Personality Tests: A Brief HistoryFrom warfare to psych wards to the workplace, Harriet Fitch Little uncovers our long-standing fascination with personality tests.

Personality Tests: A Brief HistoryFrom warfare to psych wards to the workplace, Harriet Fitch Little uncovers our long-standing fascination with personality tests.

“Gall had determined that intelligence was located in the brow region, criminal tendencies clumped behind the ears and ‘amativeness’ (sexual desire) was at the nape of the neck.”

Without categories, the world would be a bewildering jumble of unrecognizable objects. When we encounter something new—a chair, a tree, a dangerous situation—we know what it is because it looks like something we’ve seen before. As it is with chairs, so it is with people. We plot their extroversion, their compassion, their neuroticism in relation to others—a million tiny signals that coalesce into the thing we label personality.

Today, personality tests have simplified, and monetized, this complex calculation. At interviews, assessment centers and team bonding events, testing is ubiquitous. Matchmakers and their online equivalents entice us with the promise that every question answered will bring us one step closer to unlocking our perfect partner. Some devotees even turn to personality tests when making important life decisions. “It was like I’d pulled up the blanket over the universe and looked at God,” says Kaila White, an American journalist, recalling one questionnaire that seemed eerily predictive. “It was just so easy to know what [the test taker] would be like as a person.”

What is personality? F. Scott Fitzgerald came close to our contemporary understanding in The Great Gatsby when he described it as “an unbroken series of successful gestures”—a person’s predictable patterns of behavior over time. But perhaps he was toying with his 1920s readers, mocking them for their optimistic belief that science was on the brink of making the stranger’s mind knowable; for all his “successful gestures,” Gatsby remains an inscrutable stranger.

Almost 100 years on, we are little the wiser as to the fundamental building blocks of personality. And despite recruitment and dating companies building billion dollar industries on the back of the conviction that they can extract some core identity from our heads, the question of how best to test for particular traits remains unresolved.

In ancient Greece, things were simpler: Personality was believed to be a physical thing. Aristotle thought it could be identified just by looking at someone’s face. “Men with small ears have the disposition of monkeys, those with large ears the disposition of asses,” he wrote in Physiognomics, a text in which animals are inventively anthropomorphized to explain human character traits: “The best breeds of dog have ears of moderate size.” Hippocrates was slightly subtler, believing personality to stem from an imbalance in the body’s four “humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Anatomical problems required surgical solutions. Bloodletting—one of many unpleasant techniques—was frequently used to restore the balance between the humors: Creating (and then lancing) blisters was thought to release the buildup of the melancholy-causing black bile.

Over two millennia after Hippocrates, the most popular tests still relied on the belief that personality manifested itself physically. Phrenology, the invention of Viennese physician Franz Joseph Gall, advocated the reading of head bumps. The practice was rooted in a theory that different parts of the brain were associated with different personality traits. In particularly active areas, the brain’s muscular exertions would push a bump up through the skull. Gall had determined that intelligence was located in the brow region, criminal tendencies clumped behind the ears and “amativeness” (sexual desire) was at the nape of the neck.

The great American poet Walt Whitman was among the most fervent advocates of what he termed this “new science” (today, “pseudo- science” might be considered a more appropriate term). Whitman was so flattered by his own reading, which deemed him eloquent, just and in possession of excellent critical faculties, that he published his test results at the front of early editions of Leaves of Grass as proof of his greatness as a poet.

Like so many innovations, it was the exigencies of war that forced this fledgling industry to mature. “The very first questionnaire came about at the time of the First World War,” says Mark Parkinson, a founding member of the Association for Business Psychology. “Then there was another batch during the Second World
War, which was all about recruiting soldiers into the American army.”

The first of these newly standardized tests was a simple yes/no check box questionnaire called the Woodworth Scale of Psychoneurotic Tendencies, designed to identify soldiers susceptible to shell shock after the First World War. Its probing was not subtle: The statement “I drink a quart of whiskey every day” was intended to identify the alcohol dependent, while “I believe I am being followed” was used to pin- point the paranoid. Writing in The Cult of Personality Testing, the American author Annie Murphy Paul highlights the irony of this being widely considered the first modern personality test: The symptoms of shell shock were so extreme and so baffling, she writes, that “doctors diagnosed these as cases of ‘lost personality.’”

The link between personality testing and pathology endured long after the bombs stopped falling. Psychology was battling to establish itself as a serious branch of empirical science, in particular of medicine, and as such its priority was diagnosing mental illness.

One of the most influential tests developed between the wars was devised on the psychiatric ward of a university hospital in Minnesota. Its creators, Starke Hathaway and John McKinley, had been impressed by Woodworth’s system for identifying shell shock, and set out to create a similar test that could diagnose a wider spectrum of disorders. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), first published in 1942, consisted of a staggering 504 questions intended to identify everything from depression to schizophrenia. Some of the statements were as obvious as Woodworth’s, but many were eccentric and hard to fathom: “Everything is turning out just like the prophets of the Bible said it would”; “My mother was a good woman”; “I liked Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.”

