Personality testing – an American Cult?

Reading Annie Murphy Paul’s well-written but somehow suspicious book The Cult of Personality Testing (Free Press, paperback, 2005) is a worthwhile experience, but this book really provokes in me the thought that Ms. Paul is throwing the baby away with the bath water. The one and only acceptable way of describing personality seems for her to be the “life story” developed by Professor Dan McAdams of Northwestern University. All or most other schools of personality research are presented as more or less worthless.

As a European HR professional, I am not very well aware of the trends in the discussion on personality psychology on the American contintent. Professor McAdams’ approach to assessing personalities certainly seems quite valid and credible, and is most likely to offer a deeper view of the client’s personality. Based on a fairly superficial reading, the “life story” appears an extremely qualitative method. But, is there really nothing worth preserving in the earlier, more quantitative schools of personality assessment, as Ms. Paul seems to propose? No value whatever in the Rorschach or Raymond Cattell’s 16PF? Even though the late Professor Cattell had in his advanced years created some very strange sociopolitical ideas, his inventory might still be a valid tool. We shouldn’t condemn scientists merely on the basis of their political ideas, even though anyone active in the human sciences should also bear responsibility for the betterment of humanity.

As to the recent development of personality theories, both the “Big Five” theorists and the MBTI school have recently sophisticated their models by dividing the five or four basic traits or dicotomies further into 20 or 30 “facets”. This seems a very realistic direction, which might eventually mean that these two personality schools, based on different theories, are approaching each other. This type of “merging” development could strengthen the role of applied personality research both in the academia and in work organisations. But, it might also eventually lead into a future which is not envisioned by Annie Murphy Paul and other journalist-type critics of personality testing.

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