Are personality tests biased against introverts?

I need a job but I don't want to be stereotyped as a crazy loner.


Cary Tennis
June 19, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am currently searching for a job (I'm not choosy, I just need to pay the bills) and have run into a bit of dilemma.

It's about the personality tests that have become so ubiquitous even for jobs that require no more skills than sandwich making and tending the cash register.

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Now I am basically an ethical, honorable, hardworking person. I don't do drugs, I'm not mentally ill and I don't break the law. Unfortunately, I have the "wrong" personality type for many of the jobs I am seeking. I am an introvert. However, the assumption that this somehow means that I am incapable of interacting with the public in a friendly and appropriate manner drives me crazy.

While extroverts have the option of never being alone if they don't wish to, the introvert must always deal with people on some level. True, they may feel more drained at the end of the day, but that doesn't mean that the stress is going to cause them to huddle in the corner gibbering or perhaps bring a gun to work and open fire.

Only an idiot would honestly answer "Strongly Agree" to questions such as "I prefer to be alone," on a test. How many times is the crazed serial killer described by neighbors as "a nice quiet person who kept to himself"? American society is biased against introverts, and it's little wonder that people would try to "cheat" or "fake" out the personality tests they're given. They know they can do the job and just want a fair chance to prove it.

The sad thing is that if the pattern of my answers reveals me to be a liar or unethical, it really won't be an accurate reflection of my personality, just the portrait of someone who's desperate to pay her bills on time.

So what do you think?

Conflicted

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Dear Conflicted,

An introvert whose advice I sought on this question pointed out a subtlety in your letter that I, an extrovert, missed. It's just like an introvert, she said, to worry about the ethics of trying to game the test.

She suggested that of course you should try to disguise yourself to some extent, especially if you are extremely introverted.

I'm not sure I agree, but then I'm in the protected majority of glad-handing, back-slapping, small-talk-making extroverts.

I did a lot of cruising the Net to help me think about your question, and came away feeling that there really is a harmful bias against introverts and that you ought to do what you can to protect yourself. But if you do try to shade your answers, I would suggest portraying yourself as mildly introverted. Don't try to make yourself out to be an extrovert. My understanding is that these tests are constructed to make such attempts show up. So just try to make yourself out to be in the middle somewhere.

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Also, learn as much as you can about such tests and how they are used.

"Taking the time to understand the intent and the logic of personality tests will not only settle your nerves before you tackle them but will also make for a more dynamic conversation with your prospective employer," says Alison Overholt in a November 2004 article in FastCompany.com.

You can also take heart, I think, in the enormous response elicited by Jonathan Rauch's 2003 essay in the Atlantic Monthly on introversion.

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Clearly there are plenty of introverts in the world and they know who they are. You needn't be ashamed of being an introvert, but neither should you be surprised when you face prejudice. People are stupid. What can you do?

Among other interesting tidbits I came across were these:

Studies have shown that personality tests can predict who will be the likely victim of workplace bullying.

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Author and management consultant David Maister has said in an interview that in fact "extroverts make bad managers." "The best managers in my research," he says, "are even-keeled types. As I put it in the book, they manage with a style of insistent patience ... They create energy, drive and enthusiasm in others, not by force of personality, but by getting them to believe that we ordinary people can accomplish great things if we really try."

I also found this interesting reading: "Toward a Diversity of Psychological Type in Organization" by John Fudjack & Patricia Dinkelaker.

But the best broad statement about the use of personality tests in job applications comes from the American Psychological Association, which says that of all the possible traits such tests can measure, two are actually relevant to job performance: general cognitive ability and conscientiousness. These traits, they say, "appear to be relevant to performance in virtually every job studied."

If you are lucky, the test you are given will reveal those traits and your prospective employer will recognize you for the bright and conscientious person you are.

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There is a larger question, of course, about what the widespread use of such tests says about the relationship of employers toward individuality and privacy. I don't like what these tests say about that relationship, frankly. I think they suck. But what can you do? Welcome to a world dominated by ESTJs. (Among them: George W. Bush, Bill Frist and the Rev. Billy Graham.)

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