I’m sure you’ve heard of the book, Surrounded by Idiots: The Four Types of Human Behavior and How to Effectively Communicate with Each in Business by Thomas Erikson. I mean who hasn’t. It’s been an international sensation and people everywhere have been taking the test in droves to find out which color they are. Or to figure out what colors the people around them are.
I understand the appeal of taking personality tests like Erikson’s. It can be fun to define oneself and recognize one’s personality traits and behavior in typologies and descriptions. It somehow makes us feel normal and understood yet special and seen all at the same time. And entertained too, when a test seems to hit the nail smack on its head. I used to like taking tests like this as much as the next person, that is until I started doing research and realized just how problematic they can be.
One problem is defining people and putting them into boxes. When I researched women who opt out, I was struck by how people have often tried to define especially women to explain why they do or do not work and/or have a career. You know, a woman might be a career type of person, or a family first person. Depending on her behavior she can be put in a range of different boxes or categories to explain why exactly she makes the choices she does and/or why she doesn’t seem to want to do what it takes to have that successful career feminist have fought for her to be able to have.
Only that she can’t. She can’t actually be defined by her behavior because there are so many things other than her preferences that shape what she does. So just because she doesn’t prioritize her career at a given time, doesn’t mean she isn’t a career type of person. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to have a career, and it doesn’t mean she doesn’t have what it takes. It just means that at that particular time in her life she may have other responsibilities and priorities and it might not even be a question of choice. Or she may be continuously discriminated and sidestepped at work. Or she may have a spouse who is never around and if she doesn’t take care of her children (or her ailing parents or her sick sibling or friend…), who will?
It might be that she cannot put her career first at that particular time, but it might also be that in five years she will.
The problem with typologies is that they define us as a certain type, while in reality this changes over the life course depending on where we are and what is going on in our life at any particular time. Another problem is that if we get defined by typologies, we tend to be stuck in a box by others, which it then can be difficult to get out of. After five years, the woman in the example above might not even get an opportunity to show what she can do because she has been defined and put in the ‘family first’ box.
And so it is with colors as well. When we get defined according to a certain color or set of colors, either by ourselves or others, we get simplified to the point that it can really be problematic.
When we define someone according to a color, we do it based on what we know about the person, or what we think we know about the person, and not on who the person really is in all his or her complexity. We may unconsciously condition ourselves to only notice behavior that confirms that color and as a result not even notice or acknowledge behavior that contradicts it. This is human, we tend to observe what supports our beliefs (even if they aren’t accurate). It doesn’t matter what a person says or does, we will only see what we want to see. A person might, for example, be trying to reach a common understanding with us, but if we think of the person as red and very competitive, we might misconstrue this behavior and not appreciate what that person is really trying to say or do.
So, if worst come to worst, it might even become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead of just being ourselves, and rising to our full potential, we get pushed back again and again into the box that others have defined for us. It just ends up holding us back.
But still we like typologies. They have a way of making the complexity of the world more manageable, and we use them all the time in organizational settings to determine who we are and how we can work more efficiently as teams.
However, the problem is, that defining people doesn’t actually predict their behavior. Research has shown that just because you are defined as a certain ‘type’, it doesn’t mean that you will act like that ‘type’ is expected to act. Behavior isn’t determined so much by personality, but rather by situation. What this means is that the way team members act and react in different situations, rather depends on the organizational culture, the behavioral norms in that organization, do we feel psychologically safe, the task at hand… to name a few. Defining someone as red or green or yellow or blue, really doesn’t say very much about how that person is going to act in any given situation.
But the thing that really takes the cake, is that as far as I understand, there is no research that actually supports these color typologies. They aren’t actually new, they are just colorful versions of existing typologies, for which there actually is no empirical support. What this means is that this test is neither accurate nor reliable, and no academic I know of would actually use or recommend it.
But then Erikson doesn’t have any formal training in this area, so who knows if he is even aware of this. Or if he is, maybe he just doesn’t care.
If you want to read more about this, here is an excellent article for those of you who understand Swedish: https://magasinetfilter.se/granskning/omgiven-av-idioti/