Until recently, I wasn't a fan of personality tests. I don't like to be told that I'm a particular type or that I can be defined by a number, but perhaps that in itself tells you a lot about my personality. But I discovered that pretty much everyone I met here knows exactly what their personality type is and what this means for their relationships and careers.
When I moved to Chicago, I kept hearing the word 'enneagram' in conversations - for a while I thought it was some annual medical test you could have (they like those here). I kept hearing people say stuff like: "I'm a typical seven" or "I'm totally a nine." I was a bit stumped - were they comparing dress sizes, or was this some secret code I'd never heard of? It turned out, they were referring to a well-known personality test called the Enneagram of Personality Types - a modern re-working of ancient traditions put together by Oscar Ichazo in the 1960s. The Enneagram is a 'method of self-realisation' that draws on teachings of 'psychology, spirituality, metaphysics and cosmology'. The test comprises a series of questions, the answers to which can be boiled down into nine different personality types. No type is better or worse than another and they go by such titles as: The Mediator, The Perfectionist and The Challenger. (You can read more about Ichazo's philosophy at: www.enneagraminstitute.com.)
Through my church, I've been introduced to this test and discovered more about how it works - especially how it can help in our relationships and also how it can help us develop our faith. But despite much enthusiasm for the Enneagram from those around me, I remained dubious. As an educator, I've had my fingers burnt by falling for shiny new teaching trends that promised academic success only to be proven useless a few years later. So, understandably, I'm a bit sceptical about the fads and fashions of personality testing - I only have to go to my Facebook feed to see the latest way to tell my personality type by which animal/colour/burger topping I like best. But whilst these online 'tests' should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, others gain traction and become the accepted method of getting the measure of everyone, only for it to be discovered later that they are about as useful as an inflatable dartboard!
It's a cautionary tale, especially when commercialisation is involved. In recent years, the hugely popular Myers Briggs personality test has been debunked as 'completely unscientific' with research showing that more than 50% of test participants scored differently just a short time later. Despite this, it remains a popular business tool largely because of its 'non-judgemental and positive' outcomes that bosses still believe to be a 'great motivator'. (1)
So what does (scientific and testable) research say about the usefulness and accuracy of the Enneagram? Plenty of people attest to it working, so are they right or will this too end up on the scrap heap of faddy ideas that our future selves will be embarrassed to admit to buying into? To date, there's comparatively little academic research on the Enneagram due, in part, to the complexities of measuring the effectiveness of this type of test. But what evidence exists tends to support the idea that 'learning about the Enneagram has a positive impact on self-acceptance, self-development and understanding of others.' (2)
So I took the test. Armed with a cup of tea, a pencil and a hefty amount of doubt, I answered 135 questions framed as statements that I responded to using a sliding scale of true or false. My favourite statement was 'Other people would think I'm crazy if they knew what I was thinking most of the time.' (That's not just me, right?...)
Not far into the test, I began to wonder just what kind of a person am I? Can I see a stray dog in the street and not want to bring it home? Do I go into a sulk if I'm criticised?' I found that using my instinct and not overthinking my answers helped, otherwise I'd still be there trying to decide whether I really do 'feel more alive when I do the impossible?' After some number crunching, the results told me that I'm a three - The Successful Achiever. I was pretty pleased with this outcome, afterall it tells me I'm truthful, accomplished and excel at what I do. Unfortunately, it also tells me I'm can be conniving, competitive and fake! Surely I'd got the wrong number, but no, apparently the numbers don't lie (and neither did I when I answered the questions - see, I told you I'm not fake!)
One of the key things people seem to like about the test is what it tells them about their relationships or marriages. Pete and I have been together for nearly 27 years so I guess we must be doing something right. Nevertheless, looking at the profiles, I was pretty sure he would be a six: The Loyal Guardian. We know each other so well that surely we'd have no trouble predicting each other's type? But when I ran through my results with him, he really didn't see me as a three, but rather a two: The Supportive Advisor. Something wasn't adding up. When I looked into it some more, it turns out that two is my 'dominant wing' in other words, it's the next number that I'm most like. I think I like the idea that I'm made up of parts of different numbers rather than adhering to just one.
What I've learnt through all this is that anything that helps us grow and understand ourselves and others better has to be a good thing, after all, we are complex - made up of subtle and shifting parts that change over time. Yes, we may be more of a 'three' than a 'seven', but we are also uniquely us - full of an entire spectrum of traits and behaviours. It's what makes me, me and what makes you, you, and there's no such thing as a wrong number.