The New York Times
The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselvesby Annie Murphy Paul
Millions of Americans take personality tests each year: to get a job, to pursue an education, to settle a legal dispute, to better understand themselves and others. But where did these tests come from, and what are they saying about us? In The Cult of Personality, award-winning psychology writer Annie Murphy Paul reveals the surprising and disturbing story
Millions of Americans take personality tests each year: to get a job, to pursue an education, to settle a legal dispute, to better understand themselves and others. But where did these tests come from, and what are they saying about us? In The Cult of Personality, award-winning psychology writer Annie Murphy Paul reveals the surprising and disturbing story behind the tests that claim to capture human nature. Combining cutting-edge research, engaging reporting, and absorbing history, Paul uncovers the way these allegedly neutral instruments are in fact shaped by the agendas of industry and government. She documents the dangers of their intrusive questions, biased assumptions, and limiting labels. And she exposes the flawed theories and faulty methods that render their results unreliable and invalid. Personality tests, she contends, produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory, changeable across time and place. The widespread use of these tests has deeply troubling consequences. Students are being consigned to narrow categories even as they're still growing and developing. Workers are having their privacy invaded and their rights trampled. Companies are wasting hundreds of millions of dollars, only to make ill-informed decisions about hiring and promotion. Our judicial system is being undermined by inaccurate evidence. Perhaps most distressing, we are all increasingly implicated in a "cult of personality" that celebrates the superficial over the substantive, the static over the dynamic, the standard and average over the distinctive and unique. Compelling and insightful, this book is an eye-opening account of a collision among the needs of business and bureaucracy, the imperatives of a lucrative and largely unregulated testing industry, and the eternal human desire to make sense of ourselves and each other. A fascinating and disturbing look at the history and effects
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The Cult of PersonalityHow Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves
By Annie Murphy Paul
Free PressCopyright © 2004 Annie Murphy Paul
All right reserved.
An X-ray of personality." Since the early days of personality tests, this has been the testers' favorite metaphor, and no wonder: it calls to mind a precise and powerful instrument, capable of penetrating mere surfaces to produce an image of what's within. And yet this metaphor has never been more than an alluring fantasy, or perhaps a willful delusion. The reality is that personality tests cannot begin to capture the complex human beings we are. They cannot specify how we will act in particular roles or situations. They cannot predict how we will change over time. Many tests look for (and find) disease and dysfunction rather than health and strength. Many others fail to meet basic scientific standards of validity and reliability.
The consequences of these failures are real. Our society is making crucial decisions - whether a parent should receive custody of a child, whether a worker should be offered a job, whether a student should be admitted to a school or special program - on the basis of deeply flawed information. If these tests serve anyone well, it is not individuals but institutions, which purchase efficiency and convenience at the price of our privacy and dignity. Personality tests do their dirty work, asking intrusive questions and assigning limiting labels, providing an ostensibly objective rationale to which testers can point with an apologetic shrug.
But perhaps the most insidious effect of personality testing is its influence on the way we understand others - children, coworkers, fellow citizens - and even ourselves. The tests substitute a tidy abstraction for a real, rumpled human being, a sterile idea for a flesh-and-blood individual. No doubt these generic forms are easier to understand (and, not incidentally, to manipulate) than actual people, in all their sticky specificity. But ultimately they can only diminish our recognition and appreciation of others' full humanity, only impede our own advance toward self-discovery and self-awareness.
The current prevalence of personality testing, of course, is evidence that many feel otherwise - that such testing is filling a need, or at least a perceived need. And so a reconsideration of our reliance on personality tests must begin with an acknowledgment of their potency. Tests are powerful; the categories in which they place us are powerful. That's exactly why they must be employed with caution and care. These days a personality test may serve as a corporate icebreaker, a classroom game, a counseling exercise. Though such uses may seem harmless, we ought to be wary of the tendency of tests and their apparently definitive judgments to take on a life of their own. When our objectives - to get a discussion started, to stimulate self-reflection, to offer guidance - can be met without a test, they should be.
There's no question that this approach asks more of us as a society: the work that a test makes so smoothly automatic must be replaced by an effort of sympathetic curiosity and attention. But the rewards will be proportional to our exertions, an equation that also holds for the time and energy we invest in trying to understand ourselves. A guide to applying the life story approach pioneered by psychologist Dan McAdams can be found in his 1993 book, The Stories We Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (William Morrow). Recalling and analyzing in depth the principal events of our lives is far more intellectually challenging and emotionally involving than penciling in a series of bubbles - but at the end of it, we'll have a self-portrait that is more than a diagnosis, a job description, or a glorified horoscope.
When some kind of formal assessment is necessary (as evidence in a court case, for example), personality tests are not the only option. Alternatives include the structured interview (a dialogue guided by an established protocol); the collection of relevant biographical information; ratings provided by people who are familiar with the person being assessed; and behavioral observations made by multiple trained observers. Also available are targeted instruments developed for the situation at hand (as opposed to global measures that make sweeping statements about personality in general). A psychologist evaluating a mother or father seeking custody, for example, might administer the Parent-Child Relationship Inventory or the Parenting Stress Index - tests designed especially for this purpose - rather than the Rorschach or the Thematic Apperception Test.
Likewise, assessments of workers and students should be concerned with their specific abilities, not with overarching judgments of their personalities. The most effective evaluations are made by observing the individual in a situation as close as possible to the one in which he or she will be expected to perform. If personality tests must be used, they should be chosen carefully - free of invasive questions, fair to all groups, proven scientifically valid and reliable - and interpreted cautiously, with an acute awareness of their limitations. Their results should be kept strictly confidential.
