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Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
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How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves

A-CultPersonalityIf you’re looking to the Myers-Briggs for career guidance or surfing E-Harmony (.com) for your soul mate, think again. Paul, former senior editor at Psychology Today, offers a scathing look at the "often invalid, unreliable, and unfair" results of personality testing. Initially designed by scientists (or eugenicists!) to treat the mentally ill or reform criminals, many personality tests now embrace pseudo-science and profit. Paul recounts the stories behind these tests, from the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) and TAT (Thematic Apperception Tests) to Myers-Briggs—used by 89 of the Fortune 100 companies. She concludes that personal agendas and institutional biases shape the efficacy of these tests, leading to wasted time, money, and a "cult of personality" that rarely reveals the True You.
Free Press. 320 pages. $26. ISBN: 0743243560

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"... well-researched, highly informative, and rather scary portrait of the dominance of personality measures in almost every nook and cranny of American life. … [Yet, it] is neither a bombastic jeremiad nor a reckless exposé of these hucksters; it is more a wise, insightful, and witty dissection of what has become a major industry." Peter I. Rose

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"In an original, absorbing, and provocative book, Annie Murphy Paul relates the stories surrounding the creation of the major tests of personality. … While the gossip makes compelling reading, one has to ask whether it is germane in evaluating the tests. After all, we do not challenge Einstein’s contributions just because he turns out to have been a difficult husband and a distant father." Howard Gardner

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Paul is a graceful writer who combines lucid science reporting with colorful biography and intelligent social commentary. ... If this book is instrumental in getting personality testing out of the courtroom, Paul will have done a great public service." Sally Satel

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"With an eye for the absurd, she makes a compelling case that such tests tell us more about the men and women who put them together than about the subjects taking them. … But the [MMPI] test was long ago revised, and Ms. Paul would have improved her account by making room for its modern advocates to argue their side. And she might have allowed that, in a clinical setting, therapists can use such tests as diagnostic tools." Eric Felten

Critical Summary

Paul debunks the spoon-fed psychology we’ve grown to love—you’re good, I’m good, we’re different, let’s get along. Her absorbing, skeptical book on personality testing won’t analyze you. Instead, it divulges more about the makers than the takers. Take Henry Murray, founder of TAT (1936). He never took a psychology class in his life, and was a sexual weirdo. And Isabel Myers (there is no Briggs) was first a mystery writer. (The MMPI is more "scientific.") While entertaining, a few found that this approach distracted from the larger subject at hand. Still, Cult does offers an analytic framework for understanding the bases of the tests and their widespread, often deleterious influence. But, even if you take Paul’s words to heart, Cult might make you turn to the first personality test you find … go on, be a team player, we know you can do it.

Supplemental Reading

Please Understand Me Character & Temperament Types | David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates (3rd Ed. 1974): Keirsey and Bates offer a system that mirrors Myers-Briggs and examine personality types in excruciating (but enlightening) detail. Even if it’s all bunk.