American psycho-babble

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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.

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

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