Simple Answers to Profound Questions

Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel, creators
of the Myers-Briggs personality test, early 1900s

“Personality is never general; it is always particular,” wrote Gordon Allport, a Harvard psychologist, in 1938. While “personality” once meant merely personhood, since the late eighteenth century it has referred to the qualities that make a person distinctive. Within the field of psychology, the term was initially used of abnormal clinical phenomena, such as the “alternating” and “double” personality William James discussed in The Principles of Psychology or the “dissociation of personality” that Morton Prince examined in his 1906 book of that name. But in the 1920s and 1930s, in part through Allport’s work, personality—including the “normal” kind—became a central concern of psychological research, with journals, textbooks, courses, and conferences devoted to the subject. In 1930 Allport remarked that interest in personality had reached “astonishing proportions,” and in 1938 he declared “the discovery of personality” to be “one of the outstanding events in psychology of the present century.” But he worried that his colleagues had become too concerned with measurement and the search for general laws, and he cautioned against the assumption that one could understand “the totality of a personality by having a series of scores.”

The first personality test in the US was the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet, which was developed during World War I as a way of identifying recruits who might be susceptible to shell shock. It consisted of 116 questions that measured neuroticism, such as, “Are you often frightened in the middle of the night?” Numerous self-report questionnaires followed. The Thurstone Personality Schedule and the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, which appeared around 1930, posed dozens of yes-or-no questions that yielded scores on several scales, including extroversion–introversion. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), published in the early 1940s, consisted of 504 statements, to which test-takers were to respond “True,” “False,” or “Cannot Say”: “I loved my father”; “I have never had any black, tarry-looking bowel movements.” There were also “projective” tests, with no set answers: Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots, introduced in Switzerland in 1921 and popularized in the US in the 1930s; and the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), developed in the 1930s by the Harvard psychologist Henry Murray and his colleague and lover Christiana Morgan, which asked the subject to tell stories about a set of ambiguous, unsettling drawings—a boy looking at a violin, a woman clutching the shoulders of a man whose face and body are averted from her.

The temptation of a series of scores was too great; several of these tests are still widely used, and are part of a multi-billion-dollar industry fraught with questionable science and questionable applications, as Annie Murphy Paul discusses in her meticulously researched 2004 book, The Cult of Personality Testing. Although the tests’ creators were thoroughly credentialed—professors at top universities and doctors at top hospitals—their projects were shaped, as Paul argues, “by the…


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