Almost as quickly as new tests were being created they were being seized upon by industry. Business was booming, companies were expanding rapidly and managers were finding themselves fielding many of the same concerns as clinicians about the mental state of their employees, who were now so numerous as to make personal relationships impossible. The check box tools of hospital diagnoses fit seamlessly into this new landscape of corporate bureaucracy.

The creators of the MMPI were quick to assert that the test could be used for assessing normal personalities as well as psychological illness, writing in 1951 that “although the scales are named according to the abnormal manifestation of the symptomatic complex, they have all been shown to have meaning within the normal range.” Even Woodworth’s shell shock indicator found a ready home, rebooted as the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet.

Already, tests were being invented directly for industry. An incident in an American factory where an employee snapped and killed his boss led directly to the creation of the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale in 1935—a personality test aggressively marketed to businesses with the promise that it could “forestall undesirable behavior through an understanding of unfortunate tendencies.” Rather like Hippocrates’ humors, the Humm-Wadsworth posited that all personalities risked veering toward one of four extremes: schizophrenia, epilepsy, hysteria and cyclodia (what we would now call bipolar disorder).

Of course, not all personality test developers found it so easy to monetize their insights. In the 1920s, at the same time as Woodworth was testing his shell shock inventory, a Swiss psychologist named Hermann Rorschach was touring psychiatric wards, presenting patients with a series of ambiguous drawings that looked like ink blots and asking them what they saw. He noticed that when he showed the cards to schizophrenic patients in his care, their responses were confused: Where others saw butterflies and flowers they saw an amorphous whirl of menacing figures, sharp objects and dangerous animals. Rorschach went on to create the first widely used projective personality test—an assessment based on the belief that when presented with ambiguous stimuli, respondents will project unconscious information onto it.

The psychoanalyst was personally skeptical about the test’s validity as a predictive measure, but his work was taken up by ardent disciples in the US, who believed not only in its accuracy but also in its ability to identify normal personality traits as well as schizophrenia. Shortly after the Second World War, the test was given to Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg trials. Hermann Göring, the founder of the Gestapo, saw men with red hats where there should be none, indicating “an emotional preoccupation with status.”

Other projective tests would follow, including the Thematic Apperception Test, which asked participants to make up scenarios based on pictures cut from magazines, and the Blacky Pictures Test, a storytelling exercise that used cartoon illustrations of dogs to decipher Freudian personality traits such as castration anxiety and penis envy.

John Hunsley, a Canadian psychologist who is currently compiling the second edition of A Guide to Assessments That Work, says that there is little indication that projective testing has any validity. “Everyone has, at some point on a nice summer day, been lying with friends on the lawn, looking at clouds floating by and saying what they see in the clouds,” he says. “There may well be influence of personality on what people see but there are loads of other things— if you’re hungry you’re more likely to see food in the Rorschach cards than if you’ve just had a meal.”

Projective tests are still used by some clinicians, particularly in the diagnosis of children, but they never found a grip on industry in the same way that pencil and paper questionnaires did: too expensive, too time-consuming and too hard to standardize. According to Annie Murphy Paul, employees also proved extremely resistant to the storytelling exercises because it wasn’t clear what criteria they were being measured against: Seemingly innocent answers might accidentally reveal some hidden pathology. “The first lesson of projective testing is that we are not as we seem,” she writes.

By the late 1950s, concerns about privacy were also threatening the ubiquitous questionnaire. Books with scaremongering titles like The Brain Watchers and The Tyranny of Testing found large audiences. The most influential of them, William Whyte’s The Organization Man, railed against the supposed objectivity of workplace assessments: “The process should not be confused with science,” he wrote. “When tests are used as selection devices, they’re not a neutral tool; they become a large factor in the very equation they purport to measure.” The MMPI came under particular scrutiny for its blunt probing into sex, religion and politics. After congressional hearings in the US in 1965 and 1966, its distributors were obliged to scale back some of its more invasive lines of inquiry.

More difficulties arose the following decade, when a growing number of psychologists started to question the fundamental orthodoxy that personality was predictive of behavior.

“Often it is not so much the kind of person a man is as the kind of situation in which he finds himself that determines how he will act,” announced Stanley Milgram in 1974. Milgram’s name was already synonymous with the most notorious exposition of this theory. Through a series of what he termed “experiments in obedience” conducted at Yale University, he had demonstrated that, when instructed to do so by figures of authority, the majority of people would deliver potentially lethal electric shocks to strangers.