Some of these caveats can be found in the guidelines produced by a coalition of testing organizations in 1998. According to the "Rights and Responsibilities of Test Takers," all of us have the right to be tested "with measures that meet professional standards and that are appropriate, given the manner in which the test results will be used"; to have tests administered and interpreted "by appropriately trained individuals who follow professional codes of ethics"; and to have test results "kept confidential to the extent allowed by law." But the ringing sound of "rights" in the statement's title fades to a whimper in its fine print: the so-called rights proclaimed by the guidelines "are neither legally based nor inalienable," its authors admit.
More stringent rules are set out in the American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. This document sternly declares that "Psychologists use assessment instruments whose validity and reliability have been established for use with members of the population tested...Psychologists do not base [their] decisions or recommendations on tests and measures that are obsolete and not useful for the current purpose." Yet recent surveys show that many psychologists are doing just that - making the invalid, unreliable, obsolete and all but useless Draw-a-Person Test and House-Tree-Person Test, to cite two examples, among the field's most frequently used instruments. The statement alludes ominously to "potential sanctions" for those who violate the principles, including termination of APA membership, but the latest report of the APA Ethics Committee reveals that only ten of its more than one hundred and fifty thousand members were sanctioned in the year 2002; in none of these cases was "test misuse" the primary factor.
In any case, all these admonitions may be safely ignored by the majority of test publishers, distributors, and administrators who are not psychologists and so operate outside even the APA's toothless authority. Their interests are aggressively promoted by the Association of Test Publishers, an advocacy organization concerned largely with fighting off legislative and judicial challenges to the unlimited use of tests. Such efforts have been stunningly successful, resulting in a sprawling testing industry that is almost entirely unregulated. The list of legal protections for personality test takers is short indeed: Massachusetts and Rhode Island have passed laws limiting or banning the use of integrity tests; privacy provisions in some state constitutions offer very limited barriers against invasive questions; the Civil Rights Act outlaws tests that have an adverse impact on protected groups such as blacks and women (not usually an issue with personality tests); the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits medical examinations (the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory qualifies) before a job offer is extended. And that's about it.
Significant new legal safeguards seem unlikely to be instituted (though optimists might envision a federal ban on personality tests in the workplace, similar to the 1988 law that prohibited polygraph examinations by most private employers). The responsibility for breaking away from our society's cult of personality testing lies first with the people who produce the tests. It would be unrealistic to expect them to relinquish a profit center that generates an estimated $400 million a year in this country alone, but perhaps not unreasonable to think that many might consent to the collective application of basic quality controls - if only to prevent another crash of the personality-testing industry under the weight of unmet promises, as has happened more than once in its history.
Psychologists are the second piece in this puzzle. As many observers have noted, there is a serious disconnect between what academic researchers demonstrate in the lab (the poor showing of most projective techniques, for example) and what clinicians keep doing in their offices. Professional organizations like the American Psychological Association need to scrupulously enforce among their members the rules their codes of ethics already profess. More persuasive still would be a move by the holders of psychologists' purse strings - managed care companies - to refrain from reimbursing practitioners for the use of invalid or unreliable tests (a development already underway). The training of new psychologists could point out the pitfalls of traditional personality testing, and offer expanded instruction in alternative forms of assessment.
Users of personality tests who are not psychologists - employers, teachers, guidance counselors, workshop leaders - also have an obligation to educate themselves about the potential for personality tests to limit and stereotype. A careful examination of a test's psychometric properties and a healthy skepticism toward its claims might lead them to choose better instruments - or to forgo testing altogether in favor of some old-fashioned conversation.
And finally, there's us: the people who take the tests, voluntarily or otherwise. When confronted with a personality test we are obliged to complete, a few questions of our own are in order. Begin by finding out which test you will be given; if it's not one covered in this book, make your way to the nearest large public or university library, which should have a set of Mental Measurements Yearbooks on its shelves. In these doorstop-heavy volumes you'll find basic information about most personality tests, along with careful critiques by psychologists. Test reviews are also available online at a cost of fifteen dollars each.
Thus armed with information, you'll be better prepared to take the test, or, perhaps, to refuse it. (This more extreme stance is advocated by Carnegie Mellon University psychologist Robyn Dawes: "If a professional psychologist is 'evaluating' you in a situation in which you are at risk and asks you for responses to ink blots or to incomplete sentences, or for a drawing of anything, walk out of that psychologist's office," he urges. "Going through with such an examination creates the danger of having a serious decision made about you on totally invalid grounds. If your contact with the psychologist involves a legal matter, your civil liberties themselves may be at stake.") If you go ahead with the test, inquire about how its results will be used, ask for feedback once it is scored, and request an assurance that your answers will be kept confidential. You won't have subverted the cult of personality entirely, but you will at least be an informed participant.
And for those of us who have sought the help of personality tests in understanding ourselves: remember that promoters of the tests - from the Rorschach to today's inventories of the Big Five - have claimed for nearly a century that they possess an X-ray of personality. But in truth (as psychologist Joseph Masling once put it) the X-ray is more like a mirror, reflecting mostly the testers' own needs and wants. The tests say more about them than they do about us.
Excerpted from The Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul Copyright © 2004 by Annie Murphy Paul. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Annie Murphy Paul is a Yale graduate and a former senior editor at Psychology Today. In 1999, she was the recipient of a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism. Currently a freelance writer, she has contributed to many publications, including Discover, Salon, and Self. She lives in New York City.
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