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Deprogramming the Cult of the Workplace Personality Test

Introverted, extroverted, thinking or feeling? There’s really only one trait the personality-test industry is ever assigning to you: Gullible AF.

MEL Magazine

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Quick personality quiz just for fun: Which character from nightmare dystopian fiction are you?

  • Mostly ‘A’s: You’re Winston Smith from George Orwell’sNineteen Eighty-Four — emotionally led, impulsive, prone to harboring romantic notions of freedom.
  • Mostly ‘B’s: You’re Josef K. from Franz Kafka’s The Trial — methodical, vain, terminally untrustworthy.
  • Mostly ‘C’s: You’re Offred from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — relying on intuition, you’re an ideal people-person (or, at least, you’re fertile).
  • Mostly ‘D’s: You’re Vincent from the 1997 movie Gattaca — you’re genetically deficient and predestined to fail in all that you do.

Wait, did we forget to actually ask you any questions? That doesn’t matter. Your responses wouldn’t have affected the accuracy of your results, and the $4 billion personality-assessment industry has already decided the outcome for you in any case: As far as it’s concerned, you’re all of the above, your path in life has been determined and there’s not a damn thing you can do to change that.

To illustrate: A few months ago, a bright, chatty fellow named John walked out of a midweight marketing company’s offices in London, pretty sure he’d gotten the job. He’d been told the interview would last an hour at most, but they’d kept him there for two. “It was an informal chat until they got to the personality test,” says John, recalling that instead of the usual interview topics, such as his previous experience and relevant skills, discussion had zeroed in on the results of a psychometric questionnaire he’d been asked to complete prior to coming in. “It really felt like, ‘Wow, they love this test. They really believe in everything it says.’”

On being handed his results, John raised an eyebrow at the fact that, according to the test publisher’s blurb at the top, it had color-coded his personality according to the “four humors,” the bodily fluids — yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm — that Ancient Greek medical theory held as responsible for regulating both people’s physical health and the underlying aspects of character, or “temperaments.” “They said, ‘What we’re looking for is this…’” says John, “and what they showed me were these four colors together where they were all pretty balanced. They said, ‘Do you want to see yours?’ All of mine were balanced apart from red, which was through the roof.” Red, in this system, stood for a cluster of related personality traits that included aggression and competitiveness. This readout, explained the hiring panel, indicated, “You don’t mind treading on other people’s toes in order to gain success.”

Which John took to be a slam-dunk: The vacancy was for a senior salesperson. A competitive nature would be a strong asset when it came to closing deals, he ventured. “Actually, it’s a bit of a mix in our sales team,” came the reply. “Some of them have a little bit higher, but yours is as close to being off the scale as it could be.”

The next day the recruiter called to give him the bad news: “They thought that your ability within the sector and your sales experience would be great, but they felt that where you fell down was your personality test.” John’s first response was to burst out laughing. In the room it had “felt very cult-y,” he says. “They told me, ‘We’ve all done the test ourselves, and we find it 98 percent accurate.’” Did he really want to work for a company where teams were structured according to human-resources thinking from a time when motor function was attributed to animal spirits that roamed through the muscles and lived in the brain? “‘Where’s David?’” says John, mentally sketching a regular day at the office. “‘Oh, he’s in Meeting Room 2 at the moment, with the leeches on him.”

Testing Times

For the hundreds of thousands of people subjected to questionnaires like these each year, personality assessment is often nothing to laugh about, no matter how “sanguine” or “phlegmatic” they might be. Many might see their opportunities evaporate, major life decisions taken out of their hands, and in some instances, careers brought to a juddering halt, all based on their “honest” responses to innocuous- and/or weird-seeming statements such as, “I do not enjoy watching dance performances,” or “I am the last to laugh at a joke.”

Two millennia after Hippocrates and Galen formulated the Greeks’ soggy theory of temperaments, the world of business and recruitment is awash with personality-typing services — and yes, some of them really do explicitly reference their roots in ancient medicine, or in the case of tests based on the popular Enneagram model, in 4th century Christian mystic theology.

