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The Cult of Personality Testing

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Jun. 22nd, 2010 | 11:43 am

"An X-ray of personality." Since the early days of personality tests, this has been the testers' favorite metaphor, and no wonder: it calls to mind a precise and powerful instrument, capable of penetrating mere surfaces to produce an image of what's within. And yet this metaphor has never been more than an alluring fantasy, or perhaps a willful delusion. The reality is that personality tests cannot begin to capture the complex human beings we are. They cannot specify how well we will change over time. Many tests look for (and find) disease and dysfunction rather than health and strength. Many others fail to meet basic scientific standards of validity and reliability.

The consequences of these failures are real. Our society is making crucial decisions -- whether a parent should receive custody of a child, whether a worker should be offered a job, whether a student should be admitted to a school or special program -- on the basis of deeply flawed information. If these tests serve anyone well, it is not individuals but institutions, which purchase efficiency and convenience at the price of our privacy and dignity. Personality tests do their dirty work, asking intrusive questions and assigning limiting labels, providing an ostensibly objective rationale to which testers can point with an apologetic shrug.

But perhaps the most insidious effect of personality testing is its influence on the way we understand others -- children, coworkers, fellow citizens -- and even ourselves. The tests substitute a tidy abstraction for a real, rumpled human being, a sterile idea for a flesh-and-blood individual. No doubt these generic forms are easier to understand (and, not incidentally, to manipulate) than actual people, in all their sticky specificity. But ultimately they can only diminish our recognition and appreciation of others' full humanity.

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The author argues that attempting to box ourselves into the categories created by various theories of personality ultimately limits self understanding, and she's right. When we're unwilling to allow ourselves to grow outside the confines of an abstract category, when we're constantly policing ourselves and working from a perspective that endorses the permanence and empirical reality of those categories, we're undoubtedly going to run into trouble.

That's a perfectly reasonable argument to make. But it ignores some things. The call for moderation applies to more than just personality tests -- it applies to everything. Most of the categories we have for identification and self-understanding are historically variable and socially constructed, but nonetheless determinative and influential for lots and lots of folks. 'Homosexual' is a relatively modern category, socially constructed in large part by doctors in the nineteenth century. Lots of people know this, but it doesn't change the fact that 'homosexual' remains a hugely important part of people's identification.

I don't view these possibilities for self-understanding and self-creation as problematic: I view them as important and useful. We humans are lucky. We have an unbelievable array of tools and resources that can aid us in the construction of our identities. Type systems and their accompanying theories, when adequately modified, are just one implement in our arsenal. Admittedly, they're more frivolous and ultimately less determinative or important than, say, personal narrative, experience, gender, sexuality, and race, but they're still tools for identification that we can use, that can shape us if we allow them to. The self is shapeable in a number of ways, the mind is constantly molded consciously and unconsciously, and if people responsibly and critically use personality tests as a tool for self-discovery, reflection, shaping, and so on -- then I think that's fine.

I do, however, think she's absolutely right about discontinuing the use of the tests for major life altering decisions. These tests should be wrested from the hands of institutions that use them to make important, material decisions about people's lives. Authorities should not be using these tests to better understand the people they're going to employ, much less place them in an integral role based on their type. That's a mistake. And we certainly shouldn't be using the Rorschach test to determine custody hearings.

I think the tests do have a place though -- thoughtful individuals trying to construct a version of themselves with which they are comfortable should look at these tests as possibilities, jumping off points, but never the final word (which, unfortunately, is how institutions, psychiatrists, and others who can't be bothered to think hard and critically about the theories often look at them). I understand that MBTI theory, and Jungian theory too, is in large part fabricated and constructed, but that doesn't change the fact that it's compelling and useful for me and how I think of myself; and I understand fully that it's all a stunning work of creation, but still it is useful for me to conceptualize myself in the ways that it makes available. Just like fiction is useful. Just like movies are useful. Just like anything that offers a site of identification is useful.

Of course, I'm just trying to justify my three years-long obsession with MBTI, but whatever. I don't think I'm wrong. Am I wrong?

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