The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage

[4 January 2005]

By Lary Wallace

The Human Stain

The road to the Rorschach test was paved with good intentions, really it was, and in the beginning it even realized some of those intentions. But somewhere along the way, a test originally designed to diagnose extreme cases of mental illness saw greater ambitions for itself, and it was there and then that things got problematic, as they got problematic for all of the several tests Annie Murphy Paul writes about extensively in The Cult of Personality. As long as the tests stuck to the task for which they were qualified—that of determining and defining broad generalities—everything was A-okay; but the moment they acquired ambitions above their station, the moment they sought to provide shading and subtle meaning to those generalities, they started making a mess of things, and it’s a mess that’s getting worse by the day.

That’s why Paul has written this book. She’s identified a frighteningly severe problem in America—frighteningly severe not for the extent of its wrongheadedness (there are plenty of wrongheaded problems in America), but for its wrongheadedness paired with its awesome reach, stretching through matters of employment and law and insurance and welfare and scholastics and on and on, touching on seemingly every realm of American society before it’s done, and then refusing to die even there. It’s a horrifying thing to behold, this monster that continues to grow (according to Paul) by eight to ten percent every year.

Shortly after telling us of the many lawyers who encourage their clients to cheat on Rorschachs, Paul quotes a psychological-assessment specialist working in litigation hearings who’s ashamed to even use the damn thing when he’s in a courtroom:

I use the Rorschach a lot less than I used to because I don’t want to put up with the kind of cross-examination I get . . . It’s very easy for an attorney to make you look silly-to say, ‘I see a butterfly here—does that mean I’m crazy?’ I’ll stand back and ask myself, Is the information I’m going to get from the Rorschach worth the aggravation and the damage to the credibility of my other testimony? Typically, the answer is no.

And so it is that the Rorschach test has experienced the same failure known to anyone who’s tried to take an art and make it into a science; by trying to make one’s interpretation of splattered inkblots a means of empirical measurement, Rorschach has embarrassed his name for eternity and embarrassed as well many an administrator and subject.

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), like the Rorschach before it, served a very well and useful function in the beginning. Originally conceived as an alternative to the military’s Personal Data Sheet, a test whose questions wore their intentions all too nakedly on their sleeves, the MMPI sought a subtler way of rescuing what it needed out of the deep recesses of its takers’ psyches. Problem is, it was designed according to a comparison group that would come to be known as the Minnesota Normals, which would be completely fine were it appropriate to determine the normality of every American according to how closely we resemble white Protestant Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent, married and with children, average age 35 and either a housewife or a blue-collar worker, complete with eighth-grade education. This sets up Paul to drive her thesis home with a vicious thrust: “The MMPI helped to create, and continues to reinforce, a culture in which our unique and varied personalities are subject to the petty tyranny of the average.”

Which is just one reason why the test’s own creator, Starke Hathaway, came to refer to it, in time, as a “Stone Age ax,” and wondered aloud: “With so many competent efforts over so many years, why have we not yet developed better personality tests?”

Well, they’ve tried, and they continue to try. Rorschach’s and Hathaway’s tests both come to us all the way from the first half of the twentieth century, but there have been plenty of others since, and more are continually developed. But better tests have not been developed, and never will be developed, for one very simple reason: it’s impossible to scan the varied topography of the human personality by such empirical, such artless, means; psychological analysis is still the art of the psychological analyst, and that will never change-as long as we are, God and the federal government willing, continuously endowed with complex brains.

One theme that recurs all throughout The Cult of Personality is that of the Rueful Creator, the Dr. Frankenstein who comes to deeply regret his own creation. We’re invited to share in Paul’s obvious admiration of Isabel Myers, a woman in possession of a multi-angled intellect, only to be told, by chapter’s end, that the co-creator (with her mother) of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is no different from all the others; that this woman who created a test to determine personality types and their compatibility with one another would not, by her own admission, have married her lifelong husband had she relied on the MBTI to determine such a thing. What’s more, it turns out that this test which was inspired by Jung’s Personality Types can be dismissed, even ridiculed, with the man’s own words: “Every individual is an exception to the rule,” and attempts at labeling are “nothing but a childish parlor game.”

Another Rueful Creator, apparently, is the inventor of the Draw-a-Person Test, the preposterousness of which could never possibly be summed up in a few sentences; nevertheless Paul does a pretty good job of it: “shading was indicative of anxiety, while erasures and dark, heavy lines suggested inner conflict. The size and shape of body parts was significant. A small nose represented a sense of sexual inadequacy; a large head, ‘intellectual or perhaps moral vanity.’” According to the son of this Rueful Creator, she came to regret “boxing people into categories…this whole psychodiagnostic game of which she had been a part.”

For his own part, Raymond Cattell was not regretful enough. The creator of the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) held an open and outright scorn for the world’s social workers, or “do-gooders,” who would “make up by the warmth of their hearts for the emptiness of their heads.” But Cattell was guilty of much greater stupidities than not understanding that the head’s hot substance can often warm the heart; he left many doubts about the contents of his own head, by attempting to reduce the human being to one of sixteen personality types, and with a questionnaire that could be manipulated by an 11-year-old of modest intelligence.

And so it goes, as one psychologist after another displays the unmistakable symptoms of what Howard Gardner has called “physics envy”—the insistence among so many psychologists of selling their own profession short by making it—or trying to make it—adhere to the constricting terms of the hard sciences. Paul, meanwhile, knows enough about these tests and their makers (and the brain they seek to interpret) to know that “The inadequacy of these efforts becomes apparent when we consider that not one of the complicated, contradictory people whose stories are told in this book could be captured by their own test.”

It wouldn’t be so distressing if these tests simply existed innocuously in their own little pocket of American life, sealed away from how we actually live; the reality of it is that they find their way into nearly every aspect of how we live our lives publicly, and not for the better. Just ask Dodge Morgan. He’s a guy who had lived his life and made his fortune and didn’t know what else to do, so he said to hell with it and decided he wanted to sail around the world. So that’s what he did. At his wife’s insistence, he brought along with him more than 200 personality tests, one for each day of his journey; he would fill them out, to see what a couple professors at Boston College could learn about the human mind. We can only hope that they bothered to read Morgan’s journal, too:

2030: Eat dinner straight from cooking pot. Sit on deck if good weather, in pilothouse if not. Contemplate state of world. Maybe more reading or writing. 2345: Time for science and a few laughs; take psychological tests…. They are so irrelevant to my world now. ‘Do I like my parents? Would I rather be an engineer or an actor? Do I enjoy playing practical jokes? Am I the life of the party?’ Who really gives a shit? I am the only party here.

Paul is far too realistic to suggest that personality tests be done away with completely; they are here to stay and we need to live with them (although Senator Sam Ervin did once attempt to have them rid of forever). But if they “must be used,” she asserts, “they should be chosen carefully—free of invasive questions, fair to all groups, proven scientifically valid and reliable—and interpreted cautiously, with an acute awareness of their limitations.” She also tends to agree with one Dodge Morgan, who had been to the ends of both the human experience and the planet Earth, and had formulated some opinions of his own on the matter: “Fuck them all, these institutions, from religions to college fraternities, organizations dedicated to dividing people and blurring the image of truth. We all must stand in our own space and see with our own mind the farthest horizon, and perhaps there we will see the source of our nature.”

And then we will read this book—and after doing so, we will look at the personality tests, all of them-all the questions and bubbles and drawings and shapes—and see one thing, if we are to be diagnosed as sane: a whole lot of ink splattered across a whole lot of paper.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/cult-of-personality/