Palm Reading Dressed as Science ; Millions Take Personality Tests Every Year, but Are They Valid?

By Rose, Peter I. | The Christian Science Monitor, September 28, 2004 | Go to article overview

Palm Reading Dressed as Science ; Millions Take Personality Tests Every Year, but Are They Valid?


Rose, Peter I., The Christian Science Monitor


A recent radio ad for E-Harmony promotes a personality profile based on 29 dimensions that all but guarantees finding a perfect mate. But don't sign up until you read Annie Paul's well- researched, highly informative, and rather scary portrait of the dominance of personality measures in almost every nook and cranny of American life.

Her thesis is best summarized in her lengthy subtitle: "How Personality Tests are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves." Yet "The Cult of Personality," by the former senior editor of Psychology Today, is neither a bombastic jeremiad nor a reckless expose of these hucksters; it is more a wise, insightful, and witty dissection of what has become a major industry. In eight chapters packed with information, she offers a fascinating story of the principal gurus of a hydra-headed movement of social and self awareness. They're proto-scientists, pseudo-scientists, and real scientists who sought first to probe the human psyche to discern the proclivities of "criminal minds" and mental patients and then to describe variations among "normal" people.

Their work, often grounded in a true desire to understand human nature, treat the mentally ill, or reform criminals, frequently became a game played for fun and profit, leading to considerable exploitation.

Today, personality testing is ubiquitous in all sorts of organizations besides prisons and mental hospitals. It is found throughout the corporate world and the professions, in schools and seminaries, in military academies, government departments, social work agencies, and financial institutions.

Over the years, certain qualitative and quantitative approaches gained favor, then waned as new ones were invented. But there is little question that significant and powerful sectors of our culture have been suffused with a blind faith in the efficacy of short-cut ways of deciding who is strong, weak, warm, vivacious, scatter- brained, disorganized, flighty, grounded, plodding, or imaginative.

Typologies of personality are nothing new. They date back to classical times when the Greek word "character" referred to a distinctive mark. They were very much in vogue in the 18th and 19th centuries. Carl Linnaeus, the great classifier himself, divided mankind into various groupings by linking character traits to geography and race.

Well into the 20th century stereotypes of "national character" persisted, some flattering, others derogatory. Swedes were seen as dour; Germans, industrious; Italians, emotional; Japanese, sly.

Interestingly, the key figures in the personality movement in the United States eschewed racial and ethnic stereotyping by avoiding the subject altogether. Most concentrated on variations within the "average" (read: white and Protestant) American community.

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Palm Reading Dressed as Science ; Millions Take Personality Tests Every Year, but Are They Valid?
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