Yes, I've had tarry bowel movements! So what?

A new book says that bizarre personality tests like the Myers-Briggs, the MMPI and the Rorschach are overused, potentially damaging and an utter sham.

Published September 29, 2004 7:34PM (EDT)

One day back in eighth-grade social studies, my teacher told the class to set aside our usual work because we'd be taking a special test. We were handed several pages of bizarre, intrusive, out-of-nowhere questions that seemed unrelated to social studies or anything else. Perplexed but obedient, we filled in the answers. As far as I recall, we never saw the results or knew how they were used.

Reading Annie Murphy Paul's new book, "The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves," I gathered that the baffling test I was given years ago was the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or one of its many variants. The MMPI is the world's most widely used clinical personality test, administered to an estimated 15 million Americans each year. The original version (it was revised in the late 1980s) contained 504 true-or-false statements, many of them even stranger than I remembered. "I believe my sins are unpardonable"; "Everything tastes the same"; "Often I feel as if there were a tight band around my head." Then, Paul says, there's one that many who take the test can quote word-for-word years later: "I have never had any black, tarry-looking bowel movements."

Though they might seem absurd, personality tests like the MMPI are a $400 million industry catering to businesses, government, schools, courtrooms and therapists. And they often carry grave consequences -- influencing whether people are hired for jobs, admitted to schools, receive custody of their children. Paul argues that the tests are so flawed as to render their results misleading or even meaningless.

Paul, a former senior editor at Psychology Today, tells the colorful and often alarming stories behind the widely used personality tests that date back, in many cases, to the early decades of the 20th century. If you assume these tests were developed under meticulously scientific circumstances, Paul's book is disillusioning: the Rorschach ink-blot test, frequently used in court cases, was inspired by a 19th century parlor game. The Myers-Briggs type indicator, used by most Fortune 100 companies, was devised by a housewife in her living-room chair. The Thematic Apperception Test, used by 60 percent of clinical psychologists, was concocted by a maverick psychologist and his mistress. And for decades, the MMPI's control group -- the "normals" against whom countless people, including me and my eighth-grade classmates, were judged -- was a scavenged hodgepodge of rural white Depression-era Minnesotans.

Salon spoke to Paul by phone about the strange history of personality tests, their potentially damaging uses, and the false impressions they can perpetrate.

How did you decide to write this book?

About two and a half years ago, I started to notice that personality tests suddenly seemed to be everywhere. I had a friend who applied for a part-time job at a clothing store, and she was given a personality test called an "honesty test." She actually failed it, because of a question like "Everybody lies sometimes." She said yes. She didn't get the job and was told that part of the reason was that she had failed the honesty test, because you were supposed to say, "No, I don't lie. People don't lie."

That suggests that anybody who passes the test must be lying.

I know. It was so mixed up. Then I had a friend whose child was applying to a private school and had to take the "Draw-a-Person" test [in which subjects' sketches are combed for hidden clues to their personality]. I started thinking, Where did these tests come from, and how can a test claim to measure something as complex as human nature? I started looking into the history of personality tests and how they're used today, and I discovered this crazy parallel universe where there were these colorful, eccentric, sometimes downright strange people who had made these tests, often in their own image. It came to seem to me as if a lot of the tests really reflected the test authors' personalities more than those of the people who took them.

Have you taken any personality tests yourself?

I've only taken a few, informally, online.

For fun?

Yes. Once I started researching the book I didn't want to take any of the tests that I wrote about because I didn't want my results, and whether I felt that they were an accurate reflection of my personality, to influence the way that I wrote about them. I wanted to evaluate the scientific evidence as objectively as possible. Now, of course, I don't think I could ever take these tests because I just know too much about them and how they're supposed to work.

One way you subtly underscore your message -- that humans are far more interesting than the tests devised to measure them -- is by providing fascinating profiles of the tests' creators. The people are compelling and complex and often even admirable as individuals.

The truth is, in some ways I feel a deep sympathy for the tests' creators whose stories I tell. I think a lot of them were really looking to understand human nature and they thought a test was the best way to do that. Then, of course, in the process they got sidetracked by their own ambition, or by intellectual rigidity, or by the agendas of business or government. They produced these tests that I think did not fulfill their original ambition of capturing human nature. They kind of flattened and quashed human nature. But in some ways, their original quest was noble and admirable.

Often the success these tests had in being accepted seems to have depended less on how accurate they were than on how well they were promoted.

That's a secondary meaning of my title, "The Cult of Personality." A lot of these personality tests became popular by virtue of the charismatic people who created and promoted them and didn't really have anything to do with how scientifically accurate they were.

All of the tests share some of the same flaws, which are almost inherent in their conception.

Yes. One of the basic flaws that all personality tests share is that they leave out the power of situation. Psychologists know, and I think all of us know from our daily experience, that each of us acts differently in different situations at different times with different people. A personality test is a one-time intervention that at best can take a snapshot of you at one particular moment in this very contrived artificial situation of filling out a pencil-and-paper test.

Another problem is that a lot of these tests fail on the two basic criteria that psychological science has for tests. One of those is validity, or when a test measures what it says it measures. That is, whether the subject actually exhibits the traits indicated by the test. A lot of the personality tests that I write about don't meet that basic criterion. For example, the Rorschach has very poor validity for a lot of its measures.

How is that determined?

By comparing it against other sources of information: other tests, observation, interviews, biographical information, a diagnosis that the person is given by a psychologist.

Or when a test indicates someone would be a successful employee, you'd check to see whether that person turned out to be successful or not?

Yes, you'd want to compare what the test said to real-world results.

