Are You Normal? Think Again

The New York Times, October 10, 2004

By Sally Satel

How Personality Tests Are Leading Us
to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.
By Annie Murphy Paul.
302 pp. Free Press. $26.

PSYCHOLOGISTS have long tried to capture our personalities. Their efforts thrive today in a testing business, worth $400 million a year, in which some 2,500 tests are on the market. In her engaging book, “The Cult of Personality,” Annie Murphy Paul uses research and interviews to expose this sprawling unregulated industry — a world in which personality tests are used to help answer a range of social questions: which divorcing spouse will be the better parent, who will do well at what job, which student should be admitted to a special program. But as she argues, the tests rarely meet the demands to which they are put. Nonetheless, she writes, their ubiquity “suggests that they have become our era’s favored mode of self-understanding, our most accessible and accepted way of describing human nature.”

A former senior editor at Psychology Today, Paul is a graceful writer who combines lucid science reporting with colorful biography and intelligent social commentary. She begins the story of personality assessment in America with phrenology, the popular 19th-century practice of measuring bumps (“organs”) on the head to divine various traits. Today phrenology is synonymous with quackery. Its unofficial demise surely came when a practitioner told Mark Twain, who mischievously concealed his identity, that he completely lacked the Organ of Humor. But the search to find “a key to the knowledge of mankind” continued. Those were the words of the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, one of the test inventors Paul profiles.

Rorschach hoped to administer his set of inkblots to everyone, from artists to aborigines, though when he died in 1922 at the age of 37 many European colleagues considered his test contrived and superficial. But the test flourished in America after a German psychologist fleeing the Nazis brought it here.

It is no surprise that the inkblot — often called “a foolproof X-ray of a personality” — blossomed in America in the 1930’s and 40’s. It was a culture bewitched by Freud’s theory that our longings, fears and fantasies are largely hidden from awareness. The Rorschach came to be known as a projective technique — the subject projects his or her anxieties and desires onto ambiguous images — and it was soon joined by the Thematic Apperception Test (T.A.T.).

By 1950 the T.A.T. was one of the most frequently used personality tests, and it is still widely taught to psychologists in training. The T.A.T. uses evocative drawings (e.g., a man lying on a bed with another man standing over him; a boy with a violin) to illuminate, in the words of its co-creator Henry Murray, “the darker, blinder recesses of the psyche.” Subjects form elaborate stories about the characters in the drawings, but their narratives actually reveal, or so it is believed, subliminal themes that drive their own behavior.

Today, however, the Rorschach, T.A.T. and other tests are largely discredited as diagnostic devices. They cannot reliably determine a person’s ability to relate appropriately to other people, his sexuality or his fantasies, fears and preoccupations. The tests tend to mislabel most normal people as “sick.” Conversely, they are poor at detecting psychological defects (with the exception of psychosis). Still, the Rorschach, despite its severe limitations, is used in parole and sentencing hearings to evaluate whether prisoners are prone to violence or likely to commit future crimes, and almost half the psychologists who do child-custody evaluation use it.

Projective tests were created for psychoanalysis, but another personality measure, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, was developed for the workplace. Isabel Myers, a college-educated homemaker, sought to aid the war effort by creating a worker “sorter” that would help bosses fit employees to the right jobs. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t provide much information about how the questions in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator actually work. She does, however, provide ample evidence of its popularity. Eighty-nine of the Fortune 100 companies, including AT&T, Exxon and General Electric, use it “to identify job applicants whose skills match those of their top performers.” Beyond the office park, workshops apply Myers-Briggs theory to marriage, spirituality, financial planning, sports and parenthood.

By far the most popular personality test today is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, created in the 1930’s. It is employed chiefly in clinical situations to good benefit, yet Paul highlights its use in government hiring four decades ago and some current class-action suits against businesses giving the test. True, these applications were not legitimate, but they misrepresent the test. Readers would never know, for example, how often it is valuable in selecting among psychiatric diagnoses. Nor would they know that it can identify psychological strengths and weaknesses in patients to help them cope with physical illness and treatment. Or that the test can help detect when a plaintiff is exaggerating symptoms to appear disabled.

What is the allure of personality tests? They provide “an unwavering self-conception, a foundation for relating to others, a plan for success and an excuse for failure,” Paul concludes. But, alas, the virtues of tests that try to assess personality types are illusory: research shows that a single person’s scores are unstable, often changing over the course of years, weeks, even hours (a subject may be “a good intuitive thinker in the afternoon but not in the morning,” some researchers have noted). And, worse, there is little evidence of the correlation of test scores with school performance, managerial effectiveness, team building or career counseling.

On a deeper level, enthusiasm for testing may be a particularly American phenomenon. After all, a society that extols freedom and self-determination is one whose citizens have choices. And with choices come anxieties — about educational options, career paths, even mate selection. Better self-understanding and advice are thus welcome, if not eagerly sought. Besides, what could be more attractive to a society as individualistic as ours than devices that explore and exalt our perceived uniqueness?

THE paradox, Paul is quick to emphasize, is that personality tests ultimately give us a cramped vision of ourselves; instead of opening opportunities, they may confine people by identifying weaknesses that are either not there or that can be overcome. When personality typing is applied to children, Paul writes, it imposes “limiting labels on young people who are still developing a sense of themselves and their capacities.” Attempts to fit people into manageable categories end up being the best evidence — if any were needed — that we encounter the world in highly idiosyncratic ways.

Paul is by no means against personality assessment, but she wants appraisals of workers and students to focus on gauging specific abilities. This can be done more effectively, she says, by talking to people, learning details of their past and observing their current behavior. Occasionally, narrowly focused tests can help. On the other hand, the role of tests in custody battles, in particular, is nothing short of malpractice. “It’s not fair to be separated from your family because you saw a wolf instead of a butterfly,” a divorced father told her. If this book is instrumental in getting personality testing out of the courtroom, Paul will have done a great public service.