Personality testing was largely an outgrowth of World War I. The American military wanted to screen for soldiers who had “weak constitutions” and might be more susceptible to what was then called shell shock, so it created a test, the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet, with questions like: “Did you ever think you had lost your manhood?” Not long after, a Carl Jung-obsessed homemaker, Katharine Cook Briggs, and her daughter, Isabel Myers, developed their own personality inventory, despite having no psychological training, which they started distributing in 1943. Each year, more than two million people now determine their Myers-Briggs type.
Those early assessments were trying to pin down answers to an existential question: Who are you? Wallflower or life of the party? Flighty or reliable? Alternative tests have since emerged, especially ones aiming to assess what sorts of personal projects people like to do instead of the traits they possess (or think they possess). Today there are more than 2,000 kinds of personality assessments — though very few have a research base behind them, according to Brian Little, a personality testing expert and the author of “Me, Myself, and Us.”
New research-backed assessments continue to flood the market. PrinciplesYou, which Dr. Little helped create, maps people according to personality dimensions (givers, fighters, enthusiasts), which its website illustrates as archipelagos separated by waters labeled with traits like “tough” and “humble.” The test is free, and the workshops offered in workplaces cost slightly more than a thousand dollars, according to Principles, which makes PrinciplesYou.
There’s also Suited, which is designed for law firms and banks to base hiring decisions on character and not just education. It can cost from high five figures to low six figures, depending on the client’s size and needs, according to the company, adding that this cost covers recruiting services beyond just testing.
“Résumés are a better predictor of past privilege than future potential,” Mr. Spencer, chief executive of Suited, explained.
Recently, Mr. Spencer watched a law firm use a Suited assessment to upend the results of a hiring process. Two of the four employees who interviewed a job candidate didn’t want to hire her for a summer program, but she sparkled on Suited, so the firm took a chance on her. That personality test offered an unorthodox perspective on the applicant — something besides G.P.A., or whether she cracked a joke to her interviewers.
Today, there’s mounting pressure on companies to gather those perspectives on their workers, as executives wrestle with costly decisions about whether to require in-person office work or even keep office space. At the very least, personality testing can give companies the vocabulary to talk about how their workers like to socialize: whether they crave water cooler banter, or dread the holiday party.