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American psycho-babble

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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.

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Joe Pappalardo is the former editor-in-chief of the Dallas Observer.
Contact: Joe Pappalardo

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