The Cult of Personality Testing How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves
By Annie Murphy Paul
Free Press Copyright © 2005 Annie Murphy Paul
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743280725
Hello. Nice to meet you. Please allow me to tell you who you are.
Such is the introduction, polite but firm, extended by personality tests. When we first encounter them we are strangers (even, as some tests would have it, to ourselves). When we part some time later, we're a known quantity, neatly tagged. Personality tests take wildly different forms -- questionnaires, inkblots, stories, drawings, dolls -- but all make the same promise: to reduce our complicated, contradictory, changeable selves to a tidy label. These tests claim to measure not what we know, but what we're like; not what we can do, but who we are.
Today, personality tests are a startlingly ubiquitous part of American life, from the thousands of quizzes popping up online, to the personality types assigned in seminars and workshops, to the honesty tests and personality screens routinely required of job applicants. Millions of our nation's workers -- from hourly employees to professionals like managers, doctors, and lawyers -- must take personality tests to obtain a position or to advance in their careers. Citizens seeking justice in our courts may be compelled to take personality tests to secure parental custody or receive compensation for emotional distress. Even children are obliged to take personality tests: to gain admission to private schools and programs, to diagnose academic or behavioral problems, to guide the way they're taught or the kind of projects they're assigned. But where did these tests come from? And just what are they saying about us?
This book tells the surprising and disturbing story of the tests that claim to capture human nature. It goes behind the scenes to discover how personality tests are used -- in America's companies, its courts, its schools, and in organizations from churches to community centers to dating services. Drawing on the latest scientific research, it exposes the serious flaws of personality tests, explaining why their results are often invalid, unreliable, and unfair. And it delves into the extraordinary history of the tests' creation, revealing how these allegedly neutral instruments were in fact shaped by the demands of industry and government -- and by the idiosyncratic and often eccentric personalities of their creators.
The story begins with Hermann Rorschach, a Swiss psychiatrist possessed by a desire to create "a key to the knowledge of mankind." The inkblot test that bears his name, though one of psychologists' favorite tools for more than fifty years, has come under increasingly intense criticism over the past decade. The test's numerous detractors charge that the Rorschach -- originally designed for use with psychiatric patients but now frequently given to normal people -- "overpathologizes," making healthy individuals look sick. Multiple investigations have concluded that many of the test's results are simply not supported by evidence. Yet the Rorschach is still used by eight out of ten clinical psychologists, administered in nearly a third of emotional injury assessments and in almost half of child custody evaluations.
Even more popular is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a 567-item questionnaire created at a Midwestern mental hospital in the 1930s. The MMPI, as it's known, was assembled in a highly unusual way: in the words of Starke Hathaway, one of its authors, "we permitted the patients to design their own test." Today it's administered to an estimated 15 million Americans each year, in spite of the fact that it features invasive questions about test takers' sex lives and bathroom habits. Like the Rorschach, the MMPI was intended for use with the mentally ill, but it is now given to a broad range of normal people, including aspiring doctors, psychologists, paramedics, clergy members, police officers, firefighters, and airplane pilots. It has also become a template for personality questionnaires that are used even more widely in the workplace: a 2003 survey shows that personality tests are now administered by 30 percent of American companies, from mom-and-pop operations to giants like Wal-Mart and General Motors.
The corporate world has seized on the innovations of another personality test creator: Henry Murray, a brilliant Harvard professor whose charismatic ebullience disguised a dark secret life. In collaboration with his mistress, he designed the Thematic Apperception Test, which asks the taker to tell stories about a set of ambiguous drawings. Despite falling "woefully short of professional and scientific test standards," the technique is popular with psychologists (it's used by 60 percent of clinicians, according to a recent survey) and also with marketers, who use its insights about personality to shape their product pitches. During World War II, Murray was enlisted to select spies for American intelligence operations, and from this work emerged another tool for evaluating personality: the assessment center. These centers, which put participants through a series of simulated tasks, have received mixed reviews from researchers -- but they are used today by thousands of American companies, along with two-thirds of police and fire departments and state and county governments.