Others stake their claims to scientific authority on more recent ground, although it’s often far from cutting edge: The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MPPI), still in use among clinical psychologists, therapists and public institutions, for example, was first gleaned from surveying a small group of 724 Midwest suburbanites in the 1930s and comparing their responses with those of the patients of a single Minnesota mental institution. Cognitive assessments based on left-brain logic versus right-brain creativity, such as the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), meanwhile, ultimately rely on hypotheses about how the brain hemispheres interact that were popular in the 1970s but have now been thoroughly debunked by neuroscientists.

The most well-known hot-take taxonomy of all, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), is famously the product of a homeschooled Philadelphia novelist, Isabel Briggs Myers, feverishly working in the 1940s and 1950s to graft her own notions about personality onto a typology proposed by her intellectual hero, Carl Jung. As Annie Murphy Paul writes in her 2004 book The Cult of Personality Testing, Jung wasn’t exactly thrilled by the mass-market application of his ideas, which co-opted his categories into four governing dimensions of personality, each one conceived as a pair of opposing characteristics. Within each of these pairs, Isabel claimed, everyone exhibited either one or the other attribute. In her jargon, you were either a “thinking” person or a “feeling” person (your nailed-down psyche wasn’t allowed to straddle both), you were either “introverted” or “extroverted” and you went about the world either “sensing” or “intuiting” it, and either rationally “judging” or irrationally “perceiving” things.

In 1950 Jung replied to a letter Isabel had sent him, with a curt thank you “for kindly sending me your interesting questionnaire.” But in his own writings, Jung warned that his personality types were useful primarily as tools for studying large numbers of people, and became all but meaningless when applied to individuals: “One can never give a description of a type, no matter how complete, that would apply to more than one individual, despite the fact that in some ways it aptly characterizes thousands of others… Classification does not explain the individual psyche.”

Even so, the Myers-Briggs system’s idiot-proof formula and promise of simple solutions to complex personnel issues caught on in the world of people management — first as a cult in management-science circles after it was finally published in 1962, and then as a runaway corporate fad in the 1970s. Its popularity has been growing ever since. According to Murphy Paul, by 2004, 89 of America’s Fortune 100 companies were using it, and today the Myers-Briggs Company claims 2 million people complete the current version of its test each year.

Meanwhile, throughout the long decades since World War II, while this and similar systems have been refined, promoted and steadily entrenched as indispensable weapons of hiring and firing, pretty much the entire community of professional academic psychologists has been quietly coughing into its hand and saying “bullshit.”

Per psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman of Columbia University, the commercial allure of personality typing, as presented by Myers-Briggs — along with all the other typological tests that have found success in its wake — has less to do with science and more to do with packaging. The people pushing personality typology based on either archaic or pseudo-science, he says, “are terrific psychopathic marketers,” who have honed their pitch much more than their data. “They’re not in the world of science. They care about selling the product.”

The fact that their own “red” scores are likely to be “through the roof” is borne out by their sales. In 2015 the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology estimated that 13 percent of employers in the U.S. used personality tests on their workers and prospective hires. One report by a German talent-testing firm, meanwhile, The Global Assessment Barometer,” surveying 2,776 employers across 14 countries, reckoned that in 2016, around 60 percent of companies worldwide were using “some form of psychometric assessment” in hiring, organizing and developing their staff, and that in recruitment, the use of online testing tools in particular had rapidly grown in the preceding years, with just over half of companies deploying web-based personnel analysis.

But just like everything else in the realm of personality testing, these figures are fantastically fuzzy. The wide variety in approaches and theories, combined with the sheer number of proprietary tests on the market, means it’s difficult to get a precise fix on their prevalence in corporate culture — and on the real-life impacts their arbitrary judgements are having on the workforce. The one thing that is certain is that on the whole, the personality-assessment industry is, scientifically speaking, a slopping bucket of nonsense.

The Myers-Briggs test has attracted the most scrutiny, and in independent trials its reliability over time has repeatedly been found wanting. A 2005 review of the research cites at least nine studies since the 1960s (one conducted by the Myers-Briggs organization itself in 1998) that found many test-takers, on redoing the questionnaire a few weeks later, were assigned a different personality make-up — in one study, after a five-week gap, around half of participants “received a different classification on one or more of the scales.” In 2005, University of Tennessee psychologist David Pittenger concluded, “There is no evidence to show a positive relation between MBTI type and success within an occupation.”

