Last Word on Personality Tests

by Stubborn Mule on 1 September 2008 · 9 comments

While my recent post on personality testing attracted some unexpected attention (from an organiser of the course), it did also generate some interesting discussion. Some I have spoken to have found more value in personality tests like Myers-Briggs and HBDI than I have, while others shared my irritation.

The reason I am posting again on this subject is because an old friend of mine, who is a practising psychiatrist had emailed me with his thoughts on the topic, but preferred to remain anonymous and not post on the forum himself. He was, however, happy for me to share them, so here they are:

  • A lot of these tools fall down in the assumptions that personality is stable across contexts and over time, neither of which appears to be the case. Long live the reformed home devil/work angel!
  • Define these terms – temperament, character, personality, identity. Are we talking venn diagrammes or different languages here? What is the relationship between personality and cognitive style? How honest are people with themselves, let alone their employers, or perhaps more importantly, how good are people at judging themselves? Do you think the corporations peddling their mindreading wares have answered all these questions sufficiently, because if not, how can you be sure what their tool is measuring?
  • One of your commenters proffers a positive test/retest experience of Myers Briggs, but from what I remember reading these tests have pretty poor reliability compared to the more rigorous tools used in clinical research such as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI).
  • The same learned commenter picked up on the dispute between type theories proffered by the mad Swiss and taken as gospel by MB et al (even if in somewhat dodgy translation), and the now ascendant trait models. The current banker is the Five Factor Model, with spectra of introversion/extraversion, openness/closedness, conscientiousness/the lack thereof, agreeableness/disagreeableness and neuroticism/emotional stability. In of themselves, they do have face validity and have been extensively replicated, but how far they take us in further understanding personality is unclear. There is quite a bit of research trying to link specific traits to everything from genes to neurotransmitter systems, with interesting if inconclusive results. What are the chances of successfully finding a key if you’re not sure of the shape of the lock? I’d be interested to know your take on the factor analysis techniques used to derive these traits.
  • As for the Sixteen Types in the MB, I fear this is moving into transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity territory. To be fair, the typology of abnormal psychology I was taught at Shrink School is little better, with its borderlines and its narcissists, but it has lingered this long as it has everyday clinical utility and nothing better has come along to replace it. Until now. It seems that it may, in the next version of the Bible, DSM-V, be replaced  or complemented by a four factor trait model which you won’t at all be surprised to find fits very neatly with black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. And who says those Greek geeks weren’t onto something!

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 OMBW September 1, 2008 at 12:58 pm

I was at the very first training ever held after the re-norming of the MMPI. prior to that time results of this “rigorous” instrument were based on normed gathered via the relatives of patients in Minnesota psychiatric hospitals.

It has long been a tool used by clinician’s to “empirically” validate pathology to the satisfaction of insurance carriers. It has likely caused more iatrogenic illness through labeling than any other instrument in the mental health operating theater.

2 stubbornmule September 1, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Interesting. Part of my argument with corporate personality tests is that they are operated by businesses who have more of a commerical interest in making money out of consulting and training associated with the tests than refining their validity. In that context, the involvement of insurers with MMPI is very interesting.

3 Steve Reynolds September 1, 2008 at 7:33 pm

Another great post, Sean (though I think the Sokal jibe is a tad unfair). A favour – can you please ask your shy friend if he can point me to some of these studies he mentions linking traits to genes, neruotransmitter systems, etc. Interested to learn more, even if they are inconclusive. Thanks.

4 Jon Peltier September 1, 2008 at 10:54 pm

Steve –

I’m reading a book called “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” by Dr. Daniel Amen. He’s done imaging studies on normal brains, “abnormal” brains, and abnormal brains under pharmaceutical and therapeutic treatment. Knowing how injury affects personality and other brain functions, and how meds affect neurotransmitter levels, he’s mapped normal and abnormal activity in several brain regions to normal and abnormal personality behaviors.

The book was written for the layman, bit it is very informative.

5 Elias Bizannes September 1, 2008 at 10:58 pm

I personally believe if you aspire to be something – you end up morphing into it. With me for example, I have long idolised the entrepreneur. I have read and watched content that had me subconciously adapt my thinking into what I wanted to be. A sub-concious jouney of validating myself to acquire the attributes described of such a personality, until I’ve become one. The point I want to make, is that we embrace insights into ourselves as either validation of what we want to become or rejection of what we desire not to be. And even if it’s not true, but we accept it, it means we adapt our behaviours to now behave as such.

So for all the claims that “it’s not accurate”, think again. In the long term it probably will be.

6 Steve Reynolds September 2, 2008 at 10:08 am

@Jon: Thanks for the book recommendation. A copy is now winging its way to me courtesy of Amazon. (I wonder if it can help curb my compulsive book-buying?)

7 stubbornmule September 2, 2008 at 10:58 am

@Steve: let me know if it helps with compulsive book buying…I definitely need help in that area too!

8 Jon Peltier September 2, 2008 at 1:22 pm

I don’t know if it will help with book buying, and I can’t say I could ever consider book buying to be an obsession :) but this book has helped me figure out a few things about my own personality.

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