American psycho-babble

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

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