Palm reading dressed as science

Millions take personality tests every year, but are they valid?

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A recent radio ad for E-Harmony promotes a personality profile based on 29 dimensions that all but guarantees finding a perfect mate. But don't sign up until you read Annie Paul's well-researched, highly informative, and rather scary portrait of the dominance of personality measures in almost every nook and cranny of American life.

Her thesis is best summarized in her lengthy subtitle: "How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves." Yet "The Cult of Personality," by the former senior editor of Psychology Today, is neither a bombastic jeremiad nor a reckless exposé of these hucksters; it is more a wise, insightful, and witty dissection of what has become a major industry. In eight chapters packed with information, she offers a fascinating story of the principal gurus of a hydra-headed movement of social and self awareness. They're proto-scientists, pseudo-scientists, and real scientists who sought first to probe the human psyche to discern the proclivities of "criminal minds" and mental patients and then to describe variations among "normal" people.

Their work, often grounded in a true desire to understand human nature, treat the mentally ill, or reform criminals, frequently became a game played for fun and profit, leading to considerable exploitation.

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Today, personality testing is ubiquitous in all sorts of organizations besides prisons and mental hospitals. It is found throughout the corporate world and the professions, in schools and seminaries, in military academies, government departments, social work agencies, and financial institutions.

Over the years, certain qualitative and quantitative approaches gained favor, then waned as new ones were invented. But there is little question that significant and powerful sectors of our culture have been suffused with a blind faith in the efficacy of short-cut ways of deciding who is strong, weak, warm, vivacious, scatter-brained, disorganized, flighty, grounded, plodding, or imaginative.

Typologies of personality are nothing new. They date back to classical times when the Greek word "character" referred to a distinctive mark. They were very much in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Carl Linnaeus, the great classifier himself, divided mankind into various groupings by linking character traits to geography and race.

Well into the 20th century stereotypes of "national character" persisted, some flattering, others derogatory. Swedes were seen as dour; Germans, industrious; Italians, emotional; Japanese, sly.

Interestingly, the key figures in the personality movement in the United States eschewed racial and ethnic stereotyping by avoiding the subject altogether. Most concentrated on variations within the "average" (read: white and Protestant) American community.

Paul begins with a fascinating chapter on early attempts to understand the psyche by the use of phrenology (feeling the bumps on the skull), developed in America by Lorenzo Fowler in the early 19th century. But most of her focus is on those who tried to get inside the head:

• Hermann Rorschach, who used inkblots as an early projective technique.

• Starke Hathaway and J. Charnley McKinley, who developed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a widely acclaimed "objective" test said "to gauge human nature itself."

• Henry Murray, who with his mistress, Christiana Morgan, developed the Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT), which probes innermost thoughts and fantasies because, he claimed, "We are never what we seem."

• Isabel Myers and her daughter, Katharine Briggs, who misread Carl Jung's theories to develop their erratic people-sorting paradigm - the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), now used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies.

Paul also briefly discusses a few of the psychologists who began to address the much-neglected plural character of our society, its divisions, prejudices, patterns of discrimination and their effects. Notable are Otto Klineberg, Kenneth Clark (famous for his doll studies testing the impact of segregation on black children), Gordon Allport, and the researchers who, in the 1940s, sought to understand the fascist mind. Paul subjects even those in the last cohort to justifiable scrutiny for some of their questionable methods and their claims.

The MMPI, originally developed for the mentally ill, is now given to 15 million Americans a year, "in spite of the fact," Paul notes, "that it features invasive questions about test takers' sex lives and bathroom habits." Though its advocates never claim to have right or wrong answers, Paul points out how hollow that concession is in practice. "The MMPI is not a test of reasoning with factually correct or incorrect replies," she writes. "But in a real life sense, with important outcomes - the custody of a child, the sentencing of a criminal, the offer of a job - riding on the results, this statement is not only inaccurate but dangerously disingenuous."

As she shows here, that can be said about almost every one of these schemes to reduce and quantify the complexity of human nature.

Peter Rose is professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at Smith College. His latest book is 'The Dispossessed: An Anatomy of Exile.'

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