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The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves


I love personality tests as a way to spark the conversation. Whether it is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Enneagram (See Personality Types: Using the Enneagram for Self-Discovery), Reiss’s 16 desires (See Who Am I?) or Time Perspective (See The Time Paradox) – I love the conversations that it can provoke. However, there’s a dangerous side to personality testing. It has the potential to be perceived as a limiting factor for folks and can incorrectly diagnose people with psychological problems that they don’t have. As I read The Cult of Personality Testing, I began to see some of the dark side of the tests and the curious minds that created the tests.



Short of your family and your hairdresser it’s unlikely that you’ve let anyone feel your skull. It’s far less likely that anyone ever felt around your head for bumps – unless you just got hit by something. However, one of the earliest techniques for “discovering” the personality and characteristics was based on a detailed examination of the skull. The thinking was that as areas of your brain expanded they would leave a corresponding bump in your skill to accommodate the additional brain mass.

While we’ve known for some time that Phrenology isn’t based on anything scientific at one time it was considered a way to get a better understanding of oneself. Walt Whitman – among others were enchanted with the idea. However, Samuel Clements (Mark Twain), saw through the use and saw that the practitioners always seemed to find ways that the subject’s character charts compared favorably to George Washington’s.

Rorschach’s Inkblots

While Phrenology was a virtual parlor trick, inkblots were quite literally the faire of parlor games and fortune telling. Rorschach was a psychiatrist at a mental hospital and noted that the responses that he got to inkblots from schizophrenic patients was radically different than the responses that he received from “normal” people. His perspective on using inkblots to see into the personalities of patients was usurped by Szymon Hens. However, Rorschach wasn’t concerned with what his patients saw but rather how they saw it. He was concerned with whether they saw the whole inkblot or focused on a part of it. He was concerned whether the figures that the subjects saw were static or in motion.

The Rorschach system descended into two different paths by two different followers with differing views. John Exner’s respect for both men caused him to create a comprehensive system which integrated the two paths by Rorschach’s direct followers. This was enough to increase interest in the test but unfortunately, the test effectively has zero validity. In other words, the test isn’t well validated by peer reviewed journals and there’s no evidence that the conclusions reached by the Rorschach’s tests are reliable as many subjects have been diagnosed as depressive, narcissistic, or overly dependent – but many patients don’t exhibit any symptoms of these diagnoses.

The criticisms of the Rorschach tests have taken the form of their own book What’s Wrong With The Rorschach? and peer-reviewed journal articles “Effective Use of Projective Techniques in Clinical Practice: Let the Data Help With Selection and Interpretation” and “Failure of the Rorschach-Comprehensive-System-Based Testimony to Be Admissible Under the Daubert-Joiner-Kumho Standard.” Like any debate there are numerous articles purporting the validity of the test – and a corresponding number refuting those points. Clearly the quality of the instrument is in question.


It’s cold in Minnesota. Perhaps not as cold as you might expect but cold enough. In the exploration of testing techniques, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is next. The story starts with Starke Hathaway at the University of Minnesota mental hospital. This winding path reveals a test that fails to sort mental patients into categories – it’s original purpose – and a test whose items were essentially selected by the patients – and then added to. With revision some of the old artifacts are gone and it’s widely regarded as the most clinically useful for personality testing. The structure of the test is a straightforward pencil and paper multiple choice question test.

The MMPI-2 contains a number of primary scales for the diagnosis of: Hypochondriasis, Depression, Hysteria, Psychopathic Deviate, Masculinity/Femininity, Paranoia, Psychasthenia (Worry/Anxiety), Schizophrenia, Hypomania, and Social Inversion. Additionally, there are restructured scales, validity scales, and supplemental scales. Some – but not all – of the scales have issues including members of the clergy who score high on the Lie Scale – presumably because they are perceived to be more virtuous than should be possible.


From cold Minnesota we move to a dark tale of Henry Murray and Christian Morgan and the development of a different kind of test the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). The darkness doesn’t develop so much from the test itself but from the lives of its authors. Murray was a fan of Carl Jung and had the opportunity to meet Dr. Jung, his wife, and his mistress over tea. It was reportedly during this meeting when Dr. Jung recommended that he keep his marriage and his mistress as Dr. Jung had apparently convinced both his wife and mistress of a similar arrangement.

