Scientists Discover There are Only Four Personality Types! (Not Really)

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I’m a Libra, an ENTJ, a Slytherin (apparently), a Samantha, and a Monkey according to a placemat at the Chinese restaurant I went to as a kid. People love to put themselves into categories, because it helps them feel like they know themselves better, and that instead of being the stupid, barely sentient bag of meat that I am, I actually make sense and fall into these nice, tidy, comforting baskets. When I was a kid, before I knew that astrology was a giant load of bullshit, I remember reading my horoscope and being so confused because Libras are supposed to be so nice and gentle and always seeking harmony, so I figured that I must just be a bad Libra and that I should work on those things. I’ll be honest, I didn’t get very far before I realized how absurd astrology truly is.

And of course figuring out what house you are in Harry Potter is just as absurd — actually, less so, since I think I had to answer a few questions about myself before I was assigned to one, as opposed to just being born in October — but I still did it, and I was still upset that I got Slytherin. I haven’t really read the books or seen the movies but I’m pretty sure those are the evil guys. I”m not even blonde! I think you have to be blonde to be in Slytherin.

Anyway, it’s stupid but people (myself included) won’t stop trying to figure out what category they are in. There are even scientists who look into this, since to be fair a lot of science is about cataloging and organizing information to make it easier for us to understand the world around us. We all take “species” and “phyla” and “kingdoms” for granted, but the lines are messy. Scientists came up with this system because it’s (one of) the best we’ve got, but we still don’t really know what to do with the platypus, or what actually makes a species distinct from another species — there are actually several different concepts of what makes a “species” a species, because life is complicated.

Considering that we can’t even have a hard-and-fast concept for what makes a species, slotting all humans into a few personality groups is going to be impossible. And yet, researchers at Northwestern claim that they’ve narrowed it down to just four groups. I’m skeptical.

These researchers took surveys of people in which each person was rated on the five personality traits that are commonly accepted in psychology: openness to new ideas, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. They then plotted the results on a 5-dimensional graph to see if there were any clusters. They found four: “average,” “reserved,” “role model,” and “self-centered.” For instance, if you are emotionally stable, not extraverted or neurotic, you’re reserved. If you’re not neurotic but you are extraverted and open to new ideas, you’re a role model. If you’re super extraverted but not open, agreeable, or conscientious than congratulations, you’re a self-centered asshole. But chances are that you are extraverted, neurotic, and not very open, so you’re just average.

Well, I should say that chances are you’re average, if you’re anything at all. Because in fact, the researchers did not find that everyone fit into these groups. Imagine a bunch of points of data scattered around a map. You go through and circle the clumps. You find four clumps, but most data points are still outside the clumps. Did you find anything? Tough to say. Really what you’ve done is found that if people are forming cliques, these are four they might fall into, but really most people wouldn’t be in a clique at all.

This can be helpful for psychologists who are studying human behavior — maybe there’s something special about the cluster of people who fell into the self-centered cluster, for example, that makes them react differently in other studies. That might be useful to know!

But it’s not useful for you, the average person who is at work right now trying to while away the hours. No, for you, you’re better off just heading over to Pottermore and letting the Sorting Hat do its thing. Though I don’t care what it says, I’m not an evil Slytherin. And my Patronus is Indy. I’m not sure what a Patronus is exactly but I don’t see why it can’t be him.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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