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November 01, 2004

The Mirror Speaks, the Reflection Lies

by Ron Hogan

Friday night, I went out to the West Side Y to see Annie Murphy Paul talk about The Cult of Personality, her engaging look at the history of personality tests: how they were developed, how they've been deployed, and how they're frequently misused in settings from the workplace to the courtroom. At least, I assume the entire book is as engaging as the chapter on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory I read in The Believer a few months back, an article which, as Sally Satel noted of the book as a whole, "combines lucid science reporting with colorful biography and intelligent social commentary."

Paul read from the opening and closing chapters of the book, describing how tests originally designed to diagnose mental illness have been increasingly applied to the population at large, defining people as "the sum of our sicknesses" or as simplified types that can only approximate human behavior--and, in the case of the Myers-Briggs, with about as much effectiveness as astrology.

When she invited the audience to ask questions about specific issues, we learned that she came to his material because she'd already found a niche for herself writing about psychology, and wanted to explore more fully how it "interacts with real people's lives," and so perhaps some of the things she's discovered about the tests could be applied to the use of psychological techniques in general. She didn't take any of the various tests while researching; "I didn't want to have my perspective on these tests shaped by whether I felt they had 'got' me or not." There were a few psychologists in the room, one of whom defended the use of testing in diagnostic situations--which, it turned out, wasn't a problem for Paul--while the other chimed in after my question about whether you can come out "normal" on any of these tests by pointing out that this raised the whole question of how to define pathology: as the mere possession of certain traits or the possession of those traits to degrees at statistical deviance from the majority of people...? Paul's definitely on to something with this book, and if you want any further proof, no less a science popularizer than Malcolm Gladwell introduced her work to New Yorker readers in a recent article. Here's hoping his enthusiasm sent a lot of those readers straight to the source.

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