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Can Personality Tests Make You a Better Doctor?

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Back in medical school during a first-year retreat, our whole class did the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) psychometric test, supposedly to help us learn what field of medicine might be the best fit for our unique combination of characteristics. It was the first time I’d done a formalized personality assessment, and it felt like something closer to a Cosmo quiz than a valid tool for career guidance. Since then, I’ve gained a greater appreciation for the value of appraisals to help me better understand not just myself, but my colleagues, staff, patients, and systems. As I’ve gained self-awareness, I’ve seen unexpected benefits in both my personal life and in my career.

It turns out, my medical school was part of a growing movement to use such testing in the health care field. In fact, in the latter 20th century, extensive data showed the utility of personality assessments in an array of settings. However, the conceptualization of unique personality traits can be traced back to 460 B.C., when Hippocrates theorized that humans had a “persona” linked with four “humours”: choleric (yellow bile), melancholic (black bile), sanguine, (red blood) and phlegmatic (white phlegm). Galen took this concept further to publish a comprehensive typology of temperaments. These early attempts paved the way for the formal science of psychology in the late 1800s and the use of formal psychological testing to address individual personality styles. Today, personality tests are being used to predict which health care intervention might be most effective for an individual patient, to organizations assessing fit between a role and candidate to, as in my experience, medical educators aiming to enhance awareness of self and others, assist in specialty selection, predict student performance, and decrease evaluative bias.

As a first-year medical student, I didn’t find the MBTI particularly helpful; at that point in my training I was more eager for medical facts than understanding myself. I recently came across those results when cleaning out a drawer, which made me reflect on the unintentional experiences I’ve had since then, and how the insights have made me a convert to the point where I now actively recommend them to my family, friends, patients, and students. 

For example, I discovered a way to tailor my approach to patients by using The Four Tendencies quiz, developed by Gretchen Rubin. The quiz explores how we respond to expectations — both expectations of ourselves and expectations of others. From this, we are divided into four groups: upholders, obligers, questioners, and rebels. The author posits that knowing our Tendency helps us personally understand how to achieve our own goals, and as physicians can help us work with our patients more effectively. Is your patient a questioner who responds well to reams of data, an obliger who will do well with monitoring and accountability, a rebel who resists being told what to do, or the easiest of clients: an upholder who will faithfully follow your suggestions? 

I’ve also found tests helpful on a team level. Our clinical team had been going through a rough spot, with staff turnover and poor morale. A team member suggested that we all take the 16 Personalities assessment. This construct has five personality aspects (mind, energy, nature, tactics, and identity) that, when combined, assign us into one of 16 personality types. After the team did their self-assessments, we put them up on a bulletin board in the lunch room with brief descriptions of the types and where we all fell. Portions of team meetings were devoted to discussion of what we found and how to use the information to better understand the people we work with every day. Overall, the process led to more intimate discussions and a better appreciation for how who we are as individuals plays into how we show up for the team.

And of course, the tests help with your own personal growth and relational understanding. As part of a leadership program, I completed an Enneagram Typer Indicator and a formal debrief with a coach, and I found it so interesting, I had my spouse complete it, too. What I’d previously dismissed as a glorified form of horoscopes turned out to be a tool that helped my husband and I understand each other better. For example, as an “Observer,” I need time to process before resolving a conflict, which helped my husband, a “Peacemaker” understand he needs to give me space. The concept in the enneagram construct that we can be healthy, average, or unhealthy versions of our type gives each of us the chance to know when we are in flow (what they term Integration or Growth) versus in a state where we’re decompensating (Disintegration or Stress), and take steps to reset.

I’ve done other personality assessments over the years, and each time I uncover another layer of understanding about myself and human nature in general. As humans, we naturally tend to think others will respond to what works for us. The reminder of the uniqueness of individual make-up can enrich our relationships on the homefront as partners and parents, and in the health care workplace as a colleague, boss, employee, or caregiver.

To be sure, these tests are not perfect. They provide a look at a slice of someone’s personality without looking at the full picture, can lack reliability, and can be “gamed” by the user. However, if you use these personality explorations and invest the time to reflect on the findings, you can have a better understanding of yourself, your patients, and your colleagues, and ultimately enrich your professional career and personal life.

What have personality tests taught you? Share your learnings, and how they've made you a better clinician, in the comments.

Dr. Melinda Ring serves as the Director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University, and Clinical Associate Professor in the Departments of Medicine and Medical Social Sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Ring is board-certified in internal medicine and integrative medicine, and has a special focus in women's health. In her roles at Northwestern, she directs both clinical and faculty fellowships in integrative medicine, teaches the Cooking Up Health culinary medicine course, and researches nutrition and integrative strategies to promote health. She is a 2020–2021 Doximity Op-Med Fellow.

Illustration by Diana Connolly

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