Some years ago, I took the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test. This personality test tries to identify your preferences on a few different spectrums: introverted/extroverted, thinking/feeling, sensing/intuitive, perceiving/judging. It made some observations about my type (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Perceiving) that were useful in understanding myself. This was the first test that was actually useful. All of the tests I took before the MBTI, ended up with very bizarre results. Back in Jr. High School, one of our teachers gave us a personality test about how we think. After taking it, I ended up in two completely opposite quadrants — not only did the descriptions not help, but I also felt a bit “unique”. I took the DISC assessment once at a conference and ended up in the middle of the road on all four quadrants. They had everyone get together with their dominate type and so I went to one of the groups but didn’t really resonate with them.
Personality tests can give us insight into ourselves that can often be difficult to find. We need a comparison to make observations about ourselves and these categorization and grouping allow us to make interesting observations. Besides helping us understand ourselves, it can also help us understand how other people are different from us and how we can better respond to them. But even the MBTI creators make it clear that this indicator tells us only what we prefer in general, not what we are good at, nor what we can act like all the time. It’s not for putting us or others in a box, it’s for understanding ourselves and others better.
We like boxes though. We like the simplicity of the discrete instead of the complexity of the organic. Creating box isn’t something only psychologists do, we all create boxes everyday with the people we meet or with the things we think about. Much of our language and the way we reason about the world comes from the manipulation of symbols and especially in Western Culture where we seek after nouns to categorize everything. Consider that the first words we teach our children tend to be nouns – objects which we can classify.
While the categories we create allow us to make valuable observations, they can also hide reality. Except in the most simple of cases, it’s an incomplete description of the world we live in. It’s much messier, much less boxy. We should sometimes take a moment to recognize that the categories or boxes we create are often crutches to help our own thinking and that sometimes those same crutches hinder us from being able to understand better the world around us. Sometimes we need to get out of the box.