"The Cult of Personality" by Annie Murphy Paul
The "Personality Cult" book has created quite a stir among Myers-Briggs practitioners for its broadside attack on the MBTI ® and the reputation of its originator Isabel Myers. Because there was interest in the book and controversy over a number of charges made by Paul, we invited two internationally known "students" of Jung's and Myer's work to look at the book and give us an assessment of what lies within the covers of this intriguing title.
Glibly Attractive: Reading Annie Murphy Paul's "The Cult of Personality"
Peter Geyer, INTP - Warrnambool, Australia
Annie Murphy Paul: The Cult of Personality - How Personality Tests are leading us to miseducate our children, mismanage our companies and misunderstand ourselves. Free Press NY 2004 ISBN 0-7432-4356-0
I am trying to read your mind
We have stopped to smell the roses
I am trying not to lose mine
The roses or my mind………………………………………………..Jonatha Brooke 2004
Musicians and songwriters at the top of their craft have the licence and ability to speak insightfully, if sometimes starkly, about aspects of life experienced by them and others. Beauty, angst run together at times in their work. Although these professions are not intended for the conventional, it would be a grave mistake to assess the quality of output on selected personal life events and peccadilloes. On that basis, there wouldn't be much to listen to at all, no matter the taste and inclination.
In the past few months Annie Murphy Paul (identified as someone educated at Yale and a former senior editor at the magazine Psychology Today),has gained considerable attention with her book The Cult of Personality (2004). In this book, she attacks the use of personality testing in the United States, and several prominent or recent writers offer praise for her work.
Given that quantification and the American way of life has a close association (e.g. Banta 2004), this view might seem a little incongruous. From the Stanford Binet to the MMPI, the NEO-PI and beyond, the US has led in the development and use of psychological instruments across many professions and has exported that approach elsewhere, particularly in business, where the connection between testing and the workplace originated in the1920s.
Theories have also been quantified, the best known being C.G.Jung's theory of psychological types by the Gray-Wheelwright Jungian Type Survey and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Other Jungian instruments have also appeared since these were developed, independently, in the1940s. But the notion of testing per se has never had universal appeal. Hanson (1993) and Gould (1996) are two critics, also Rogers (1994), in a standard student text on psychological testing.
Paul's broad proposition seems to be that personality is too complex to be covered by any test, preferring what she calls "narrative", a process we get a glimpse of toward the end of the book. Its chapters are arranged in a roughly chronological sequence dealing with aspects of the lives of certain originators of personality tests. The tests are a mixture of projective (pictures) and objective (pencil and paper questionnaires) tests.
However, the content of each chapter is not organised in a time sequence, with several jumps in time, purpose and topic, a somewhat confusing and, at times, misleading practice. Curiously, there is no bibliography, simply endnotes organised by chapter that refer to quotations made in the body of the text. Some of these notes are an incorrect reference. When adding this to several factual errors in the book (particularly in the MBTI section) it means that this review is interim, rather than comprehensive, and will focus on the material in the chapter devoted to the MBTI, my specialty research and teaching area.
The focus of the book as a whole is not on the development of such instruments and the social and intellectual context surrounding these developments, but the developers themselves, particularly something about their lives. It would not be unkind to say that these stories are inclined to sensationalism. At times the material is simply salacious, a theme the author, an obviously skilled writer, enhances with cleverly placed personal comments, fairly close to innuendo.
The implication is that these people as a group are eccentric, perhaps even unsavory, although Paul has difficulty with the relatively benign Costa and McCrae of the 5 Factor model and the NEO–PI. One suspects that Harrison Gough, Theodore Millon and others have led exemplary lives, at least as far as can be ascertained from this presentation.
Nowhere is there any presentation as to what personality might be and how the people profiled in the book missed the boat. Apart from misuse of instruments in various situations (something not distinguished from other experiences), there's simply a journalistic assertion that testing activities don't help people.
The central assertion of the book, in fact, is not even thematically presented other than loosely at the start and end. There's further confusion because the nature and purpose of the personality assessments varies widely and it's fairly confusing when the author leaps from projective tests to instruments and back again in a few paragraphs. Nothing about technical definitions about reliability and validity and what the purpose of a test might be. This is particularly a problem with the MBTI, the only theory-based pencil and paper and test assessed here.
® MBTI, Myers-Briggs, Meyers Briggs, and Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are registered trademarks or trademarks of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Trust in the United States and other countries (aka meyers briggs or myers briggs).
About Peter Geyer
Peter Geyer offers a review of "The Cult of Personality" by Annie Murphy Paul, a former editor of "Psychology Today."
Criticizing the tool rather than the tool users, Paul has painted with a broad brush protesting the use of personality testing, including lumping the MBTI among the medicine she believes society can do without.