The Many Ways Science Has (Wrongly) Assessed Your Personality

Illustration for article titled The Many Ways Science Has (Wrongly) Assessed Your Personality

What if someone could figure out your personality without actually taking the time to talk to you? What if there was a simple test that could figure out exactly what sort of person you are? For many years, scientists have searched for a surefire test to assess your personality — and they've failed, spectacularly.

From bumps on the head to ink blots to handwriting analysis, science has come up with many useless personality tests. Here's the complete history of the junk science of personality testing.


It's not surprising that phrenology went into vogue in the 1800s. This was the era when science and magic were cohabiting in the European mind, and firing the imagination. Franz Joseph Gall grew up in Vienna, the city that later spawned a more successful pioneer of the human mind, and during his school days he noticed that kids who could remember long written passages tended to have large foreheads. Because of this, he assumed that whatever part of the brain caused people to remember what they'd read squatted up front.


And thus, other areas of the head would have to be similarly indicative of mental development. Gall slowly expanded his theories by studying the craniums of other people with noticeable personality traits, and came up with a map of the human skull that was supposed to indicate personality. He didn't meet with much success, in part because the church leaders frowned on his teachings — but his protege, Johann Kaspar Spurzheim, traveled to America as the Victorian era was really getting going, and created a scientific sensation. Ralph Waldo Emerson called him 'one of the world's greatest minds.'

Illustration for article titled The Many Ways Science Has (Wrongly) Assessed Your Personality

Everyone from the president of Harvard to Clara Barton, the future founder of the Red Cross, got their head examined. Aaron Burr's head (examined after he died) was said to have enlarged organs of 'secretiveness' and 'destructiveness.' PT Barnum's head (examined after he got famous) was found to have high scores in everything but 'cautiousness.' Mark Twain, scornful of phrenology, was found to have a bit of a pit where his 'humor' organs ought to be. Well, no one can call them all correctly, and phrenology guided everything from women's hairstyles (they wanted to show off their best traits) to people's choice of a mate.

Now phrenology could be said to be right in that personality is linked to the physiology of the brain, but beyond that, it wandered steadily away from reason. As the theory was expanded to become more detailed, with sections of the brain apportioned to things like 'impulse to propagate,' 'disposition for colouring,' and 'murderousness,' people became less convinced.


Other scientific theories supplanted phrenology, especially when the new Viennese psychologist, Freud, got going. Only a few decades after serious medical journals were singing its praised, President John Quincy Adams was quoted as saying he didn't know how two phrenologists could look each other in the eye without laughing. (No doubt the nearest phrenologist declared that his skull was missing a 'humor' organ as well.)


This is also known as handwriting analysis, but actual handwriting analysis is done by people who compare handwriting samples for fraud. This can work. Graphologists take a look at a person's handwriting samples and divine their personality from it. This can't work. Although people still do try.

Illustration for article titled The Many Ways Science Has (Wrongly) Assessed Your Personality

Graphology has a long history, starting with the 1600s, when a professor of medicine in Italy wrote How to Know the Habits and the Character of a Person From His Letter. It didn't catch on, except with traveling entertainers who went from court to court demonstrating this new ability for people's amusement. Sadly, it did not stay at that level of legitimacy. It bubbled quietly under the surface until the Victorian era, when it was elevated to a science by a group of French church elders.


Among these men was Abbe Flandrin, who founded the Graphical Society in Paris. Flandrin collected thousands of samples, like Gall before him, and correlated handwriting style with personality. His was a strictly binary system. If a specific sign, like a tendency towards extravagant loops, was present in a person's handwriting, it denoted one characteristic. If it was not there, it denoted the opposite characteristic. Although his students refined his techniques, the overall study jumped, in the later nineteenth century, to Germany, where Dr. Ludwig Klages wrote books that are still consulted today. Dr. Wilhelm Preyer, who believed that every sort of writing showed something new, and studied writing produced by the hand, by the face, and by the foot, wrote books (presumably with his hand, but who can say for sure) that aren't consulted today. Over the centuries, many schools with many different philosophies have been established.

Companies still consult graphologists. Many analysts claim that they can spot employees likely to become drug abusers, thieves, or corporate spies. There was even a scandal when it was found that a member of a parole board was consulting a graphologist about potential parolees.


How do we know that graphology doesn't work? Research scientist Geoffrey Dean tested the overall field extensively. Even if there were one 'school' of graphology that were right, it would be far outnumbered by the many schools that are wrong, since most contradict each other in at least some areas. When compared to wider personality tests trained graphologists rarely did better than a chance guess at analyzing handwriting.

