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?

Over the years the test questions have been revamped. The most sweeping changes were made in 1998, when each query was re-examined and tested individually to determine whether it was ferreting out useful information, according to Segovia. For example, a question asking: "Would you rather go to a party or the theater?" was a measure of age, not introversion or extroversion. The question was removed.

Other modifications were made to questions to ensure they didn't discriminate. "We tested on a sample population from every socio-economic group, age, and region," Segovia says.

There are several problems with MBTI, and critics are eager to point them out. The first is that the tests are self-referential--they will tell testers how subjects see themselves instead of showing how they truly are.

Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Michael Hogue
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.
Mark Graham
Kurt Helm creates tests that he says can measure anybody's propensity to do just about anything. He also uses mainstream personality tests to counsel corporations with troublesome but vital executives.

"Psychology is the only group [of scientists] that base their ideas on asking people questions," says Jerome Kagan, an author and professor of psychology at Harvard University. "It's bad off the bat; a weak source of data. You just can't ask people, 'Are you shy?'"

Another problem with Myers-Briggs is called "confirmation bias," which refers to the way people interpret the results. Another name for this is the "Barnum Principle," after the showman who claimed he had "something for everyone." The conclusions of the test are so vague that most people can see at least some aspect of themselves in the results. For example, this excerpt was taken from Consulting Psychologists Press Web site (www.cpp-db.com), which has sample test results and analysis describing a personality type called Introverted Sensing with Thinking Judgment, one of 16 standard types. "ISTJs generally prefer to work alone and be accountable for the results," the site says. "However they are comfortable working in teams when it is necessary to do the job right, when roles are clearly defined, and when people fulfill assigned responsibilities. ISTJs have a profound respect for facts."

It's the same concept as a newspaper's astrology column: The reader will always be looking for something in their lives that matches the prediction.

"The Myers-Briggs test is not that relevant, revealing, and accurate. They just seem to be," Beyerstein says.


Michael Costa fixes problems. His company, DMC Hospitality, irons out staff, purchasing, and marketing problems for the restaurants and companies that hire him. Based in Dallas, the firm boasts national as well as local clients.

A year and a half ago, Costa began using personality tests and became a quick convert to their utility. His company uses the Myers-Briggs to fill positions or to figure out how to shuffle staff so they work more efficiently. For DMC, the test is a way to distill an assessment of a staff, which otherwise would take weeks of observation, down to a couple of hours.

"We use it as much as possible," Costa says. He adds that the test findings are well-received, with most agreeing that the results "sound like me."

Proponents say the tests can help reassign duties, keep employees in positions they are happy with, and maximize the skills and preferences of employees. An introvert working as a maître d' may be happier working in the back, despite the fact that he has adopted the attitude of maître d' in order to do the job. Costa says the use of tests is not mandatory, but he is increasingly trusting of them.

He says they have proved themselves useful more than 90 percent of the time, and stories of the accomplishments have won other recent converts to personality testing.

"Some people won't hire without testing," he says. "People hear about that success of people who use it on a consistent basis, and there's more exposure on a corporate level. It's being used more and more in the hospitality industry side; it's kind of spreading like wildfire."

Personality testing isn't a hot controversy these days. It doesn't make a lot of waves, legally or emotionally, even when used as an employment screen. Even civil liberties critics are slow to dismiss the established Myers-Briggs test, instead focusing on more controversial tests.

"Companies have personalities, and so do people," says the National Work Rights Institute's Maltby. "You don't want to put a sandal-wearing Silicon Valley person in IBM. It's not inherently wrong as long as the questions are relevant and are not intrusive."

But the success and innocuous approach of the Myers-Briggs test have opened the doors to other tests that are more dubious in nature. If Myers-Briggs is regarded as the best personality test, one of the worst (at least for the workplace) has to be the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory test (MMPI). The test, first published in 1943, poses true/false questions to more than 500 questions ranging from sex life to religion. There are eight other parts to the test, but the section that asks a prospective employee to answer T/F to "I believe there is a God" and "I have no difficulty in starting or holding my bowel movements" raised hackles.

"It asks questions I wouldn't ask my wife," Maltby says. "I'm serious."

The original MMPI was developed by a psychologist and neuropsychiatrist to diagnose specific mental disorders, such as depression and schizophrenia, by asking hundreds of short statements and noting which ones the patients agreed with. The basic purpose of the test was to differentiate among various types of mental patients, as well as to distinguish who was crazy and who was not.

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