American psycho-babble

Charlie Whitney wasn't thinking about personality tests last month when he walked into Dave & Buster's looking for work as a bartender. His previous experiences with interviewing and job hunting were exceptionally humane: references from acquaintances, informal meetings with bar owners, and a firm pressing of palms as a contract.

"They were a handshake and 'I'll see you Monday' kind of deals," Whitney says.

Whitney has worked since he was 14. His entrance into bar work came when he heard of an opening for a bartender's assistant at Muddy Waters, a club on Lower Greenville. So off he went, an 18-year-old on a DART bus dressed in slacks and a button-down shirt, to meet the owner, who was waiting for him in a dirty fishing hat and ragged jeans.

"He was sitting on a stool at the bar, customer side, eating a bucket of fried chicken," Whitney recalls. "He told me what they needed and what days, and told me to come to work tomorrow." He did, and he worked there for several years.

Last month, now an experienced bartender, Whitney stepped into Dave & Buster's on Walnut Hill Lane and into a world of psychological and corporate bureaucracy. The job application was four pages, asking for hobbies, references, and experience. Then he was told that, after the application, he'd be given a "personality test."

"I was bitching the whole time I was filling out the application," he says. "I have to do four pages of this and then do some crap-ass personality test? Why wasn't anyone coming out to talk to me?"

When someone did talk to him, it became clear the test was a formality and a nuisance. A female employee told him, half-jokingly, that the test was to see whether he was "Dave & Buster's material" and advised that he keep the corporate mindset in mind while taking it.

"She was really cool. She just said, 'Tell them what they want to hear,'" Whitney says.

Though some Dave & Buster's employees complain about the tests privately, they don't gripe loudly, simply because the exams are easy to beat. The questions are logical and simple-minded: If you saw a cash drawer open, would you take money? If you saw a co-worker taking drugs, would you report it to a superior? The right answers are not hard to spot.

Most of the complaints from the staff come from the fact that the Dave & Buster's pre-employment test isn't the only one they have to take. Periodic tests are given to the staff, rating their friendliness, attitude, and honesty. "You'd be surprised at how often," says one employee, rolling his eyes. "Now I refuse to take them. I've worked here a long time."

Whitney never took the test; he walked out after finishing the application.

"There must be a guy sitting up the ladder somewhere with nothing better to do than make up tests and keep files," he says. "I just felt like a number going through."

Encounters with personality testing like Whitney's are becoming more common. While they were once used by corporations to screen executives, service industries are now adopting them as a way to gain control of front-line employees. It is estimated that more than half of America's major corporations conduct psychological tests of job applicants, and test-makers and critics agree the practice is being emulated by small business.

Dave & Buster's, hardly a small chain, is following the steps of even larger corporations such as Southwest Airlines that swear by these tests. The fact that the bar-restaurant-arcade makes its own personality test is a tribute to the belief of corporations that they can measure unquantifiable traits in employees, such as charisma and honesty. It's also a testament to the unscientific and clumsy ways businesses use psychological testing these days.

Psychiatrists and psychologists have been engaged in test-making and test-analyzing for years, slowly creating a trusted field of pseudo-science that is permeating our culture. The popularity of the tests is on the rise, but so is the backlash against them.

"The problem is that the tests aren't reliable," says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Work Rights Institute, a civil rights group based in New Jersey that studies workplace issues. "The only way they are a success is by failing a tremendous amount of honest people...You can't sue an employer for giving a personality test. They don't have to be fair or even sane. They just have to not discriminate."

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of personality tests widely used today. Some are designed to spot a particular trait, like a person's susceptibility to steal or indulge in other risky workplace behaviors. Others make broad statements about a person's "personality type" and avoid specific examinations of pathology. The most famous of the latter is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the core of which is still used more than 60 years after its development. Some tests that were designed to scout out mental disorders also have been used as employment screens.

Uses for personality tests outside corporate offices are not hard to find. At some schools, like Birdville ISD north of Fort Worth, personality tests are used to aid in teaching. If you check the Internet, you can locate companies peddling tests that claim to give insight into everything from your spiritualism to your child's interest in sex. The popularity of the tests has opened the doors to fly-by-night operations and spiritual wackos. Even test-makers of good repute, such as Dallas' Kurt Helm, are hurt by some of the pop psychobabble peddled by some companies.