“They’re really good at seducing people and being all like, ‘Oh wow, there’s something good within you no matter what,’” says Kaufman. “There’s no bad pole. You’re either ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling,’ for example. If you’re told you’re a ‘thinking’ person you think that’s great; if you’re a ‘feeling’ person you think that finding is great. It just confirms what you want to believe about yourself.”

As Murphy Paul writes, the meteoric rise of Myers-Briggs alongside corporate expansion in the 1980s and 1990s is partly explained by its upbeat and peppy lingo. “The Indicator’s unfailingly positive tone blends seamlessly with the language of corporate political correctness.” Its “euphemistic blandness,” she suggests, “is the key to its success, and it has been widely copied by other, similar instruments.”

Personality Clashes

Among psychologists, personality has always been plagued by controversy. A few decades ago, debate raged as to whether it could even be said to exist in any meaningful way. This was largely in the wake of ideas put forward in 1968 by the social psychologist Walter Mischel, who argued that what people mistake for personality is really only our triggered behavioral responses in any given social situation; these might follow patterns but aren’t really connected by anything as consistent as fixed, underlying character traits.

In the past 30 years, though, statistical examination of what natural language reveals about personality — both in the everyday conversations people have about other people and in the thousands of words for describing human character that fill our dictionaries — has convinced psychologists that certain fixed traits really are there after all, lurking in the background, structuring our habits and behavior. Most psychologists will now agree that personality is a valid field of scientific enquiry, though dissenting voices do still pop up.

Despite these disputes, one reason Kaufman and so many of his colleagues get to be so scathing about the flimsy claims of Myers-Briggs and other commercial models is that in the course of thrashing out their own differences, the academic researchers have constructed their own, far more robust framework to compare against the corporate-friendly tests. This is usually known as the “Big Five” or “Five Factor Model” of personality traits — from the professional psychologists’ point of view, seeing commercial models like HBDI is a little like watching those magnificent men in their flying machines flapping about on the runway from the cockpit of a Learjet.

Since the early 1980s, the Big Five’s set of fundamental character attributes has been diligently extracted as psychological substrate from the vast sediment of ordinary language. Says Kaufman, “It’s been vigorously studied across many different countries around the world, and it’s been shown that people tend to converge on the same set of adjectives when they describe people.” This approach has its critics, but in practice what’s emerged is a flexible hierarchy of categories, around which researchers have coalesced — although some might pare the five down to two top-level classifications, while others might extend it to six or beyond. However it’s cut, argues Kaufman, “that personality framework seems to be the most scientifically legit,” because “it’s been normed on the entire human population.”

The trouble is, when you actually take atest based on a Big Five model, you’re confronted with an all-too-familiar list of detached, self-reflective statements — “I get chores done right away,” or “I talk to a lot of different people at parties.” On the face of it, the scientific approach appears almost the same as that taken by MBTI, the MPPI, the HBDI and all the other schlockier Who-Am-I tests out there.

But, as Kaufman explains, there are some important differences. The first clue that you’re being assessed in a scientifically sound way is that the testers’ terminology is not as saccharine. “The Big Five is more reality based, so, yes, there’s a bad pole — there’s something that could be bad about you,” says Kaufman. This becomes more apparent when the model’s five overarching personality traits (actually broad “domains,” which each house clusters of sub-traits and sub-categories) are listed out: “Agreeableness” (which at the other end of the scale might also imply disagreeableness, or self-interest); “conscientiousness” (and its inverse, sloppiness, or a lack of reliability); “openness to experience” (contrasted with, among other traits, closed-mindedness); “neuroticism” (and its complement, emotional stability); and similar to Myers-Briggs, a spectrum of extroversion-introversion.

With their tendency to play down any such negative imputations in their own tests, the commercial assessors are presenting badly distorted pictures of personality to their clients, says Kaufman. As he puts it: “These bad tests don’t ever help you realize what you suck at.”

Secondly, a Big Five-based audit is unlikely to flatter you with a suspiciously precise, elaborate description of your personality (in other words, assign you a particular “type”). If you get a detailed set of results from a test that makes you go, “A-ha! Yes! That’s exactly me! I do put other people first to the detriment of my own needs!” that’s probably a cause for concern, because that’s not how the real science of personality works.

