ It’s also filled with platitudes that everyone can relate to. A horoscope.

Such an HR horoscope is required for academics at our university who wish to be promoted. The one I had to take divides humanity into four colours. How wonderfully clear. All the complex layers of personality reduced to four boxes.

This four-colour personality fest was created by someone from show business. He was fascinated by Jung’s typologies, on which these colour assessments are based. There seems to be little scientific evidence for the claims made by these personality tests. Yet they represent a lucrative industry consisting of training courses for coaches and tests for clients.

Since everyone is using it, people start to believe that it must be reliable

This might lead to some cognitive dissonance: once you have spent a lot of time and money on learning something, you start to believe in it even if the facts belie it. Since everyone is using it, people start to believe that it must be reliable, and it becomes a self-reinforcing process. All very well for the business world to follow fads, but incomprehensible for universities, where we promise to critically observe the world with probing intellectual rigour.

As a scientist who studies biodiversity, I understand that you need categories to make sense of life. However, if you make the categories too broad, you lose nuance. For example, if all trees, grasses and flowers were grouped together under the heading ‘plants’, the Amazon could not be distinguished from our campus.

Furthermore, I suspect that categorizations of personalities may be culturally determined. Bear in mind that Jung’s work was not entirely free of discrimination either. Although those tests are not intended to be discriminatory, they do make it easy for people to sort their colleagues into simplistic stereotypes: ‘He is such a blue’.

In a time when universities are eager to tackle structural biases and promote inclusivity, these personality tests should be submitted to some serious scrutiny.

Lisa Becking is an associate professor at Aquaculture and Fisheries, a researcher at Wageningen Marine Research and a board member of the national Young Academy, partly under the auspices of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences. She has an eye for art above and below sea level.

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