Meaningful Distinction:

Patrick S. Lasswell Look outward for something to accomplish, not inward for something to despise.
pslblog at gmail dot com
Monday, December 27, 2004
Personality Tests and Their Fascinating Lies

I am not at all fond of the arrogance of the psychological experts who put together personality tests. Michael Totten is claiming that his recent test, affirming what an amazingly wonderful person he is, was a remarkably accurate assessment of his overall character. Michael is a spiffy fellow, but the test has no way of telling if he is actually despicable. As I see it any such test has three central problems; it is a static description of a chaotic condition, important questions regarding character cannot be asked, and the test wants to be taken.

Humans exist in a chaotic changing world with a functionally infinite number of variables. Arguably the central reasoning behind fascism is that the variability of human experience must be focused and redirected to serve the strength of the state. Of course this test is not the central element of a fascist takeover of the free world, but it must be remembered that it exists as a tool to simplify comprehension of humans. This is inherently dangerous in both its limitations and the limiting effect it has. In addition to the behavioral changes accepting the results has on the tested person, there is a more profound impact on the outlook of the behavior of those who accept the worldview presented by the test. The test must always be viewed with suspicion or it functions as a control on the people it attempts to define. Anyone who has worked extensively with advanced measurement tools takes it for granted that you routinely calibrate test equipment. I rarely see significant calibration descriptions associated with these tests; when it was compiled, what culture it was created by, what cultures it is intended for, what references it uses as a baseline, and so on. These tests attempt to define the human condition, a deliberately incomprehensible chaos.

How would Saddam Hussein do on personality tests? Do you honestly think there is a "Conniving Rat Bastard Fascist" metric? Central questions regarding decency cannot be asked, mostly because the important questions are too obvious not to skew the results. How many people would honestly answer how often they pulled the wings off of flies, when they did it every day one summer as a child? On any test where the results are out of their control, how often will intelligent evil people answer in ways that will affect them adversely? How often will any person answer harmful questions honestly? To make things worse, the more intelligent a person is, the less functional these tests become. Smarter people are better at rationalizing and the extremes of the human condition are inherently difficult to describe because there is so little normative data. For instance, Michael is pretty darn smart and recently told me he can talk himself into almost anything…goodbye accurate data!

Another problem of personality tests is that they are created to be passed. There is no way to fail in such test, which is a dramatic departure from real descriptions of the human condition. Humans fail, and how they recover from failure is itself a central aspect of the human condition. Instead of telling you to pull your head out of your ass, these tests quite routinely try to pipe sunshine to your eyes and make things out to be shiny and good. Part of this is that the creators of the test are interested in having their views accepted. Ambitious people make these tests because unconcerned slackers don't do anything. The problem is that there is only so much filtering that can be done to keep the preconceptions of the test creators out. If the test creators did not believe in their views, they wouldn't have made the test. Additionally, the test creators probably have a clear understanding that the test will eventually be taken by suicidal persons, so these tests aren't going to tell folks to end it all. Finally, the test has to pass peer review, so there is going to be an inherent bias towards making psychology experts feel like gods.

I am glad that Michael feels good about himself, and I do not want to take that away from him, but these tests should not be taken too seriously. The tests that count are not standardized and the very best ones are those that require you to define yourself. Michael understands this; otherwise he would be less proud of choosing his own political identity. It must be very difficult to resist the siren call of classification, but it really is the duty of free people to do so. Our capacity to create new definitions requires us to resist the conclusions of these tests.
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