"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.

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.

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.

"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.

A copy of the MMPI obtained by the Dallas Observer contains questions about bathroom habits ("I am very seldom troubled by constipation"); sexual preference ("I have wished I were a girl"); religion ("I believe in the second coming of Christ"); and the just plain weird ("I think I would like the work a forest ranger does"). There are many questions about relationships with members of the subject's family.

The test provides scores on 10 basic clinical scales--hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria, masculinity-femininity, paranoia, hypomania (excitability), psychopathic deviancy, schizophrenia, social introversion, and irrational fears and compulsive actions. The test was slightly altered in 1989.

Using this tool in the workplace may not be such a good idea. This July, nearly 1,000 employees of Dallas-based Rent-A-Center sued the company in U.S. Northern District of California claiming a personality test invaded their privacy.

The company settled the class-action suit for $2 million, paying $2,000 to each California employee who took the test and failed and $1,250 to those who passed. The company also agreed to stop using the test on a national scale and to destroy all test records.

Maltby says that lawsuits challenging the tests are few because most of the time an employee who was denied a job doesn't know the test was a deciding factor, and applicants don't feel they've been wronged by not being offered a job. They don't want to explore their failure, and the tests go unchallenged.

The MMPI seems to be an exception because of the probing nature of the questions. In 1989 a group of security applicants applying for jobs with the Target department store chain won more than $1 million after taking a variant of the MMPI. Judges have denied the use of the test to measure the personality of plaintiffs in civil lawsuits, claiming they are intrusive and unreliable.

The MMPI was retooled to eliminate questions that probed into religion and sexual orientation and violated disability discrimination laws, but critics maintain the test is filled with invalid and intrusive questions. This year's court settlement against Rent-A-Center, and the company's dropping of the test's use, seems to support the critics' point.

Rent-A-Center never asked for a test that specifically queried its employees about their bowel movements. They hired a Kansas-based company to produce a test package that, according to Rent-A-Center's vice president and general counsel, Brad Denison, would "predict the job skills and personality that would make them successful."

Denison says the company's CEO witnessed successes with testing at other companies and followed suit. "We hired a company that does this type of thing, and they used a test they thought best accomplished the task. We were relying on them," he says.

"This issue caused us some problems," Denison says. "But there is still room for disagreement whether that test was OK with the law. At least some people thought that it wasn't."

The court settlement stipulated that Rent-A-Center stop using the test, so the company found a new testing firm to put together a test package that wouldn't get them sued. Denison says the test is too new to compare with the old one. The company that first brought the MMPI to Rent-A-Center didn't pay a dime. However, it was not chosen to produce the new test for the company.

"It is my belief that they were not necessarily excluded from consideration," Denison says. He did not reveal the company that produced the test, and the myriad news stories written about the conflict did not mention it by name. It's as if it had nothing to do with the incident at all.

The vagueness of the Jungian personality tests and the invasive search for personality disorders don't mean much to business executives and human resource managers. They have pragmatic concerns beyond whether a clerk believes in the afterlife or gets along with his mother.

They just want to know where their prospective hire's mind is. Will they grope the secretaries and invite a lawsuit? Will they bring an AK-47 to work or show up high? Will they steal?

There's a need for answers. So, of course, there are tests for that too.

Kurt Helm is not a fool. He certainly doesn't come off like a superstitious man or a quack. In Dallas, he's probably the best guy to explain personality tests that examine honesty and how they should be used. He knows because he creates them from his office, located behind his house on a well-heeled street bordering Lakewood Country Club.

Helm got into psychology through the Marine Corps. He flew 189 combat missions in Vietnam behind a machine gun pointing out an open door of a helicopter. He served from 1967 to 1968, a span that covered the Tet Offensive and its aftermath, a busy and bloody time for U.S. troops.

Before the war, he worked as a door-to-door salesman, and he thought he knew about human nature. During the war, he says, "I woke up and realized I didn't know as much about people as I thought I did." After Vietnam he returned to Dallas, got a job with a consulting firm, and got the first glimpse of what would become his career--personality testing for corporate America.

