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
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
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. …