I find personality trait tests misleading. I know they are used by companies in hiring decisions and I know that Big 5 Personality Traits have been shown to predict political party support, but I still feel that they are misapplied and misunderstood. Specifically, I think that the way we interpret them fails to take context into consideration, which may make them next to useless. Gerd Gigerenzer considers this lapse in our judgement when thinking about the way we discuss and evaluate leadership personalities.
In Risk Savvy he writes, “leadership lies in the match between person and environment, which is why there is no single personality that would be a successful leader at all historical times and for all problems to solve.” A military general might make a great leader on the battlefield, but they may not be a great leader in a public education setting. A surgeon leading a hospital during the times of the American Civil War might not make a good leader at Columbia University Medical Center today, and the leader who thrives at a prestigious New York City medical center might not make a great leader at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. Leadership is in many ways context dependent. The problems that a leader has to address may call for different approaches and solutions, which may be supported or sabotaged by particular personality types. Someone who is an outgoing socialite may be the right type of leader in New York City, but might be bored in Rural Nevada and may come across as overbearing to those who prefer a rural lifestyle. What Gigerenzer suggests may be the most important quality for a leader is not some form of leadership personality, but the right experiences and the right ability to apply particular rules of thumb and intuition to a given problem.
If the appropriate leadership personality is so context dependent, it may also be worth asking if our personality in general is context dependent. I have not studied personality and personality tests deeply enough to have any true evidence to back me up, but I would expect it to be. Dan Pink in When shows that we are the most productive and have the most positive mood about 4 hours after waking, and have the least amount of energy and worst mood around mid day (or 8 to 10 hours after we wake up). It seems to me that my performance on a personality test would be different if I was taking it at the peak of my day versus during the deepest trough. Also, I would expect my personality to manifest differently in an online multiple choice test relative to an unexpected car emergency, or during a game of cards with my old high school best friends. To say that I have one personality that shines through in all situations seems misleading, and to say that I have a particular level of any given personality trait that remains constant through the day and from experience to experience also seems misleading.
Gigerenzer’s quote above is about leadership and the idea that there is no single personality trait that applies to good leaders. I think it is reasonable to extend that assumption to personality generally, assuming that our personality is context dependent and being successful as individuals also involves rules of thumb based on experiences. What is important then is to develop and cultivate experiences and rules of thumb that can guide us toward success. Incorporating goals, feedback, and tools to help us recall successful approaches and strategies within a given context can help us become leaders and can help us succeed regardless of what a personality test tells us and regardless of the context we find ourselves in.