Personality tests: Fun for some, frightening for others, and often misused by "para-professionals."

By Salon Staff
Published October 4, 2004 7:00AM (EDT)

[Read "Yes, I've had tarry bowel movements! So what?" by Katy Read.]

Bravo on someone finally pointing out the questionable veracity of personality tests and their undue influence on one's working life.

A former employer decided it was time for me to undergo "executive training" sessions with a corporate psychologist. This included taking the MMPI and Myers-Briggs tests. I recall telling a friend after I got my results back that the whole thing had the smell of a "Dungeons & Dragons" character creation system for yuppies. I left that company a few weeks later for one that treats its employees like people instead of like lists of ingredients.

-- M.S. Manley

Where do I begin with Katy Read's uncritical report on psychological tests? This could have been a good article had she not blindly accepted everything she was fed.

First, consider her source of information. Would you ask an editor at "Popular Science" to give an interview on how MRIs work? Of course not. Nor should you rely on explanations from the former editor of a pop psychology magazine. Many of Annie Murphy Paul's statements were filled with imaginative generalizations and wildly overestimated figures. They could have easily been scrutinized and found lacking in accuracy. Moreover, there are plenty of real psychological scientists who would have been happy to explain the actual problems that exist in testing.

Ms. Read chose to sensationalize the evils of psychological testing rather than thoughtfully address the critical issue of test misuse. Thousands of untrained, unlicensed para-professionals administer and interpret tests recklessly. Unethical psychologists do the same. Their behavior, while perhaps more widespread than we'd like to believe, is not consistent with good practice in psychology. Giving the MMPI to children is an example of a practice that should be exposed and criticized, instead of implying that it is accepted by the professional community at large.

Finally, the confidentiality of psychological test data is not taken lightly by law-abiding professionals. Contrary to Annie Murphy Paul's speculation, the confidentiality guidelines of the American Psychological Association are quite specific for psychological test data.

Much of Ms. Read's report was heading in the right direction, but in the end still missed the mark. Professional psychology in particular is a topic that could stand more scientifically literate journalistic coverage.

-- Annie Bradford

This article makes no distinction between personality tests that are currently considered scientifically sound and those that are not. The majority of academic researchers in psychology no longer use or teach the Rorschach or the TAT. The Myers-Briggs is certainly not well regarded. The MMPI, however, can be useful. A great deal of research has been done to support its utility in many contexts.

It is unfortunate to tar all personality tests with the same brush. Lay people may misunderstand and misuse the tests. The APA code of ethics requires that tests be administered and interpreted only by trained psychologists who understand both the strengths and limitations of their instruments.

-- Aliza Weinrib

Annie Murphy Paul says she doesn't understand why individuals would take a personality test in order to put themselves in a box. For me, it worked the opposite way. Getting some insight into how I react helped me recognize that my own set of responses were not, as I had previously believed, the only sane way of dealing with people and events. For example, learning that half the population really doesn't care about being on time made it harder for me to berate a friend for always running late. The testing also helped me realize that while my brain might easily grasp abstractions while glossing over details, I couldn't expect anyone else to have a clue what I meant if I didn't include one or two concrete examples.

I suppose reading Jung or even a Psych 101 text might have given me the same insights (with infinitely more nuance). However, I think that for a lot of people, tests like the Myers-Briggs are a fun, easy way to study the wide range of human behavior -- not just a way to wall ourselves into unchanging and unchangeable boxes.

-- Lisa Nosal

One of my friends recently had to take a personality test to apply as a waiter at a chain restaurant. After asking him in for an interview, the restaurant admitted that they only called him back because they were amazed how anyone could score so low on the test and still manage to walk upright (he scored a 33/100).

When asked why he'd refused to "agree" or "disagree" with most of the test questions, my friend explained that he is a law student -- at one of the top schools in the country -- and had been trained not to take sides. He said he believed that each side was valid and life could not be viewed in absolutes. (Lawyers and other critical thinkers: beware of personality tests when applying at your local family restaurant!).

In the end, he got the job.

-- E. Latusek

Certainly a debunking of personality tests is long overdue (as is the application of scientific rigor to much of what passes for psychological study today). I was amused, though, by Paul's comment that she was surprised at people's willingness to "label themselves." Surely that's not something she first noticed in the course of researching this book? People may often bristle at being labeled by others, but it should be obvious to any observer of human culture that labeling one's self -- identifying with a group or groups -- is a pretty fundamental human drive. The only difference in the modern world is that people have a greater range of choice as to what labels they wear: political parties, religions, ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes, professional associations, etc.

-- Hutch Hubbard

I have never read an interview between two people who know less about the subject they are discussing than the author and reviewer in this article. Neither of these persons has any training or experience in the use or development of personality tests. And apparently neither person made any effort to educate themselves about tests before they made themselves into experts. Not that any of this stops them from having an extended debate about the topic. The misstatements and distortions in this short review are too many to cover in a short letter, but here are a few:

1. No child in public school has EVER been given the MMPI. I want to start here because this is the urban legend used to promote the review. I challenge anyone to find a single case where an 8th grade student was ever given the MMPI. The MMPI is an adult clinical personality test, and is restricted by the publisher to use only by licensed psychologists, or those with graduate degrees in psychology. It is only for use with adults and is to be used to diagnose serious disorders.

It is true that the writer says the MMPI "or one of it many variants." We are to understand that any psychological test is a "variant" of a clinical test used to diagnose psychiatric disorders? Please, don't insult the reader.

2. Anybody can make up, publish and promote a "personality test." Does that mean that all psychological tests are invalid? Of course personality tests can be misused. The psychological profession, however, has a clear set of standards and ethics about how tests SHOULD be used. It is interesting that this is never mentioned.

There are agreed standards on how tests should be evaluated and what makes a good or bad test. All reputable, published tests include information about standardization, weaknesses and reliability. This published information is like the recommended dosage and common side effects listed on a drug bottle. Of course you can overdose on a drug or take it for the wrong purpose, but is it the fault of the pharmaceutical industry if you don't follow the recommended uses?

3. It requires a great deal of study and training in statistics to evaluate technical and clinical information about psychological tests. If you are not informed about the facts and don't know how to evaluate a test, then (a) you shouldn't be using tests, (b) you shouldn't be writing books about tests and (c) you shouldn't be reviewing books about tests.

4. Many things in science are discovered in casual ways or by accident (shall we take penicillin as an example?). Does that mean that the ultimate value of something should be determined by who discovered it, or how it was discovered? Also, the author and reviewer co-mingle the first personality tests, from before 1950, with more modern and recent tests. I know this makes for more exciting writing, but it is also distorted and misleading. All tests have weaknesses and limitations. It is also true that tests have strengths and important uses. But you would never know that from this review.

5. The concern about the misuse of tests for employment screening is an important and serious issue. It deserves more serious discussion than anecdotes about the author's friends. In cases of misusing tests, is it the test that is at fault, or is it the fault of the person who is misusing the test?

I am disappointed that Salon allows pop journalism to deal with complex scientific issues. Here's an idea: If you want to review a technical book, why not get someone who is knowledgeable about the area to review it?

-- Edwin Basham

Salon Staff

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