[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'The Cult of Personality': Are You Normal? Think Again
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'The Cult of Personality': Are You Normal? Think Again
New York Times Book Review, 4.10.10
By SALLY SATEL
THE CULT OF PERSONALITY: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to
Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand
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
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
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.
Sally Satel is a psychiatrist in Washington and a resident
scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the
coauthor of the forthcoming ''One Nation Under Therapy.''
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