In 1986, amateur sailor Dodge Morgan made his way around the globe, fulfilling a long-abandoned dream and providing ample fodder for a pair of psychologists testing the potency of personality inventories. Each day, Morgan was assigned a number of tests to take, and his results were compiled after his journey. An excerpt from the book The Cult of Personality explains the trouble with the results he was provided:

From the tests (which included the TAT, the 16PF, and a close cousin of the MMPI) Nasby learned some useful, though limited, information: Morgan scored high on Exhibition, Endurance, and Dominance, low on Affiliation, Play, and Harm Avoidance. “Moregan is understood to be a man of great emotional stability and high conscientiousness who is highly focused on autonomy, endurance, dominance, and achievement,” Nasby noted. “Morgan is not particularly extroverted; neither is he particularly agreeable. Although his score indicates a relatively high level of openness to experience, his openness is limited by his strong preference for consistency and certainty.” He added that Morgan’s behavior was occasionally antisocial and narcissistic.
When Nasby shared a preliminary sketch with Morgan, his subject was unimpressed: “I don’t think I want to spend much time with the guy you are describing, and I sure as hell don’t want him living with my family.”

I recently finished Annie Murphy Paul’s 2004 book maligning the nature of our most trusted personality inventories, titled The Cult of Personality. As a practitioner who has long relied on these tests to identify elements of my own personality, and has utilized them heavily in helping students understand theirs, I was interested to see an author who aimed to tear asunder the power we’ve given to these tests. And I have to say, based on what was advertised, I was disappointed. 

The full title of Paul’s book is The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. Bold sales claim, I’d say. But very little of the content that the title promises was delivered upon. It provided a great deal of value, yes, but not of the kind I expected.

Each chapter tells the story of the inspiration, genesis, and adoption of a different personality inventory (phrenology, the MBTI, Rorschach and Big Five are some of the tests that are discussed), and then discusses some of the criticism that has surrounded its popular adoption. The book moves chronologically, aiming to show that each test we threw our faith into, was eventually proven less than reliable or valid. However, what the book lacks for much of its text is why this matters. The promise of an understanding of why these tests are a poor indication of our children’s being, why we shouldn’t judge our coworkers on them, or why they make us believe incorrect things about ourselves isn’t fulfilled, instead hoping that the reader will be satisfied with “because the test is bad.” I wasn’t.

Tests are powerful; the categories in which they place us are powerful. That’s exactly why they should be employed with caution and care. These days a personality test may serve as a corporate icebreaker, a classroom game, a counseling exercise. Though such uses may seem harmless, we ought to be wary of the tendency of tests and their apparently definitive judgments to take a life of their own. When our objectives– to get a discussion started, to stimulate self-reflection, to offer guidance– can be met without a test, they should be.

It isn’t until the epilogue that Paul makes an argument for creating a less short-sighted way to assess the personalities of others. In my estimation, the book would be stronger if her argument was weaved between the contents of the preceding chapters. For the record, I agree with Paul and her call to find ways to remove people from the boxes that tests tend to place them in. Or, if we insist on placing people in these boxes, build the boxes with doors to allow for the effects that the outside world can have on the defined characteristics.

The redemption of the book comes in the final chapter, in which a powerful alternative to somewhat incomplete tests. And it is a strategy that many in student affairs are employing with increased frequency: storytelling. Not unlike career theorist Mark Savickas’ narrative storytelling model, finding ways for people to tell their stories can tell you more than four letters or a series of numbers ever could about you, your child, or your potential coworker. It humanizes the sometimes cold or impersonal terms that appear in test results, creates a picture of a person that would likely be less off-putting than the collection of jargon that was presented to Dodge Morgan. For all the “a-ha” moments that tests provide, words don’t make us who we are. We do. And again, while I don’t know if we can turn the tide on the preponderance of personality inventories in our classrooms, offices, or homes (the horse may be too far from the stable on that one), Paul’s book reminded me to at least supplement those test results with the experiences and thoughts of the subject.

Have you read Paul’s book? What did you think? What tests do you use to work with students? 

4 thoughts on “Inkblots, Interests, and a Trip Around the World

  1. So I am certified to administer a few of these “tests,” including MBTI, Strengths, and have facilitated True Colors, LPI, and a few others whose names I’m forgetting.

    One of the first issues with any of these tools is calling it a test. Call it an assessment, inventory, indicator, anything but a test. It may seem like semantics, but the notion of a test immediate causes the participant to assume there is a right and wrong. Maybe their company is looking for a specific set of strengths, and they’ll be moved out if they don’t own any of those strengths. Maybe my MBTI results show I’m incompatible with my coworkers (when in fact I can get along with all of them just fine). Especially among college students, I find a lot who say/think “I’ll just answer who I think they want me to be” rather than who they really are.

    The caveat I leave in every workshop I do, is that this indicator is one of many that informs participants of aspects of their personality or behavior. It’s not intended to necessarily cause changes in that behavior, but rather to provide some common language and to give some (not all) structure to what we do and how we do it. If I lived my life solely by the generalizations made about my MBTI type, I would not be happy or comfortable in my life. I challenge workshop participants not to hide behind their results, and not to pigeonhole others into their results, but to appreciate those different gifts, and find ways to challenge themselves and others to be better versions of themselves.

    Long story short; don’t call it a test, and don’t live and die only by the outcomes of a single assessment.

  2. Jeff, I agree with you. And I love that as you administer these instruments, you voice that caveat.

    Unlike Paul, I don’t have a problem with use of the assessments in the settings in question. But I’m concerned about their use as definers for the people taking them. She argues that the way people can “answer what we want them to be” or are incomplete pictures of who we are undermine their value. What I would say is, have people take them and understand what the results mean, but not be slaves to what their results paint them as. I think as long as they are shown as a PART of a person, they can still be useful and powerful. The question here is, is their use in more sensitive situations like court proceedings (to determine fitness as a parent or likelihood of repeat offense) or hiring (will this person work well for this company or in this office) appropriate if that caveat isn’t voiced, or the enacted consequence isn’t consistent with what the caveat says?

    Lots to think about, but I value the voice of a facilitator in the discussion. Thanks for speaking up 🙂

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