Thursday, September 23, 2004

The Cult of Personality

Personality tests are a bit tangential for my blog, but I'm starting to wonder if the coincidental publications on this topic are evidence of some kind of journalistic tipping point. Last week I noted the well-timed publication of Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article, "Personality Plus: Employers love personality tests. But what do they really reveal?" (not available online, sorry).

In today's Wall Street Journal, Eric Felten reviews a new book by Annie Murphy Paul, The Cult of Personality. The argument is very similar to Gladwell's -- personality tests reveal more about their creators than they do about those who take them. So why do so many administrators put so much stock in them when managing employees or students?

I haven't read Ms. Paul's book but she clearly takes a strong position on this topic. The full title of her book is "The Cult of Personality: How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves."

This reminds me of a brief but illuminating chat I had with a friend recently. We were discussing how people are attracted to fields like organizational development and conflict mediation as part of their own personal journey. She put it, "People who work in conflict mediation are generally bad at it." I think she means they start out bad at it, but then address that shortcoming, and in so doing develop both a useful personal skill and a marketable profession. Makes sense to me. I would then predict that many people have several layers of conflicting personality traits wrapped up in their professional pursuits. Can a personality test make sense of that and predict what behavior will emerge in the relevant context (new job, school, etc.)?

I wish Ms. Paul's viral marketing campaign continued success!

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