Dr. Murray, his wife, and Morgan didn’t reportedly enjoy the quaint over-tea conversations but it was apparently clear to everyone the true nature of the relationship between Dr. Murray and Morgan. What’s not clear is what Morgan’s husband thought of the arrangement or if he even knew about it. Dr. Murray lost his wife and then shortly thereafter lost Morgan in somewhat dubious circumstances while the two were vacationing in the Caribbean.

The TAT is not a pen and pencil type of test. Instead subjects are sequentially shown a set of pictures and are then asked to create stories around those pictures. The responses are recorded and coded. The TAT is considered a projective test because it presents ambiguous stimuli and asks for the subject to respond. The general principle is that by providing ambiguous stimuli the subject will fill in the gaps with their experiences and thoughts – thus providing the examiner an opportunity to peer into (or X-Ray) the patient’s psyche.

Without high levels of adoption of a consistent scoring system and due to the general nature of the test and what it exposes, it’s not surprising that there is a very large cloud of uncertainty around the test. In the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology John Hunsley, Catherine Lee, and James Wood call the TAT “woefully short of professional and scientific test standards.”


Carl Jung was a powerful man in the space of psychotherapy. While Sigmund Freud may be the “Father of Psychotherapy” but one of his first sons is Carl Jung. Jung – as we saw above with Murray the TAT test – had a great number of followers of his own. Even the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of flow fame was inspired on his work by Dr. Jung. (See FlowFinding Flow, and The Rise of Superman for more on flow.) Jung also inspired Katherine Briggs and Isabel Myers (Katherine’s daughter). When Jung’s book Personality Types was translated to English they started with his ideas for the four dimensional model that became the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (initially published as the Briggs-Myers Type Indicator and later renamed.)

It was an unlikely subject of interest from the start. Isabel was a 44 year old house wife who had won a contest for writing a mystery and had subsequently published a best-selling book when she discovered the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale. This people sorter tool was designed to help place people in their best jobs. Isabel was convinced that she and Katherine could do better.

The MBTI may have become popular because of the PT Barnum effect – that is it has something for everyone. Perhaps it’s the same qualities that Samuel Clements (Mark Twain) discovered in Phrenology – focusing on the good attributes and minimizing the negative ones. Whatever the cause, the MBTI is one of the most popular personality tests in existence with use in many major corporations.

However, the test has serious problems as a diagnostic tool. First, the repeatability of the test is rather low despite fervent arguments that people’s type doesn’t change. Second, what do you do with the information when you’re done with it. If you assume that someone is born with these unchanging characteristics, then if they’re in a “bad fit” position all you can do is fire them. You can’t train them. Something that Carol Dweck disagrees with in her book Mindset. Human beings are inherently teachable so one’s results shouldn’t be used as the final word on who they are.

I’m actually a fan of MBTI because I find it interesting. Perhaps it’s more therapeutic than diagnostic in that it helps you accept who you are. However, I also find that it makes it easier to listen to others and have conversations (See Dialogue and Crucial Conversations for more.) I do, however, disagree with the tests authors on two key points.

First, I believe that we drift in our orientations based on our experiences. I believe an introverted person can become more extroverted and vice versa. I don’t believe these are people trying to project someone they’re not, rather I believe that they can move at glacial speeds. This is supported by the work of Albert Bandura. (References to his work appear in Emotional IntelligenceWillpowerInfluencerCreative ConfidenceWho Am I?, and Introducing Psychology of Success.) Further, I believe that the either/or side of the scale is a simplification – or perhaps even a fiction. I believe that we have a natural point on the scale where we sit. Some of us sit very close to the center of some scales and very close to the edges of another.

Second, I believe that we develop “adaptive ranges.” That is: we develop an ability to operate – to live and work – with people who are not made up like us. A strong sensing and a strong intuiting person have no natural way to communicate with one another. However, the intuiting person can develop an acceptance or understanding of sensing behavior. Similarly a sensing person can develop an understanding and acceptance of intuiting behaviors. Each person’s ability to adapt to someone who isn’t near them on the scale is – for me—their “adaptive range.” I believe that people can expand their adaptive ranges across all four of the functions in the type indicator. But, of course, this is just my belief.

Drawing Conclusions

Our next stop puts us right in the center of the debate about racial equality and the separate but equal debate which segregated children. Here we find Kenneth Bancroft Clark and his discovery that African-American children when asked to draw, drew children in lighter colors. He also tested children to find which dolls were “good” and which were “bad.” Where the only difference was the color of their skin. Dr. Clark discovered to his dismay that the African-American children often said the darker doll was bad.

