Episode #130: Personality Profiling: Helpful or Hokum?

First Up

Ed challenges you to to determine if the following are from his horoscope or a personality profile. See answers at the bottom of the post.

  1. Horoscope or profile: Some words that describe you are: Directive, Decisive, Driven, and Friendly. You are task-oriented, and you probably get a great deal done. You probably like problem solving and getting results. You are comfortable interacting with others to make things happen. 
  2. Horoscope or profile: If you have been given a task to do that hasn't been explained properly, you may feel at a loss. It's best to go back to the person who assigned the work and ask for more details. This could be temporarily humbling, but remember, it's better to ask a stupid question than to make a stupid mistake.
  3. Horoscope or profile: It can be very difficult to work with a (Type or sign) as a co-worker. They are very ambitious and very hard workers—in fact, they have a tendency to overwork in order to accomplish the goals they have for themselves or to make themselves look good in the eyes of their managers and supervisors. They will do whatever is necessary to meet goals that will make them look good in the eyes of their superiors and don’t care whose feet they must step on in order to accomplish those goals.
  4. Horoscope or profile: (Type or sign) are natural-born leaders and embody the gifts of charisma and confidence, and project authority in a way that draws crowds together behind a common goal. (Type or sign) are characterized by an often ruthless level of rationality, using their drive, determination and sharp minds to achieve whatever end they’ve set for themselves.

 Some background

Carl Jung pondered differences in personalities for a deeply personal reason: his split with Sigmund Freud caused him deep depression. Why did they see things so differently?

He concluded Freud was an extrovert while he was an introvert. Jung believed that personality was dynamic and it could change throughout life.

“Every individual is an exception to the rule. To stick labels on people is nothing but a childish parlor game.”

A midwestern mental hospital is where The Minnesota Multiphase Personality Inventory (MMPI) was created in the 1930s to sort mental patients into diagnostic categories.

It was a 567-questionnaire, and the quantification it provided gave it more validity than inkblots. Starke Hathaway, the developer, became skeptical in old age of assessments, doubting that personality profiling was possible at all.

Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), 1940s

Some facts

  • This is the leading profiling test administered.
  • 89% of the Fortune 100 use Myers-Briggs
  • 2.5 million people each year take it
  • Some 2500 profiles are on market
  • It’s a $500 million industry, with 8-10% annual growth
  • Thrived in the shade of casual neglect

Created by Pennsylvania housewife Isabel Myers, along with her mother Katharine Briggs. Isabel thought the test could bring about world peace:

If President Woodrow Wilson had not been so wrapped up in his own introversion, he would have negotiated more effectively as Versailles, and World War II might have been averted.

Personality profiles were used to combat Frederick Taylor’s “one best way.” It was people themselves that need sorting and shaping, since every position in the company had the right profile fit.

Jesus was an ENTP, so is Steve Wozniak. Don’t ask how they know about Jesus. Of course, popularity does not at imply scientific validity.

Test data is confidential, so cannot be tested to determine effectiveness. The tests are popular among consultants, who are paid good money to administer them in a convivial atmosphere.

The fallacy is the tests measure what we are like and who we are, not what we know, believe, or what we can do. They confuse labeling personality with understanding it. They confirm what people already know about themselves (the “aha reaction”), what psychologists call the permanency tendency. They also tend to validate the positive characteristics we all believe we possess, the so-called Pollyanna principle.

As they say, if you really want to learn what someone is like, marry them or work for them. Annie Murphy Paul, former senior editor at Psychology Today, has written a scathing indictment against these tests, labeling them modern-day phrenology—the “science of the mind” (“bumpology”). A leading Phrenologist was Franz Joseph Gall, University of Vienna, in the 1870s:

  • Phrenologize Our Nation, for thereby it will Reform the World!
  • Phrenology will improve the prosperity and material good of the next generation and greatly enhance the happiness of the race, besides abolishing poverty and nearly abolishing crime.
  • Walt Whitman, Clara Barton (Red Cross), Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were all believers.
  • Two US presidents, James Garfield and John Tyler, got readings. Mark Twain was a skeptic!

For business, it could no longer depend on reputation or word of mouth, so personality profiling was too useful not to be true. Rorschach test used thousands of time , the second most popular test among mental health professionals. It was created as a parlor game! Jeffrey Dahmer responses “were normal to the point of being mundane”

The Cult of Personality Testing

The Wall Street Journal wrote that Annie Murphy Paul “draws a veritable quacks’ gallery of modern personality testing. With an eye for the absurd, she makes a compelling case that such tests tell us more about the men and women who put them together than about the subjects taking them.”

