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The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselvesby Annie Murphy Paul
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
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 (available online at www.apa.org/science/ttrr.html). 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 (available online at www.apa.org/ethics/code2002.html). 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: http://buros.unl.edu/buros/jsp/search.jsp.
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.
Copyright © 2004 by Annie Murphy Paul
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