Perhaps no other personality test has achieved the cult status of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, an instrument created in the 1940s by a Pennsylvania housewife. Fiercely proud of the test she called "my baby," Isabel Myers believed that it could bring about world peace -- or at least make everyone a little nicer. The Myers-Briggs, which assigns each test taker a personality type represented by four letters, is now given to 2.5 million people each year, and is used by 89 of the companies in the Fortune 100. Employed by businesses to "identify strengths" and "facilitate teamwork," the Myers-Briggs has also been embraced by a multitude of individuals who experience a revelation (what devotees call the "aha reaction") upon learning about psychological type. Their enthusiasm persists despite research showing that as many as three-quarters of test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again, and that the sixteen distinctive types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis whatsoever.
Personality testing begins early, when children are in elementary school or even before. One of the first instruments to be used widely with youngsters was the Draw-a-Person Test, designed by Karen Machover, a New York City therapist who had herself endured a singularly bleak childhood. Psychologists administering it or a related technique, the House-Tree-Person Test, make judgments about children's personalities based on the style and content of their sketches. Although decades of research have shown these tests to be all but worthless -- "again and again," write two respected scientists, the results of drawing tests "have failed to hold up" -- the Draw-a-Person Test is still used by more than a quarter of clinicians, the House-Tree-Person Test by more than a third. More recently, a fad among educators for teaching to each student's "learning style" has led to the development of at least half a dozen tests that label children by their personalities: feeling or thinking, imaginative or practical, flexible or organized. While proponents of the concept contend that its application can reduce delinquency, prevent dropouts, and even alleviate attention-deficit disorder, they offer scant evidence for such claims.
More scientifically minded were the studies of Raymond Cattell, a British-born psychologist who used sophisticated statistical techniques to reduce the vast array of human qualities to a more manageable number. Originally trained as a chemist, Cattell aimed to construct a precise "periodic table" of personality (though ultimately, as we'll learn, he became notorious for far more dangerous ideas). Cattell's research led to his Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire, still widely used for career counseling and employee selection, and to what those in the field call its biggest development in decades: the "discovery" of the five essential dimensions of personality. A test that measures the so-called Big Five, the NEO Personality Inventory, already dominates current research on personality, and is fast moving into the wider arena of workplace, school, and courtroom. There's just one problem: the lofty abstractions of these tests have left out the human being herself, partaking in what one critic calls "a psychology of the stranger."
The tests described here are together taken by tens of millions of people every year -- and there are some 2,500 others on the market, each offering to explain us to ourselves (or to a boss or a teacher or a judge). Today personality testing is a 踰-million industry, one that's expanding annually by 8 percent to 10 percent. Yet despite their prevalence -- and the importance of the matters they are called upon to decide -- personality tests have received surprisingly little scrutiny. That's in sharp contrast to aptitude, intelligence, and achievement tests, each of which have been inspected under the glare of political and popular attention (and which have often been found wanting). Personality testing has thrived in the shade of casual neglect, growing unchecked along with abuses like invasive questions, inaccurate labels, and unjust outcomes.
But perhaps the most potent effect of personality testing is its most subtle. For almost a hundred years it has provided a technology, a vocabulary, and a set of ideas for describing who we are, and many Americans have adopted these as our own. The judgments of personality tests are not always imposed; often they are welcomed. And what, some will ask, is wrong with that? Human beings are complex creatures, and we need simple ways of grasping them to survive. But how we simplify -- which shortcuts we take, which approximations we accept -- demands close inspection, especially since these approximations so often stand in for the real thing. This book tells the story of one very powerful and pervasive way of understanding ourselves: where it came from, why it flourished, and how, too often, it fails us.
Copyright © 2004 by Annie Murphy Paul
Excerpted from The Cult of Personality Testing by Annie Murphy Paul Copyright © 2005 by Annie Murphy Paul. Excerpted by permission.
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