All in the right boxes

The Sorting Hat in Dumbledore's office on the set of Harry Potter. Are you really a Griffindor?...
The Sorting Hat in Dumbledore's office on the set of Harry Potter. Are you really a Griffindor? Photo: Getty Images

We'll all be better off once we're properly sorted, writes Liz Breslin. 

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

Know thyself, said Socrates, and psychologists of various stripes since. First came helpful things such as phrenology and physiognomy. (If, of course, you understand the word "helpful" to mean "dangerously bigoted scientific racism masquerading as empirical actual fact".) Then came polygraphing and personality, aptitude and psychometric testing, and now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, we have reached the evolutionary pinnacle of knowing which Hogwarts House we belong to, and so much more, with a few cursory clicks of a mouse.

Who doesn't love a good personality test? (See the Mix's quiz on this very page.) It's so flattering to think that someone, somewhere has designed a quiz to help you and you alone understand the heights you can soar to and the depths of your soul. Click. Click. Click. And never mind the underlying judging. And all that lovely, lovely data going to make the world a less stable place. It doesn't really count if all you are doing is choosing between a beach bungalow and a forest retreat, or trying to outguess your inner Ravenclaw.

It's nigh on a hundred years since what is considered the world's first modern personality test was scripted by the US military. They'd already nailed the aptitude side of things with the alpha and beta tests (checking knowledge capacity, verbal, numerical and direction-following ability) that later became some kind of national intelligence standards used in workplaces and schools.

The personality side was covered in the Woodworth Psychoneurotic Inventory, which was apparently designed to screen for shell-shock but they may have been very subtly screening for other things as well, under their umbrella of "emotional instability". (If, of course, you understand the words "very subtly" to mean "holy schemoly, what the actual heck?")

Sample questions out of the 116: Do you have too many sexual dreams? Were you considered a bad boy [or girl]? Does some particular useless thought keep coming into your mind to bother you? Can you stand pain quietly? Does your heart ever thump in your ears so that you cannot sleep? Are you ever bothered by a feeling that things are not real? Have you hurt yourself by masturbation (self-abuse)? Has any of your family been insane, epileptic, or feebleminded? Do you like outdoor life?

Yes. Or no? Brilliant. They could, at the very least, give a frequency scale for the sexual dreams.

It's easy to sneer at history, yet we're all still a little obsessed with quantitative personality testing today. An estimated 80% of companies will use some kind of externally-facilitated quizzing to make sure their potential new employee doesn't end up a square peg in a corporate hole. Or to make sure they're getting the best out of the way they communicate with each other. Or so they can banish the Slytherins to the second lunch shift. Because who wants to sit with a Slytherin?

Out-of-work (aka real life) relationships, too, are said to benefit from the personality testing approach. So, she's an ENTJ* and you're an ISFP*. How is it ever going to work? Mother-daughter-team Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabelle Briggs-Myers (creators of the statistically most popular personality indicator tool ever - don't call it a test, the MBTI* people get upset) seem to have lived together in personality-type knowledge and harmony over the years of Jungian evangelism. (As long as in defining "harmony", you're willing to overlook the dreadfully racist novel or the eugenics). And Mrs Briggs-Myers reckoned that, "The understanding of type can make your perceptions clearer, your judgements sounder and your life closer to your heart's desire".

So will our household suddenly become a haven of serenity if we go and Get Dotted* (a friendly, non-military and - bonus - Kiwi approach, more about communication styles than typecasting) together? At the very least we'll have a bit of fun and learn a little something, right? Or will the usual arguments just get a new lens; scenes of purple dot pitted against yellow dot, vying for understanding?

Perhaps part of the problem is that we're always trying to cheat the system, going back again and again and again until the result box says rationalist or Gryffindor; to be some idealised version of our selves depending on the environment and the end goal. Or thinking that we know our best self better than those tests ever could.

And yet it's getting harder to put your good girl foot forward. Facial profiling and looking for lying eyes as an absolute rock-solid indicator of personality type are making a resurgence, masked as a useful techno-norm. We are using these powers for good, they say. Click HERE, they say. Oh, look. You can be a Hufflepuff if you like. We're not the type to set you wrong.

*ENTJ stands for extraversion, intuition, thinking and judgement, one of the Myers-Briggs psychological types. They tend to be leaders.

*ISFP, another psychological type. It stands for introversion, sensing, feeling, perceiving. They tend to be easy going.

*MBTI is Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

*There are four dots, yellow, purple, red and blue; respectively pictoralist, visionist, rationalist and sensationist.


 

Comments

Neurological testing can be similar, involving looking at a complex sketch and being asked to draw it from memory, ten minutes later. What A Performance. Performance depends on state of mind, attitudes between patient and clinician, even barometric pressure.

Elaboration, squiggly bits, may very well draw an assessment of 'atrophied' (Dilly).

I write in appreciation of the particular medical skills found in Dunedin.

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