The more rigorous the tests on graphology were, the more the graphologists' stats shrank towards the fifty-fifty mark. It seemed that graphologists mainly made their way in the world using Barnum statements. These statements are taken from the famous entertainer PT Barnum mentioned above, who demonstrated extreme caution by making sure that his shows 'had something for everyone.' Generally Barnum statements are things like, "You're sometimes withdrawn, but can be social if you're in the right mood." Generally, anyone who's not ever social, no matter their mood, isn't going to get out for a graphologist's analysis in the first place.


Rorschach Tests

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Rorschach, or Ink Blot tests are now generally a staple of cartoon or comedy-show psychiatrists, and are regularly sold as parlor games. That makes sense, since it started out as a parlor game as well. Herman Rorschach, who was working in a therapy center in the early twentieth century, noticed that children gave characteristic answers to a game called 'blotto.' Knowing that calling it the Blotto Test would not earn it high esteem, he produced 10 official 'Rorschach' ink blots in 1921. The patient is meant to see, in the spilled ink, things that cumulatively show their character and mindset.

Beyond that basic premise, no one exactly agreed how to interpret the tests. Multiple schools of thought had sprung up by the 1950s, casting doubts on the test's validity. In the 1970s, John Exner integrated the four methods for scoring and interpreting the tests and combined them into what he called his Comprehensive System.


However, it seems to have aged badly. As social norms adjusted, the scoring system has shown to indicate that people have psychological disorders, like schizophrenia, when they don't. And that's when psychologists score them the same way. Even with the revised scoring system, psychologists often differ greatly in their scores. People from different countries, or even different races within the same country, are shown to have significantly different scores. Although the test seems to do well in indicating schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, guiding psychologists toward further testing, it is not comprehensive and not reliable.

The Myers-Briggs Personality Test

The Myers-Briggs personality type test was based on the work of Carl Jung and developed by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, her daughter. It was a questionnaire meant to help women in World War II find the right kind of war time work for their personality. The test is a list of scenarios and possible responses, and when scored correctly it comes up with four basic personality duos; Judging-Perceiving (J-P), Thinking-Feeling (T-F), Sensing-Intuition (S-N), and Extraversion-Introversion (E-I). A person taking the test is assigned one of each of these pairs of letters, and the miserable alphabet soup that results shows a person's character. For instance, an ESTJ type is practical, realistic, and meant for serious grounded work while INFPs are the artsy type. Each of the sixteen combinations is given a name like The Idealist, The Scientist, and The Caregiver.


Myers-Briggs is probably the most common personality test in the world. Longer or shorter versions are given by companies, psychologists, and motivational retreat companies. And as many as 75 percent of the people taking them will score slightly different on a re-test. There are a lot of problems with the MBPT. It tends to get high scores from people who are tested by it, but that is often because, no matter what psychological type comes up, its description (in the test) is only positive. Few people, when reading that they are, intelligent, conscientious, kind to others, and practical, will say that the test is full of it.


In the end, though, the biggest problem with the Myers-Briggs test is the biggest problem with the early version of graphology. Someone is either an introvert, or the opposite of an introvert. Someone either thinks or feels. This kind of on-off switch for humans simply doesn't work as a personality assessor. Some people are strongly extroverted, of course, but some people are just slightly more social than antisocial. The test's designations don't distinguish between the extreme and the slight, giving it a built-in error.

In the end, personality-assessment seems always to be a losing game. Either a different psychologist sees things differently, or a different patient expresses something differently, or a whole different system springs up. Even when no change is made in procedure or scoring, society as a whole changes and moves on. Who would try a graphology analysis in the era of computers, where some people can go months or years without hand-writing anything more than their own name on credit card receipts? What does 'disposition for colouring' even mean in the modern world?


And how can one of sixteen personalities properly channel women into a world in which more jobs are open to them than ever before? Perhaps the clearest personality assessment we get from these tests is the era in which they were popularized - the mystic yet scientific Victorian era, the Freud-influenced early nineteenth century, or the mechanized march to World War II. Of course, since we can get a sense of the era's personality many other ways, perhaps even this application of the personality test would be something PT Barnum would use to con people. He seemed like the type for it.

Top Image: Oguedel

Skull Image: Oguedel

Pen and Ink Image: Pablo Perez

Rorschach Image: Psychological Institute

MBPT Image: Read Write Web

Via Smithsonian Magazine, History of Phrenology, Deinspire, Quack Watch, SJU, Psych Central, Psychometric, and Skeptoid.


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