“I don’t trust these ‘either/or’ kind of personality tests,” warns Kaufman; instead, he says, “the Big Five is more about placing you on a particular part of a continuum: ‘We’re all a little bit some way,’ as opposed to, ‘You are this way or that way.’” In contrast, Myers-Briggs commits its test-takers to absolute, either/or verdicts across each of its dimensions, with the added drawback that its major categories don’t map on to the separate families of personality traits that have been marked out by the scientific model: “They’ll say you’re either ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling,’ or you’re either ‘intuitive’ or ‘sensing.’ And that’s taking things that have been found to be different, independent dimensions of personality, and putting them on the same scale. That’s problematic, because there’s plenty of people who are ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling,’ not ‘thinking’ or ‘feeling.’”

The best way to spot the difference between the science and the snake oil, though, is to familiarize yourself with the different approaches. Kaufman has been developing his own personality tests, based on sound scientific principles and the Big Five framework, and you can take them online (one of these, the “Light Triad Scale,” which gives users an insight into where they sit on a scale between saintliness and psychopathy, recently went viral, and Kaufman appeared on BBC radio in the U.K to discuss it). For the full range of contrast, the Open-Source Psychometrics Project offers an impressive range of fun, interactive sample tests that cover many of the major formats circulating out there, from the still commercially popular DISC model of the 1920s, to a left-right brain-dominance scale, to its own version of a Myers-Briggs type test, to the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory (a test designed to screen for shell-shock susceptibility in World War I), to a test based on those four weirdly persistent ancient temperaments.

Resisting Assessed

So if you’ve been asked to stake your entire future on the outcome of a personality test that’s decades, centuries or even millennia out-of-date, what options do you have to avoid playing that game? Well, unfortunately, not too many. In the U.S. at least, the legal position of a refusenik employee who’s working at will isn’t likely to be strong, while the legal position of an employer who’s seeking to impose a personality test on their staff is, yet again, fuzzy.

With the very strong caveat that none of what follows should be taken as actual legal advice to be acted upon (for that, please consult a lawyer — preferably an extrovert-intuiting-thinking-judging one), and depending on the questions being asked, there’s always the possibility that a not-widely-used test might just be violating federal discrimination laws. Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act are all in play, say the experts, if the personality traits being screened for can be shown to single out protected classes of citizens.

In certain states with strong privacy laws, such as California, some tests might be also held to violate these protections too. In her book, Murphy Paul cites a number of successful litigants in the 1990s, including a security guard who was rejected from a job application to Target thanks to failing a test called PsychScreen whose verdicts on psychological fitness were shown to be wrong in six out of ten cases, as well as a $2.1 million class action in 1994 against another company hiring security guards, Burns International Security Services, for a test that asked intrusive questions about job applicants’ political beliefs and attitudes toward substance abuse.

But in most cases, suing a company for not hiring you might be a little extreme. For a more subversive approach, there’s always the option of exploiting these tests’ universal Achilles heel: Their reliance on self-reporting demands that you answer honestly, but there’s no possible way for test administrators to enforce or check this. So if you can accurately predict the traits your employer is looking for, it’s very possible to identify them in the questions and optimize your answers. A study in 2003 showed that people taking the Big Five-based NEO PI-R test could successfully game their “neuroticism” and “extroversion” scores when asked to aim for a good result.

As John’s experience of being deemed “too competitive for sales” shows, though, second-guessing employers’ whims and wish lists can be a risky business. Following his color-coded encounter with Hippocrates, he landed a job a couple of weeks later, where he navigated the recruitment process the old-fashioned way — by acing the interviews. Having had his professional mentality dissected, fried and fed back to him, he now sees personality testing “in the same way as I would see a medium. There’s always going to be an answer that’s generic enough that if I want to believe it, it’s going to slot into my preconceived ideas. But actually, when you boil it down, it doesn’t tell you as much as meeting the person does.”

Commercial personality profiling might have its place as a conversation starter or an entertaining diversion, but it shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near important decisions — like, say, how much your character-adjusted motor insurance should cost, or how the nation should vote. “Let’s say you had a hundred women who you’d never met before,” says John, “and you had to pick a wife based on their personality tests: You’d never do it, would you?”

No, you probably wouldn’t. Not unless you really had a thing for black bile.

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This post originally appeared on MEL Magazine and was published June 19, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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