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Personality Tests: Modern-Day Phrenology

Companies use personality tests for a variety of purposes, such as employment screening, assessing leadership potential, fostering corroboration and teamwork, and so on.

The most widely used is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), created by Pennsylvania housewife Isabel Myers. This particular test is utilized by 89% of the Fortune 100, given to 2.5 million people each year to identify strengths and enhance teamwork. She thought the test could bring about world peace.

The Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory (MMPI) was developed in 1946 to sort mental patients into diagnostic categories. It was then expanded in an attempt to describe normal people.

Of course, popularity does not imply scientific validity. What is worse, most companies keep these tests confidential so the data cannot be scientifically tested to determine effectiveness.

These tests are also popular among consultants, who are paid good money to administer them in a convivial atmosphere. But the fallacy is the tests measure what we are like and who we are, not what we know, believe, or can do. They confuse labeling personality with understanding it.

The tests are also reassuring confirmations of what people already know about themselves, what psychologists call the permanency tendency. They also tend to validate the positive characteristics we all believe we possess, the so-called Pollyanna principle.

Companies might as well bring their people together to play with Ouija boards, which are equally entertaining while having roughly the same empirical validity. As they say, if you really want to learn what someone is like, marry them or work for them.

Annie Murphy Paul, former senior editor at Psychology Today, has written a scathing indictment against these tests, labeling them modern-day phrenology, in her book The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. Here a few of her more condemning facts:

…[A]s many as three-quarters of test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again, and the sixteen distinctive types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis whatsoever.

The sly brilliance of using personality test[s] to label employees is that, by dint of answering the test’s questions, employees appear to be labeling themselves. … Under this banner of respect for individuality, organizations are able to shift responsibility for employee satisfaction onto that obliging culprit, ‘fit.’

And research has found little connection between indicator types and real-life outcomes. There is scant evidence that MBTI results are useful in determining managerial effectiveness, helping to build teams, providing career counseling, enhancing insight into self or others, or any other of the myriad uses for which it is promoted.”

Professor Erkko Autio, department of management at HEC Lausanne, in Switzerland, pointed out the same defects with respect to the current fad of “emotional intelligence” in a letter to The Economist:

It might interest you to know that not a single serious study has ever been able to demonstrate a link between “emotional intelligence” and leadership effectiveness. The most robust and consistent single predictor of leadership effectiveness is, simply, intelligence. Emotional intelligence sells well, but scientific evidence supporting it is almost as solid as that supporting the effectiveness of homeopathy (The Economist, Aug 26, 2006: 14).

Professor Autio is certainly correct in the assertion that intelligent quotient (IQ) is a better predictor of executive effectiveness, as The Bell Curve has empirically demonstrated. If you were confined to learning one number about an individual to predict their standard of living, you would be hard pressed to find a better one than their IQ.

That being said, firms are not confined to knowing just one thing about their potential or existing employees. As Rabbi Daniel Lapin wrote in Thou Shall Prosper: “You are best understood and appraised by others on the basis of the things you believe rather than on the basis of the things you know.” Or, I might add, rather than on the basis of your personality or year of birth (see Generational Astrology).

We are better off understanding people’s beliefs if we want to even begin to understand how and why the Germans of the Third Reich could carry out their murderous orders in acquiescent servility, or the people who flew airplanes into buildings killing innocent civilians on September 11, 2001.

Trying to simplify the spirituality and soul of a human life by labeling it with a personality type (or even an IQ) is to disregard the uniqueness and dignity of individuals, which requires judgment and discernment far more than measurement. As Peter Drucker once wrote, “There is no such thing as an infallible judge of people, at least not on this side of the Pearly Gates.”

I am not going to offer a replacement to personality testing because you don’t need to replace meaningless practices with anything. I will suggest, instead, that you follow the wisdom of Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang, from his book, The Importance of Living:

To me… man’s dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that he has dreams and a lofty idealism…third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will.

This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature. In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth.

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