But by the time psychologists were starting to question the discipline, personality testing had escaped their jurisdiction. In the summer of 1966, Cosmopolitan started publishing personality quizzes—a regular feature whose prescriptive advice would be integral in defining the “Cosmo Girl” as an aspirational role model for young women. (“Mostly ‘A’s? Try hinting at your sinful side rather than revealing it full on.”) That same year, a journalist at Look wrote “Boy…Girl…Computer,” an in-depth feature that heralded the arrival of computer match-making as the savior of a lovesick generation: Machines could now “tie up college couples with magnetic tape” just by running their personal preferences through a machine.

“If personality tests had remained under the aegis of science, they would never have become beloved on the enormous scale they are today,” says Evan Kindley, the Los Angeles–based author of Questionnaire, published earlier this year, which charts the explosion of “the form as form” in the 20th century.

John Hunsley agrees. Flicking through the draft pages of A Guide to Assessments That Work as evidence, he emphasizes that personality tests have almost totally disappeared from clinical usage. “The focus now is on measuring psychiatric variables that are much more narrowly defined and much more relevant to assessing and treating mental disorders than broad-based personality assessments,” he says.

It is a reflection of this transition that the most famous, most widely used personality test in circulation today was created by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers—a mother and daughter duo with no formal training in psychology, who were purportedly motivated by nothing more than a desire to better understand Katharine’s enigmatic husband. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) sorts people into 16 categories along four metrics modeled loosely on Carl Jung’s theory of types: intuition/sensing; introversion/extroversion; feeling/thinking; perception/judging. Critically, unlike the measures derived by clinicians, there is no such thing as a “bad” Myers-Briggs personality. The 16 types are different but all equally valuable.

Few psychologists consider Myers-Briggs an accurate gauge of personality. Roughly half of repeat test takers are assigned to a different personality type the second time they take it, and there is little evidence that the types accurately predict behavior or workplace performance. Its success is widely credited to the Barnum effect—our tendency to accept positive personality assessments as true, even when the information is so vague as to be worthless. But skepticism has not dented the test’s popularity. By the time of Isabel Myers’ death in 1980, it had sold a million copies. Today the test makes around $20 million a year and is used by over 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies. It also boasts a huge community of devotees who consult Myers-Briggs types when making decisions about relationships, conflicts and important transitions. “The goal is to heal people,” says Meredith Howell, who co-hosts the popular When Myers Met Briggs podcast with her friend Kaila White. “The goal is to help people be their best self.”

“In a way, people think of it as a free form of therapy,” says Evan Kindley. “[The logic is] I’m not going to go and pay a therapist to figure out who I am—I’ll just take a test and then I’ll know.”

Meanwhile, psychologists have arrived at a workable detente within their field, accepting that personality and situation both have an impact on behavior. “What we’re saying when you respond to a questionnaire is ‘on balance, you’re probably like this,’” says Mark Parkinson, adding cautiously, “but you might not be like that.”

The most popular academic theory of personality is currently the Big Five model, which posits the existence of five traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. It’s a cautious schema. Critics call it “the psychology of the stranger” because it avoids the extreme pronouncements of its predecessors: There’s no mention of mental illness or unconscious trauma, and no invasive lines of questioning.

Many workplace personality tests now model themselves on the Big Five, although there’s little consensus on the correct way to identify the traits. “It’s a bit like baking a cake,” says Parkinson, who devises new tests for businesses. “We all vaguely agree on the ingredients but not on how you might mix them together.”

In the continued absence of scientific certainty, why do personality tests hold such sway? Kindley, who describes us as “both more suspicious and more careless” with our personal information than at any point in history, believes that their appeal is down to a heady mix of rationalism and narcissism. “We like thinking about ourselves, and we also like to believe that science, or data or very smart people have designed some test that will help us learn about ourselves,” he says. Perhaps there is something comforting in being assigned a “type”: a celebration of our individuality, but within the predefined parameters of normality.

In our quest for certainty, questionnaires might soon see their supremacy challenged. The company Karmagenes, which launched last year in Geneva, offers a DNA test which it claims can measure 14 personality traits including “bon vivant,” “optimist” and “sex-driven.” Echoing the Myers-Briggs rhetoric, the site reassures potential test takers that “No one has a better or worse type of genes, it is the diversity that is crucial.” Jason Rentfrow, a professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge, says that while he is currently “very skeptical” about the ability of such tests to accurately map an individual’s DNA, he is confident that the science will progress to a point at which they can offer real insights into personality: “Eventually we’ll get there, in which case why waste your time administering a survey when you could just do a cotton swab and be done with it.”

After a century of searching for the right algorithm to unlock personality, the Grecian belief that the mind can be read from the body is once again in ascendance—only now we put our faith in saliva swabs and not in the shape of our ears.

“Gall had determined that intelligence was located in the brow region, criminal tendencies clumped behind the ears and ‘amativeness’ (sexual desire) was at the nape of the neck.”

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