- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 2, 2004

They have been created from the highest and most humane motives: to aid in diagnosing the mentally ill, to plumb the depths of the psyche, to help people better understand themselves and find harmony in their jobs and relationships. But they have quietly tiptoed out of the asylum and the counseling room, taking up residence in the workplace, in schools, in bookstores, on the Internet.

From Hermann Rorschach’s iconic inkblots to “Which Star Wars Character Are You?,” personality tests are a booming, $400 million industry. Yet according to psychology writer Annie Murphy Paul, in her important new book “The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves,” the zeal with which such tests have been embraced in America is out of proportion to their demonstrated effectiveness and strangely at odds with our society’s individualistic values.

If you have ever applied for a job in public safety, or with an airline, or in various corporate environments, you may have filled out a lengthy questionnaire asking you to express your assent or disagreement with a rather surreal series of propositions — statements like, “I have diarrhea once a month or more”; “I would like to be a florist”; “Everything tastes the same”; “My mother was a good woman”; “I am a special agent of God.”

Known as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI, the sorting of a subject’s responses to this sometimes intrusive, oddly poetic 567-item test (one critic has called it a “Joycean soliloquy in Whitmanic rhythms”) yields an extensive graph of their temperament, showing the degree to which the person is introverted or extroverted, manic or depressed, schizophrenic, hypochondriacal, paranoid, and so on.

The MMPI was designed in the 1930s for sorting mental patients, and still may be administered and interpreted only by licensed psychologists (with the confidentiality that implies). But it and numerous imitators have become mainstays in the sorting of regular people, particularly job applicants in a wide range of fields.

Some widely-used MMPI knockoffs given in the workplace claim to measure personality traits like “customer service attitude,” or to predict which applicants are more likely to file a workers’ compensation claim or fit the “Corporate Stalker Profile.”

Unfortunately, argues Ms. Paul, these tools may not really perform as promised. Some personality measures used in business and government have been the subject of lawsuits due to gross inaccuracy in their predictions. The American Psychological Association has determined that many so-called integrity tests or honesty tests, widely used by companies to sort honest from dishonest applicants, are backed by almost no evidence at all and may have an error rate as high as 96 percent.

For employers faced with the daunting task of selecting the best or most trustworthy applicant for a job, the desire to acquire quickly some impression of a complete stranger, however vague or oversimplified the picture may be, is easy to understand. In the absence of guides to that elusive thing, the individual, institutions naturally grasp at whatever aid is offered, even if supporting evidence is scanty. And profiling according to a scientific-sounding concept like personality makes us much less queasy than profiling by, say, race.

But for Ms. Paul, the problems with relying on personality tests go beyond lack of evidence. Individuals often have little knowledge or understanding of how personality tests are used to affect their fates. People may lose out on jobs or promotions because of tests. Tests may determine the custody of a child in court. And schoolchildren, who may be sorted at an early age based on personality measures, cannot appreciate the possible impact on their future of tests that allegedly have “no right or wrong answers.”

And yet strangely enough, Americans love to take them. One of today’s most popular personality tests is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). From responses to a questionnaire, subjects are sorted into one of 16 types based on four independent dimensions of personality (Introverted/Extroverted,Intuitive/Sensing, Thinking/Feeling, and Perceiving/Judging). Tallying one’s responses yields a four-letter label (for example, ESFJ, or ISFP) — a supposed key to one’s special, unchanging type.

There’s little scientific evidence of the test’s predictive power, yet test-takers characteristically respond to learning their own Myers-Briggs type with an ‘aha’ experience, a feeling of cozy self-recognition, self-worth, and reassurance that they are not alone. The author suggests it has to do with the test’s affirmative tone, each of its 16 personality types being described as a set of positive gifts, no one type better or worse than any other.

The MBTI’s creator in the 1940s, Isabel Briggs-Myers, was not a professional psychologist but a brilliant, self-educated and highly driven housewife, convinced that the theory of personality types proposed early in the century by the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung could be applied to the problem of matching new workers, women, and returning soldiers to suitable jobs in the post-WWII economy.

She spent her life defending her test against the prejudice of psychological professionals, as well as against a postwar hostility toward type theories generally (which for many people smacked too much of Adolf Hitler’s race ideology).

The Myers-Briggs and numerous knockoffs — some reducing the spectrum of personality from 16 types to four — are increasingly used by schools to group and track kids based on supposedly invariant personality and learning styles. With such sortings, “celebration of difference” can easily morph into insipid conformism.

There is for example the growing nationwide phenomenon of True Colors, a traveling motivational “edutainment” program inspired by the Myers-Briggs. Traveling troupes of True Colors Players pump up school assemblies and other youth gatherings with the idea of personality type, assigning each kid to one of four “colors” reflecting their own personality description.

Simplified personality groupings used in school settings disturbingly mirror and reinforce existing class, gender, and other stereotypes, Ms. Paul argues. Apart from being ill-founded, they also subtly indoctrinate kids into the larger, socially useful but false premise: that however different you are, you are never unique, and certainly not so complex that you can’t have your inner life plumbed by a stranger with a piece of paper.

Even more complicated tests like the MMPI, which rate subjects in relation to a control group of “normals,” reinforce, as the author puts it, “a culture in which our unique and varied personalities are subject to the petty tyranny of the average.”

Typing also may carry with it another problematic assumption: that people don’t change. The author shows how advocates of personality testing have clung with zealous tenacity to the notion that personality is fixed from birth. Yet evidence shows behavior is as much situational and formed through time and experience as it is dictated by genes. (Studies show that as many as three-quarters of Myers-Briggs test subjects are assigned to a different personality group the second time they take the test, for example.)

Overuse of testing, Ms. Paul suggests, may create a corporate and pedagogical emphasis on unchanging capacities rather than on the ability of individuals to learn, grow, or acquire new skills or propensities. Starke Hathaway, creator of the MMPI, ultimately repudiated his creation and even became skeptical that personality could ever be measured or described with a test. “Personality,” he said, “is a ghost!”

Realistically, tests to measure this ghost will likely always be with us in one form or another because, as Ms. Paul notes of the 19th century’s personality fad, phrenology, they are “too useful not to be true.” But as tests have become more widespread, and their use less regulated or understood by the public, it is clearly time for renewed scrutiny. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and extremely well-written, “The Cult of Personality” is a good first step.

Eric Wargo is an associate editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington.

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