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?

Other critics charge that there is no way to verify the results of an honesty test. Barry Beyerstein says a true test of a person's propensity to steal would be to administer the test to thousands and later see how many had been caught stealing or would admit to theft. To do so would be expensive and intrusive beyond imagining, and it still wouldn't prove anything. Many thieves never fess up or get caught.

"These honesty tests are very controversial," says Beyerstein. "Personality tests should pan out in real life, should have real-life consequences."

Each question on Helm's tests is posed to control groups, whose answers should vary in a way that fits the bell curve.

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.

If answers to a question are lopsided, with too many people answering one way, Helm will throw qualifiers into the question to even out the responses. If he has a question that too many people answer in a positive way and there is a related question that has too many negative responses, he'll combine the two and retest. He will tinker with the wording until the responses fit the bell shape.

"This isn't as much of a science as I would like it to be," Helm acknowledges. "It's more of an art form."


Charlie Whitney took a job that doesn't require a personality test--cleaning pools. The money is good, and he enjoys working days.

"There's no test. My personality is Pool Cleaning Guy," he says.

Afterward, Whitney's girlfriend, Lindsey Davison, consoled him about the tests. She recalled her days of working at a pizza-delivery chain and being subjected to tests when hired and when promoted. The answers were marked three ways: red for wrong, green for right, and double red for very wrong answers. There were multiple choice questions and fill-in-the-blanks.

Questions were typically obvious. If someone overpaid for a delivery, would you return the money?

"You wouldn't want to hire someone who was dumb enough to answer wrong to that," Davison says.

Whitney's dubious feelings about the impersonal and judgmental world of personality testing aren't uncommon. The more human approach that he enjoyed at his first night job at Muddy Waters is being lost to pop psychology and meddling management. It rubs some qualified people the wrong way.

"You'd have to say that there may be types of people who like to be categorized," says Alliger. "I also think there are lots of people who do not like to be categorized and become resentful...I think we should avoid typing people in general."

Things can get out of hand. In 1998, Thomas Stewart wrote in Fortune magazine that he recalled visiting a factory in Virginia where managers wore name badges color-coded to reveal how they had scored on a test of personality type. It's an eerie witness of how desperate companies can get to find a cure for miscommunication and bad business management.

As for psychologists, making money and proving their science useful will keep personality testing in vogue for their profession. The naysayers will poke holes in the theories, the skeptics will scoff, and journalists will listen to them both in confusion.

Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has analogies that bring him hope when thinking of his profession. "It's like that with all young sciences; we'll keep the procedure until a better one comes along, even if that procedure is flawed. If you go back in the history of medicine, doctors only gave up leeches when drugs became a better cure. That's what will happen here.

"When there's a better way of assessing personality, these tests will go by the wayside, as they should."

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