Her book, The Cult of Personality Testing: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves (2004), is essential reading for understanding why these profiles are not at all effective.

Here a few of her more condemning facts:

  • [A]s many as three-quarters of test takers achieve a different personality type when tested again (47% by proponents!), and that the sixteen distinctive types described by the Myers-Briggs have no scientific basis whatsoever.
  • There is scant evidence that MBTI results are useful in determining managerial effectiveness, helping to build teams, providing career counseling, enhancing insight into self or others, or any other of the myriad uses for which it is promoted.

In 1968, Personality and Assessment was published, by Stanford University psychology professor Walter Mischel. He found the correlation between personality and behavior was .30. In other words, at best personality explained about 10% of behavior. Mischel believed that our actions are driven by situations, not personality.

The Life Story interview protocol, developed by Gordon Allport, is an alternative to sterile personality profiles.

Defined by Our Beliefs, not Our Knowledge or Personality

Professor Erkko Autio, department of management at HEC Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, pointed out the same defects with respect to the current fad of “emotional intelligence” in a letter to The Economist:

It might interest you to know that not a single serious study has ever been able to demonstrate a link between “emotional intelligence” and leadership effectiveness. The most robust and consistent single predictor of leadership effectiveness is, simply, intelligence. Emotional intelligence sells well, but scientific evidence supporting it is almost as solid as that supporting the effectiveness of homeopathy (The Economist, Aug 26, 2006: 14).

Professor Autio is certainly correct in the assertion that intelligent quotient (IQ) is a better predictor of executive effectiveness, as The Bell Curve has scientifically demonstrated.  If you were confined to learning one number about an individual to predict their standard of living, you would be hard pressed to find a better one than their IQ.

However, firms are not confined to knowing just one thing about their human capital. As Rabbi Daniel Lapin wrote in Thou Shall Prosper: “You are best understood and appraised by others on the basis of the things you believe rather than on the basis of the things you know.

Or, we might add, rather than on the basis of your personality or year of birth (see Generational Astrology). [See Ron’s book review of Thou Shall Prosper, and his LinkedIn blog post on Generational Astrology].

We are better off understanding people’s beliefs if we want to even begin to understand how and why the Germans of the Third Reich could carry out their murderous orders in acquiescent servility, or the people who flew airplanes into buildings killing innocent civilians on September 11, 2001.

Trying to simplify the spirituality and soul of a human life by labeling it with a personality type (or even an IQ) is to disregard the uniqueness of individuals, which requires judgment and discernment far more than measurement.

As Peter Drucker once wrote, “There is no such thing as an infallible judge of people, at least not on this side of the Pearly Gates.” Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang, from his book, The Importance of Living:

To me…man’s dignity consists in the following facts which distinguish man from animals. First, that he has a playful curiosity and a natural genius for exploring knowledge; second, that he has dreams and a lofty idealism…third, and still more important, that he is able to correct his dreams by a sense of humor, and thus restrain his idealism by a more robust and healthy realism; and finally, that he does not react to surroundings mechanically and uniformly as animals do, but possesses the ability and the freedom to determine his own reactions and to change surroundings at his will. This last is the same as saying that human personality is the last thing to be reduced to mechanical laws; somehow the human mind is forever elusive, uncatchable and unpredictable, and manages to wriggle out of mechanistic laws or a materialistic dialectic that crazy psychologists and unmarried economists are trying to impose upon him. Man, therefore, is a curious, dreamy, humorous and wayward creature. In short, my faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth.

Michael Novak, R.I.P.

Michael Novak was one of Ron’s all-time favorite authors. A former Democrat who converted to the right, and a profound defender of free market capitalism, in the pantheon with George Gilder, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Father Robert Sirico, Milton Friedman, Deirdre McCloskey, among others.

Here is Father Robert Sirico’s video tribute to Novak:

George Weigel’s Tribute to Novak, and the Tribute by Joe Carter of Acton Institute.

Answers to Ed's Quiz

  1. Disc Profile

  2. Scorpio for February 2017

  3. Myers Briggs Profile

  4. Scorpio - About your sign


Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.