What Harry Potter Can Teach Us About Us

What Harry Potter Can Teach Us About Us

Sometimes our search for who we are is just plain entertaining. Because of my vintage, I’m sure it won’t surprise you that until recently I knew nothing about Harry Potter. I knew the author J.K. Rowling was a billionaire and that her Harry Potter franchise was huge. But that was it.

Then I listened to a Hidden Brain podcast with Shankar Vedantam about sorting hats and personality tests, and I got sucked into the Harry Potter vacuum. A few days after I heard this podcast I actually watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and learned better what the sorting hat was.

The Four Houses of the Hogwarts School. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, Harry Potter is a boy with special wizardry powers who is chosen to go to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. When children arrive at the school a ritual involving a sorting hat decides in which of four houses they will live. The four houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin.

In this 5 minute clip from the movie you can see how the animated sorting hat goes on top of each child’s head and assesses their personality and character. Then the Hat announces which house will be the child’s new home and their new housemates cheer. These housemates will be other children with similar characteristics as determined by the sorting hat.

And each house comes with its own personality labels –

  • Gryffindor – Brave
  • Hufflepuff – Gentle, loyal
  • Ravenclaw – Smart, curious, wise
  • Slytherin – Ambitious, cunning

We learn in the podcast that many of our children, who are fans of Harry Potter, can now go to PotterVerse conventions. At one convention a presenter had a break-out session with fans, who are now adults, that connected their Myers-Briggs personality profile to which House they would live-in at the Hogwarts School. Now that would be entertaining. 

A Great Question. Shankar Vedantam asks this very interesting question – Does the hat put you in the house you belong or do you become the house the hat puts you in?

Think about this question for a moment.

Two Examples of Personality or Behavior Assessments. We are all curious about who we are and why we do what we do. The most common personality assessment is the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). For over 20 years I used this with college students to help me adjust my teaching style to fit the needs of the class. I found it very useful and the students learned a little about themselves.

MBTI – As you can read on the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) website, here is a summary of the four areas of our personality-

  • Favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? This is called Extraversion (E) or Introversion (I).
  • Information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
  • Decisions: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
  • Structure: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

When you finish this assessment you receive a 4-letter “type” designation, which, for good or bad, often becomes your label. For example, I am an INTJ.

PI – Predictive Index – In our Company we use a behavioral assessment tool called the Predictive Index or PI. Similar to the MBTI, this tool helps us better understand each person’s natural behaviors or preferences and greatly helps our managers adjust their leadership styles to fit the natural behaviors of their team members. This assessment looks at what your most natural behaviors are in four key workplace categories – dominance, extraversion, patience, and formality.

  • Dominance ( A ) – Are you more Collaborative or more Independent
  • Extraversion ( B ) – Are you more Reserved or more Sociable
  • Patience ( C ) – Are you more Driving or more Steady
  • Formality ( D)– Are you more Flexible or more Precise

The PI assessment uses labels, too. For example, terms like “High A” or “Low C” are used as descriptors of one’s preferences. A person who is an “High A” prefers to think and act independently and a person who is a “Low C” has a high sense of urgency – let’s get this done now.

The Flawed Influence of Tests and Sorting Hats. One of Vedantam’s guests on the podcast was Adam Grant, author of Originals. Grant is very critical of organizations that unwisely use these types of assessments for hiring and promoting people and gave several examples. In his opinion, while they are nice conversation tools, they are widely misused, and the labels that untrained employees begin to use can be divisive, not helpful. Grant even argued that the MBTI has not passed any real validation and reliability tests.

Grant and Vedantam seemed more confident with the Five Factor Personality Model, which has been successfully tested for validity and reliability. This is sometimes referred to as “OCEAN” = Openness to new experiences, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. (You can watch a short video on this topic at this link.)

The Power of Expectations on Our Personalities. If you were born in 1976, 1988, or even 2000 you might have a special label. Vedantam concludes his podcast with a very clever story about children born in the Year of the Dragon, which happens every 12 years. Supposedly, according to ancient Chinese folklore, children born in these years are smarter, higher achievers, and more successful. This story is about a Chinese student born in 1988, who comes to the United States to study in graduate school. For his doctoral thesis in statistics he does a study with his mentor professor on whether Chinese children born in the Year of the Dragon have stronger personalities and are, indeed, more successful.

In the end they concluded the year they were born in had nothing to do with the formation of their personality or success. What did, however, was that their parents thought they were special and made sure they had few barriers and as many learning opportunities as possible.

Expectations matter.

As Shankar does I wonder – Does the test give you the label you deserve or do you become the label the test gives you?

Sometimes it is just plain entertaining to think about.

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