American psycho-babble

From beerhalls to boardrooms, personality tests claim to be a window into the soul. Are they a valid tool, or just psychological window dressing?

"There is a lot of bullshit in this field," Helm says bluntly.

It's impossible to understand personality testing without understanding where the tests came from, and that means understanding the one most widely used, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

Many psychologists feel the MBTI is the yardstick against which anybody's mentality can be measured. The test, named after its creators, does not measure mental health; it makes general statements about the way people think. The MBTI is a series of either/or questions that supposedly separate test subjects into predefined categories.

Carl Jung's supporters, such as author Anthony Stevens, argue that his insights were vital even if unscientific. Jung's theories spawned the most widely used personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.
Carl Jung's supporters, such as author Anthony Stevens, argue that his insights were vital even if unscientific. Jung's theories spawned the most widely used personality test, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

For example, questions might ask what social activities you like to engage in, or how you view the world around you, or how you make judgments. The tests measure the way people see themselves, perhaps one of the most subjective judgments somebody can make.

Supporters of the tests trace their genesis \ to Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, whose views on the nature of the human psyche are at best controversial. The similarities to science fiction author and spiritual guru L. Ron Hubbard are striking: Both wrote literary work in pop-psychology, both had theories that were unprovable, and both cultivated devoted international followings. There is nothing scientific about either of them.

Jung's contemporaries found him intelligent but deeply weird. Revisionist historians with axes to grind highlight his arcane pursuits, his courting of paranormal theories, and his awkward support of Nazi views on the psychological differences between Aryans and Jews.

"[Jungian theory] is an offshoot of Freud. It's literature, not science," says Barry Beyerstein, a professor with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has criticized his theories. "None of these pseudoscientific tests pass muster."

Carl Jung was born in 1875, the son of a Lutheran clergyman. He watched as his father slowly lost belief in his religion, an event that would mold the young Jung enormously. Jung's childhood was also marked by an overactive imagination and vivid dreams that he took very seriously.

After becoming a psychologist, he worked in Zurich, eventually attracting the attention of Sigmund Freud. The pair collaborated until 1912, when they separated and became bitter enemies. The fight originated over Freud's insistence that all psychological analysis has a root in biology and sex. The quarrel escalated into a war over the future of psychotherapy. Many theorize that Jung's hatred of Freud translated into the anti-Semitism that would mar his career.

Jung blended spirituality with his psychological analysis. When attacked for the lack of scientific basis in his work, he declared that science couldn't plumb the depths of an individual's psyche because of the uniqueness of each subject. Ironically, Jung's work, individualistic to a fault, would eventually become the basis for standardized personality tests.

Anthony Stevens, a Jungian analyst and author, gives the following feeble explanation in his book On Jung: "Those who accuse Jung of being unscientific are right, or course, if they mean by 'science' the use of experimental procedures of physics and chemistry rather than the growth of scientia (knowledge). It is a fact that in developing his psychology, Jung did not propose hypotheses that he then subjected to experimental test. Instead he began with his own experiences and those of his patients."

Indeed, many of Jung's theories are focused on interpretations of his own life and dreams. Symbols he came up with were declared "universal symbols" and incorporated into his theories. His troubled home life, replete with mistresses and feuding with Freud, became fodder for his writing.

He invented the words introvert and extrovert to describe the way people deal with their surroundings. His early theories were groundbreaking and extremely penetrating, but as his life progressed and his fame grew he became stranger and stranger.

Jung's theories also can be seen as a precursor to New Age thinking. His pursuit of astrology, spirit mediums, and even UFOs made people quick to label him a crank, a label that has dogged Jungian theorists ever since. Jung's theories are also adopted by some current New Agers to lend credibility to their claims, and bastardized tests measuring spirituality are easy to find on the Internet.

One theory, eagerly used by the Nazi regime, maintained that different races held different collective memories, inherited subconscious baggage that limits one's capabilities, a curious thought to serve as a foundation for a pre-employment test.

So how did Jung's theories become the basis for a personality test?

His literature caught the eye of American Katharine C. Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers, who saw potential to help the World War II effort by developing a test that could uncover somebody's personality type. The pair, neither a trained psychologist, developed the mother of all Jungian personality tests, the MBTI. Last year two million people took the test, according to the company that produces it.

"Isabel made the first paper and pencil use of the test in 1940," says Michael Segovia, the director of new ventures for Consulting Psychologists Press, the company that now holds the rights to the MBTI. "They tested tens of thousands of medical school students."

Their idea: screen women to determine which ones were better suited to work in factories while their husbands fought in World War II. The theory seems to be that all women didn't have the psychological makeup to become Rosie the Riveter, so some process was needed to weed the capable women from the incapable. By extension, all men were assumed to have the right stuff to mass-produce a tank on an assembly line.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help