The outcome of the court case was to desegregate schools across America but in addition Dr. Clark spawned interest in the “pencil-release factor,” a term coined by John Buck. The pencil-release factor is the tendency for children to talk about subjects while otherwise occupied with drawing. This created a set of tests revolving around engaging a child in the process of drawing and has further expanded to play therapy in more recent years.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a drawing activity to help elicit therapeutic conversations, however, describing them as tests implies some sort of scoring and focuses the objective on the drawing process itself – here there’s little standardization and almost nothing pointing to reliable interpretations.

16 Factors

The MBTI is sometimes described as too complicated, vague, and unwieldy. (Though I’ll often do these assessments of other people in my head while talking to them with strikingly good results.) There is, however, a more complicated approach to personality assessment that has its roots in linguistics which uses 16 personality factors at its core.

Our destination this time is a dusty library and a dictionary. Francis Galton had speculated that if you wanted to categorize human personality all you had to do was go to the dictionary because every aspect of personality most certainly had a word for it already. Gordon Allport and a colleague put this to the test by painstakingly going through Webster’s New International unabridged dictionary and counting the words related to character. They found a staggering 17,953 words. By paring these down to what they deemed essential they got the list down to 4,504 words.

It was Raymond Cattell that applied new statistical techniques of factor analysis to reduce this list to 16. In addition to the new statistical techniques a shiny new computer at the University of Illinois made this task possible where Allport and his colleague had no chance of creating such a reduction in the number of terms.

The sixteen factors that Cattell found formed the basis of a very popular 16 psychological factors test (16PF) that eventually fell out of favor as it was too complicated to use. (Sidebar: Though Reiss’ factors from Who Am I? are unrelated except in the number of factors – I leveled the same complaint at the complexity of Reiss’ model.)

Further refinement from the same source data led to a reduction to five factors, a ton of variations, and not much additional value. As such the 16PF test and the derivatives aren’t used frequently any longer. Too much was lost in all of the reductions.

Ph Range

While reading The Cult of Personality Testing I was reminded of something from chemistry. Most chemical reactions take place only within a relatively narrow Ph range. That is, the reactions only work under narrow conditions. As each test was deconstructed I wondered what where the edges of reliability were. Obviously as none of the tests have great reliability I wondered how various factors – like being a software developer or an author might distort the results of the tests to the point where they might not be valid.

I recently had a Rorschach test done as a part of a custody evaluation and the results were laughable. To those who know me, the idea that I miss the forest for the trees – that I see the details but not the broader patterns – is completely strange and yet that is what the Rorschach test said about me. It makes sense because as a software developer I’ve been taught and I teach breaking down problems into solvable units. This causes you to find the patterns you can and then get to the point of assembling larger patterns. So in the Rorschach I saw lots of little patterns – but I never did find larger patterns – because there are none. The result is a scoring that says I’m more of what MBTI would call sensing instead of my true location much closer to intuiting.

I was similarly considering the TAT. It’s a test that encourages subjects to make up stories. However, what if you’ve been taught to write stories or give presentations or do anything that teaches you how to sell a story. While proponents of the TAT will say that you can hardly fake something you don’t know exists. I’ll counter that you can’t get to real insight if the response is playing back a well-worn professional response.

Then there are the norms — the comparative normal across which you evaluate results. That’s fine except that many of the tests are designed against identifying abnormalities. How do they respond to “normal” people? Are the norms of 50 years ago the norms of today? In many aspects the answer to that question is no – as a simple perusal of Bowling Alone would clearly show.

Good Test Taking

“In theory, practice shouldn’t be different than theory but in practice it is.” –Anonymous

The reality of these tests is that they attempt to identify outcomes that you would get in real-world situations. The idea is that they can probe deep into your psyche to see how you’ll behave in real life. However, it’s painfully apparent that the tests rarely – if ever – are capable of this level of precision or awareness. For those people who are “good test takers” they may find that the tests reveal nothing while in life they’re dealing with immense struggles and psychological wounds that just won’t heal.

Personality tests are good when they’re used to further a conversation, to illuminate the darkness, however, all too often they’re used as the final word on who someone is – but I suppose that is The Cult of Personality Testing. It’s worth deciding what the membership rules are before deciding you want to become a member.