Pigeonholes are for pigeons

I got an email about Primary Colour Assessment this morning. At a loose end I took a look.

It’s one of those things where you answer a load of multiple choice questions and then it tells you what Animal/Philosopher/Military-Leader/Tropical-Fruit/Soft-Cheese/Ladies-Underwear you are.

In this case, as the astute among you will have guessed you get to be a colour.

Sadly, I couldn’t quite find the colour on their chart for “You are the sort of person who occasionally fills in surveys like this to be reminded how much you dislike them”.

A while back, I wrote about a wonderful clip from Fight Club, since helpfully deleted by the wonderful people at Fox.

Ed Norton has just met Brad Pitt on a plane, and is having a good time.

Norton (to Pitt) “You are by far the the most interesting single serving friend I’ve ever met.”

Pitt stares silently at Norton.

Norton: You see I have this thing, everything on a plane is single serving, even the…

Pitt (interrupting). “Oh I get it. It’s very clever.”

Norton: “Thank you.”

Pitt: “How’s that working out for you?”

Norton: “What?”

Pitt: “Being clever?”

Norton (unconvincingly) “Great.”

Pitt (dismissively) “Keep it up then.”

I love this scene as it’s a great reminder of how our thoughts about ourselves easily become scripts that we stick to without really seeing if they’re true, or thinking about how they limit us.

Tests like Colour Assessment present us with a series of familiar stereotypes about ourselves and invite us to reaffirm our established view of who we are. Then they congratulate us on our place in the world, with some platitudes about maybe exploring being a little more Elephantine/Aristotelean/Napoleonic/Guavan/Bolivian-yaks-cheese/Marks-and-Spencer.

It’s all so cognitive and thinkerly. It’s based on the idea that we are who we think we are. But is all this thinking about it going to set us free or just reinforce our self-stereotyping?

I sometimes catch myself explaining to people that I’m an introvert, and I want to give that up because it so easily just becomes what Eric Berne called a wooden leg. It ignores the variety of contexts in which I can be very outgoing and engaged, and limits the possibilities I see in situations.

As humans, we appear to be somewhat blind to context and prone to ascribing far too much of what happens to character. (The fundamental attribution error). When you look at statements in these tests, they’re all stripped of any kind of context.

In the end I think they reinforce a weird, somewhat American, faux individualism that really just sticks us in a box. This is supposed to be empowering, but I find it rather joyless.

1 thought on “Pigeonholes are for pigeons

  1. Stuart Reid

    Johnnie – generally I agree with you. I’ve never been convinced by Myers-Briggs for example – it does seem too boxy, too much to hold in my head all at once, and the profiles it generates have never really felt to me like the people I know.

    An exception to this, which has worked for me, is the Honey & Mumford learning styles questionnaire. After answering 40 questions it gives you a score on against four possible learning styles: activist, reflector, theorist, pragmatist. There’s a narrative to go with it, expanding on the meaning of each axis.

    What I’ve liked about this in the past is that it has given me a profile of myself which did sound like me (and not in the way that all horoscopes sound like me…) It also gave me an understanding of how others might be very different to me, and have different needs.

    Perhaps what makes the H&M approach different is that the axes are only tendencies and are not mutually exclusive – you can have a strong preference for reflecting but also for being pragmatic. And they also recognise that preferences will change over time – so you’re not stuck in a box. I’ve seen it be useful as a tool for getting conversations going about difference – why my style may set someone else’s teeth on edge and vice-versa.

    More useful than the colour-me-bollox approach anyway.




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