Earlier this week I attended a training course that, once again, leaned heavily on colourful “HBDI profiles”. HBDI stands for “Herman Brain Dominance Indicator” and, much like the better-known Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), it is a personality test with a fancy name. I am lucky enough to have been subjected to both of these tests more than once, leaving me increasingly irritated each time. This has led me to reflect on why personality tests like these are so popular in the corporate world. I suspect that it is because they have much in common with astrology.
Obtaining your HBDI profile starts with answering 120 questions. These include such gems as “How do you hold your pen?”, “How left or right-handed are you?” and “How often have you experienced motion sickness?” (have a look yourself if you don’t believe me!). Armed with your responses to these questions, a certified practitioner is supposedly able to determine your preference for four distinct “thinking styles”. Like Myers Briggs, the HBDI characteristics have a healthy dose of Jungian psychology, but also have a bit of pop brain lateralisation thrown in: the safekeeping and rational types of thinking are left-brain, while the experimental and feeling types are, of course, right-brain. While there is no doubt that the brain exhibits left-brain/right-brain lateralisation, it does so in a far more complex way* than this cliched analytic/creative dichotomy.
It is not only in its approach to brain lateralisation that HBDI exhibits pseudo-scientific tendencies. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has an excellent critique of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which notes “no behavior can ever be used to falsify the type, and any behavior can be used to verify it” and HBDI is just as slippery. For example, when pressed on details, consultants are quick to emphasise that results only point to tendencies and that everyone can exhibit any of the four different types of thinking at any time.
Implausible though it may seem to me that the HBDI methodology can consistently provide meaningful insights into personality differences, people do seem to lap up the results. The surprising persistence of astrology in the modern era is often attributed to the fact that people have a marked tendency to interpret very general statements in the light of their own particular circumstance. They will focus on things that apply to them and unconsciously filter out things that do not. Known as the “Forer Effect”, this phenomenon was originally observed in the context of personality testing and I suspect that it is the secret to the success of HBDI. The name is taken from US psychologist Bertram R. Forer, who conducted the following experiment in 1948. He asked his students to complete a questionnaire for a personality test, but then ignored their answers and instead gave them all the following assessment:
You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic.
You may have even found yourself nodding in recognition here, and that’s certainly what Forer’s students thought. They were asked to score how well they felt the assessment described their personality on a scale from 0 to 5. The average score was 4.26. The experiment has been repeated since and the average results consistently exceed 4.
So you might think that corporate HR departments could save a little on their expensive accredited HBDI consultants and simply circulate Forer’s personality profile to all of their staff. But wait, there’s more! HBDI takes the Forer Effect and adds a little marketing glitz. First, the somewhat unwieldy “safekeeping”, “rational”, “experimental” and “feeling” thinking styles are abstracted to “green”, “blue”, “red” and “yellow”. This is a deft touch, facilitating easy discussion; think “I’m a red but I tend to fall back to blue under stress…and also, I’m a Sagittarius, but on the cusp so there’s a bit of Scorpio there too”. Second, these colours are presented on a wonderful circular chart, which looks fantastic up on the walls around the training room. Why circular? Well, circular charts are the special domain of the consultant because, let’s face it, you could never charge as much for a simple bar chart.
If you catch me in a generous moment, I will concede that there is a bit more substance beneath Myers Briggs and HBDI profiling than astrology…but not much. The main thing that they have taught me is that I hate personality tests.
* For a look at the science behind brain lateralisation, “The Right Mind” by Robert Ornstein is a fascinating read.
Possibly Related Posts (automatically generated):
- Last Word on Personality Tests (1 September 2008)
- I have a love/hate relationship with psychometric testing (19 October 2009)
- Reduce, Re-use, Recycle (23 September 2009)
- The Mule trips up (21 April 2010)