Now, a doctorate degree and successful entrepreneurial venture later, Helm creates and sells personality tests for companies. He uses established tests like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator in conjunction with his own home-grown tests for companies looking to hire or promote management, as well as crisis management for companies that have a valued but unstable executive.

"The reason these tests work is because people vary on any trait you care to name," he says. "For individual characteristics, genetic variation says that some people will have a little, some people will have a lot."

Any quality, from basketball skills to a propensity to sexually harass a co-worker, will be "normally distributed" within any population; some good, some bad, and most in the middle. When plotted on a graph, a normal distribution will look like a bell--what is commonly known as a bell curve.

Testing someone's skill--how fast a secretary can type, for instance--is easy. But can something as intangible as propensity to steal be measured in a test?

Yes, says Helm. In his experience 5 to 10 percent of people will not steal for any reason. Others will steal any chance they get. The rest--the fat part of the bell curve--will steal given certain circumstances.

"We call it rationalization," he says. "We all have our own view of the world, and everyone's is different. We have constructed a 'rational' set of arguments to support our worldview. As a test constructor, I can tap into that worldview and plug into those rationalizations with questions."

Each test is designed to pinpoint particular attributes; Helm has a 56-question test designed to glean insights into a propensity for stealing, drug use, and sexual harassment. They can be pretty easy to beat if you know how they work.

Questions in that test come in two forms--validity questions to gauge whether a subject is lying and substantive questions. They're pretty easy to tell apart, if you know what to look for. An example, taken from Helm's test, would be: "I have never raised my voice in anger." Anyone who says they never have is probably lying.

Most of the questions, however, are designed to discover problematic behavior. Helm says the basis of the test is centered on the tendency for applicants to vary their responses based on what they think the tester wants to hear and what they think will be the easier answers to defend.

"I have a very pragmatic approach," Helm says. "What is this test telling me? What steps did this person take to look better?"

For example, a sexual harassment question should always be answered with a strong negative. But when Helm adds qualifiers, some people will betray their worldview by soft-pedaling the answer. For example, the question: "Patting a co-worker or subordinate on his/her shoulder or putting one's arm around his/her shoulder is OK as long as one is sincere and not making any kind of sexual advance."

With so many qualifiers, a subject may not see that the right answer is a strong negative. Two or three questions with ambiguous answers about sexual harassment leads to a pattern, and that could lead to trouble for the applicant. Theft tests are the same when applicants admit to taking small amounts of supplies or money from the office.

So who would ever answer a question about theft by admitting they stole at past jobs?

"Sometimes I look at the responses and say, 'God Almighty! Why would you say something like this?'" Helm says. "And the answer is, you think everyone feels this way."

And that leads to the most ironic complaint about honesty tests: The best way to beat one is to lie while answering. Being too honest while taking an honesty test is a good way to get bad results.

"You get these tests that ask for a black-and-white view of the world," says George Alliger, an employment consultant and former professor for the State University of New York-Albany who has published research studies regarding the tests. "All overt tests about theft or drugs ask about previous behavior, and any admission--even to being tempted--is considered a negative and counts in the dishonest direction."

It is impossible to call Alliger an unfair critic. He is quick to point out that there is "reasonably strong" evidence that these tests do indeed weed out those who may steal.

"That doesn't mean they're appropriate," he adds.

His problem lies not with potential crooks who are shut out of jobs but with honest people who have been shafted on the tests. He tells a story borrowed from a published psychologist of a nun who scored abysmally low on an integrity test because of her refusal to deny she was tempted by sin.

The moral? "It's their own honesty that gets them in trouble," he says.

Others have issues with the phrasing of questions, which leads the truly honest to answer incorrectly. Maltby says that those who are very ethical, like the nun, have broader definitions of dishonesty and are more likely to fail because of "world-perception questions."

"The obvious thinking is that if you're a crook you want to rationalize the behavior by saying everyone does it," he says. "But if you have high ethical standards, you will fail the test. You'll see a lot of dishonesty in the world."

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.

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."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

Latest Stories