Saturday, May 15, 2010

γνῶθι σεαυτόν

Amy, my wife, pointed me to a very interesting review of a book by Annie Murphy Paul titled, The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves. (Free Press, 2004). She found this after we had long discussion on the accuracy/usefulness/interesting character of such tests. The review is worth reading in full, which you can do here, but below are a few key paragraphs.


What is the allure of personality tests? They provide ''an unwavering self-conception, a foundation for relating to others, a plan for success and an excuse for failure,'' Paul concludes. But, alas, the virtues of tests that try to assess personality types are illusory: research shows that a single person's scores are unstable, often changing over the course of years, weeks, even hours (a subject may be ''a good intuitive thinker in the afternoon but not in the morning,'' some researchers have noted). And, worse, there is little evidence of the correlation of test scores with school performance, managerial effectiveness, team building or career counseling.

On a deeper level, enthusiasm for testing may be a particularly American phenomenon. After all, a society that extols freedom and self-determination is one whose citizens have choices. And with choices come anxieties -- about educational options, career paths, even mate selection. Better self-understanding and advice are thus welcome, if not eagerly sought. Besides, what could be more attractive to a society as individualistic as ours than devices that explore and exalt our perceived uniqueness?

THE paradox, Paul is quick to emphasize, is that personality tests ultimately give us a cramped vision of ourselves; instead of opening opportunities, they may confine people by identifying weaknesses that are either not there or that can be overcome. When personality typing is applied to children, Paul writes, it imposes ''limiting labels on young people who are still developing a sense of themselves and their capacities.'' Attempts to fit people into manageable categories end up being the best evidence -- if any were needed -- that we encounter the world in highly idiosyncratic ways.


Christopher Gillespie said...

This reminds me of the first week of Sem. We took the Meyers-Briggs and the 16PF. One said I was an extroverted control freak, the other an introverted unsocial closet.

This was one day apart. I've been convinced ever since that I am bipolar. :)

Paul Gregory Alms said...

Rationalism. Modernism.