The other criterion, reliability, is when a test delivers consistent results when given to the same person on a repeated basis. There again, a lot of personality tests are very unreliable, in part because people are complicated and dynamic and do change over time and according to situation. Proponents of the Myers-Briggs will tell you that your personality type, as represented by the four dimensions, is inborn and unchanging. But in fact, research shows that when given more than once to the same person, as many as 75 percent of test takers will get a different personality type on the second administration.

So oversimplifying seems to be another big problem with these tests.

That's right. A lot of personality tests, by their very nature, are engaged in labeling people, stereotyping them -- whether it's a string of four letters, or measuring someone on five dimensions. A personality test would have to be as huge as the universe itself to really measure how unique and individual a person is.

Do most Americans, at some point, get asked to take these tests?

They're much more common in certain industries than others. In fields like retail, banking, even in business generally, these tests are really popular. Many people in the corporate world are going to have encountered the Myers-Briggs, because it's a hugely popular tool, not so much for hiring but for management development and team-building and that sort of thing.

As far as education goes, I think that depends too. People of a certain generation were routinely given the MMPI or other personality tests in school.

Taking those tests on Web sites or in magazines is sort of fun; I can see why people, as individuals, are captivated by them. But it was interesting to read that the main purpose of these tests isn't for self-understanding, or even necessarily for the study of human nature, but mainly for use by institutions and bureaucracies.

In some ways, it was easier for me to see why institutions liked personality tests, because they take complex, irregular, unique individuals and they standardize them. They give them a label that can be moved around and put into the various niches that a corporation or a company needs to have a worker in.

What was more difficult for me to understand, and in some ways more interesting, was why individuals gravitated toward these tests. I couldn't quite understand why people would be so eager to label themselves, to put themselves in a box. If you've ever met someone who's just crazy about the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator -- and there are a lot of people like that out there -- no one has forced this on them. Some people take this test voluntarily; others, though they take it on orders from their employers, happily identify with its results. They love the Myers-Briggs. They understand all their relationships in terms of the Myers-Briggs. They feel like they've gotten so much insight into themselves because of this test.

I came to think that in today's world we have so many choices confronting us at every turn, in terms of who we date and who we marry, what job we pursue, how we conceive of ourselves as people in the world. It's very comforting and reassuring to have a test -- and in our society we imbue tests with a lot of power and a lot of authority -- to have an apparently scientific test tell us, This is who you are, this is what you do, this is the kind of person you should marry.

As you also point out, the Myers-Briggs' personality descriptions are open-ended, like horoscopes, so that when you read them there's a ring of truth, a sense of recognition.

These descriptions have a little something for everybody. They hint at things that we all would like to think about ourselves. Or they're hedged carefully enough so that, sure, they could apply to me. They could apply to anybody. All it takes is for our imagination to fill in the gaps and say, "Oh my god, that's exactly me, they really hit the nail on the head."

So on an individual basis, people measure how useful a test is by how well it matches what they think about themselves in the first place.

That's right. Projective tests such as the TAT [the Thematic Apperception Test, in which subjects are shown pictures and asked to tell stories about them] are a little different. They claim to present us material from our unconscious, from our secret selves, that might be secret even from ourselves. Projective tests are supposed to reveal a part of yourself that you are not even aware of.

Which makes them foolproof, right?

Yes, they're very clever. They're kind of like psychoanalysis in that way. I have respect for psychoanalysis and some of the insights it's given to us about human nature. But it's essentially unfalsifiable, and in that sense it's not really science. And I think that goes for a lot of the projective tests, as well.

You write approvingly about an unwieldy method of analyzing personality involving having a person tell his or her life story.

Yes, I turned to the life-story approach, and that appealed to me because it's the oldest way that humans have for understanding themselves. And I think it's the richest. It has most potential for capturing the complexity of human beings. It accommodates change. It acknowledges the role of culture and time and gender and race and all these things that do shape our personality; we're not living in a vacuum. So I thought it was worth exploring psychologists' efforts to use this story method scientifically.

More importantly, I wanted people to think about their own lives in terms of their story, an evolving, rich, complex, dynamic story. I think that's how we naturally understand ourselves.

But it seems the more open-ended and free-form the tests are, the less useful they are to the institutions and bureaucracies that are looking for something they can use to pigeonhole people.

Absolutely. Those things are kind of opposed, and I don't think there's ever a medium point where an instrument that's capable of measuring a human being in all their complexity is going to be useful to an institution, precisely because an institution doesn't want that complexity. They have complex people on their hands, in their offices and in their classrooms, and what they want to do is simplify them.

You advise people, when confronted with a situation where they're being asked to take a test themselves, to walk away -- or at least to arm themselves with as much information as they can.

And that's, unfortunately, all I can say, because people don't have a legal right to decline a personality test in a way that will still preserve whatever opportunity they're pursuing. In other words, an employer can demand that you take a personality test, and you don't really have much say about it. You can walk away, but then you won't get that job. That's why I address that final epilogue not only to people who take these tests but also to the people who produce and administer them, because I think a lot of the power is in their hands.

What do you think happens to the results of all the millions of tests we take? Are my eighth-grade MMPI results still being held somewhere in my permanent record?

It's funny to imagine a huge warehouse out there somewhere with everybody's personality test results all filed away. There are guidelines for the confidentiality of these results, but those aren't really enforceable legally, and they're not really enforced by professional organizations like the American Psychological Association. This is another consequence of having personality tests out there in the world. The questions and the results are sort of floating out there in the ether.

By Katy Read

Katy Read is a writer in Minneapolis.


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