Myers-Briggs and other methods of classifying people by personality type have long been shunned by the scientific community, but a new U.S. research paper may suggest a breakthrough in that area.

Researchers at Northwestern University say their work suggests that people can be broadly classified into one of four personality types: Average, reserved, self-centred and role models.

Average people are described as being “high in neuroticism and extraversion, while low in openness.” The “typical person” would fit into this category, according to Martin Gerlach, the lead author of the research paper.

People who fall into the reserved category are “emotionally stable, but not open or neurotic.” They are also considered “agreeable and conscientious,” as well as typically being introverted.

Self-centred individuals are considered to be extremely extroverted, while less open, agreeable and conscience than the average person.  Psychology professor William Revelle, a co-author of the paper, describes them as “people you don’t want to hang out with.” Teenage boys were represented here more than any other demographic.

The fourth category, role models, is for people who are extroverted, agreeable, conscientious, open and show few if any signs of neuroticism. The researchers describe them as “good people to be in charge of things.”

The researchers found that young people are much more likely to be self-centred than older people, and that the reverse is true for role models. Women are more likely than men to fit into the average and role model classifications.

Scientists say most personality tests ‘nonsense’

Personality tests are often used by companies and militaries in assessing potential new recruits, even though they have never garnered significant scientific acceptance.

“People have tried to classify personality types since Hippocrates’ time, but previous scientific literature has found that to be nonsense,” Revelle said in a press release.

One of the most widely used attempts to classify people by personality is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which divides respondents into 16 classifications based on their self-reported levels of extraversion, intuition, rationality and perception.

Although its rigorous questioning process and use of psychological terms may give the impression Myers-Briggs is scientifically valid, its origins are somewhat humbler. It was created in the mid-20th century by the mother-daughter team of Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers.

“They were two extraordinary women who believed that all of the work they did as wives and as mothers actually prepared them to talk about personality and to assess personality more rigorously than being in a laboratory,” Merve Emre told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

Emre is the author of “The Personality Brokers”, a book which looks at the history and continued acceptance of the Myers-Briggs index.

She describes the index as an “incredibly seductive fantasy” that allows people to believe they can understand their own desires, and says employers are attracted to it because of the idea they can use it to create an “ideal workplace” where everybody is performing in their optimal role.

“The indicator, by many scientific and statistical measures, is not valid and is not reliable – and yet people continue to believe in it,” she said.

Why this one could be different

The research team says their work should receive a better response from scientists, even though Revelle admits he was skeptical himself that the work would suggest proof of the existence of common personality types.

While previous studies of small groups of people have appeared promising, only to fizzle out once their hypotheses are applied to larger populations, the Northwestern research is based on questionnaire responses from more than 1.5 million people. The results of those questionnaires were then scored based on agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and openness – the five categories commonly accepted as basic personality traits – and analyzed algorithmically.

The results found that the vast majority of responses could fit into one of four archetypes consistently and at a “statistically unlikely” rate, Revelle said.

The Northwestern research have been published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. In addition to hiring managers, the researchers said, the work could prove helpful for mental health service providers and single people searching for partners.