Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Cult of Personality

Virtually everyone working for the corporate world has probably been subjected to one unscientific personality test or another. It's almost guaranteed that you aren't told how unreliable and almost useless those tests are.

Recently, I already had The Cult of Personality on hold, and found out we were going to be subjected to a round of tests where I work at. This time it was DiSC, but often it's something like Myers Briggs. When I groaned aloud about it when someone asked if I was "excited" about it, I said it's just modern-day phrenology. Which just sort of got a blank look. When I tried to explain phrenology, she just sort of spaced out. It turns out I was attacking her personal belief system, because she's apparently a big fan of personality tests.

Well, it turns out this book started off with a discussion of phrenology. It progresses through ink blots and others on up to Myers Briggs. I had to chuckle because this book discussed people (esp. managers) that love the tests so much that they put their type on their business cards. After our round of tests, we had at least one individual that put it in their email sig.

One meme I took away from this book is that the reason they remain so popular is most likely due to the Barnum effect - these personality descriptions read a lot like horoscopes. One of the smarter guys (and a real smart aleck, in a good way) asked the person administering the test, if they've ever tried studies where everyone got the results of the person next to them, and studied whether people agreed with the descriptions. I highly suspect he was thinking along the lines of trying to rule out the Barnum effect. Of course, if you have a lot of money to make from administering these tests, you really aren't going to work too hard to debunk them. So the answer from the test giver was "I don't think so", and a frown.

Fans of Myers Briggs might be surprised to learn the manner in which it was developed, and just how unreliable it is. Bop on over the the Wikipedia page and read the "validity" section and the reliability section. Very interesting, indeed.

Anyway, if you've been skeptical of these tests, I suggest reading this book.

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