Thursday, September 30, 2010

Personality Types

William Marshall. The foure complexions. Engraving, 1662. Folger Shakespeare Library.
I’m a Type UHIDE-F Personality.

Here are some of the traits that Type UHIDE-F Personalities exhibit: individually minded, dignified, respectful, civil, courteous, intellectually engaging, curious, assertive, driven, justice-obsessed, withdrawn, indecisive, introverted, thoughtful, sensitive, community-minded, extroverted, decisive, sad, happy, angry, warm, cool.

There is a tendency among scientists to try to group and classify things, whether it is plants, animals, insects. This tendency has also translated to the need among cognitive scientists to group humans according to personality types. Such an approach to human classification has led to a number of standardized tests being developed over the years to get an assessment of a personality type.

The purpose of such tests are likely related to a better understanding of humans and how we think, feel and operate. From the scientific lab to business desk is always a short step away. The last few decades has seen a sharp rise in the use of personality tests. This has led to a whole raft of industries and sectors, including business, education, police and the military, who rely on such tests to assess individuals on their ability to conform to certain organizational expectations.

The first modern personality test was the Woodworth Personal data sheet, which was first used in 1919. It was designed to help the United States Army screen out recruits who might be susceptible to shell shock. Many others followed, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT).

Most, if not all of the tests, are based on the work of Carl Jung [1875-1961]. a Swiss psychiatrist, who was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. Much of the classification theories emanated from the work of Dr. Jung. In a sense, each is a variation of a similar theme, assessing various mental, emotional and intellectual abilities, and assigning a letter designation that generally corresponds to a personality type.

One of the problems with self-assessment tests, particularly those related to employment, is that people can either lie or answer in a way that would meet the employer's expectation. Although some measures have been built-in to modern tests, including raising the same question in another part of the test to see if there is correspondence, the tests are not completely reliable. Yet, again, the test cares more about validity, which is assessed using statistical measures, than accuracy.

This brings up the question of the scientific validity or rigor of such tests. Personality tests give the patina of scientific validity, but they are hardly scientific. Some scientists have questioned the validity of personality tests and type. Yet, they persist, in part because such tests are a multi-billion dollar industry, and in part because they seem to do the job.

Doubtless, the best test could hardly be classified as a de facto scientific, whereby it can accurately predict how a person will behave in all circumstances. (And, of course, no sane person would argue so.) The tests can only predict, based on statistical measures, the probability that a such a person with such self-described traits will behave under such circumstances.

Barbara Rose, a staff reporter, with the Chicago Tribune newspaper wrote an article criticizing such tests. (See Critics wary as more jobs hinge on personality tests: 31 October 2004. As Ms. Rose writes:

"I can't tell you how many business people come up to me because someone has given them Myers-Briggs, telling me, I'm a `this' or `that'" type, said psychologist Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber distinguished professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management."No academicians worth their salt would put any stock in it," she said.
Yet, decision-makers continue to place too much emphasis on test results, since the candidate has been assigned a particular personality (in letter or combination of letters) in black-and-white. One can argue that this approach leads to reductionist thinking. It relieves the decision maker of agonizing decisions, and gives it over to test results. In a sense, in their assessment and in their mind's eye, you are such a personality type.

Not really. Equally important, personality, many argue, is not a predictor of behaviour. Future beheviour is as hard to predict as predicting the weather. It's too complex. There's the rub. Behaviour is not as completely predictable as is Newton's laws of motion or the Second law of Thermodynamics.

And that's why I do not have to rely on a test to know who I am. I am Type UHIDE-F personality, shorthand for Universal Human who values Individual Dignity, Equality & Freedom.

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