08 September 2010

Pseudoscience! Bullshit! It must be MANAGEMENT!

This was written for Management 323 (Organizational Behavior) after we were instructed to take a Myers-Briggs-style personality assessment and get "one friend or family member and one business associate" to report on the findings.  You can guess how I felt about this.

Your Horoscope For Today: Personality Type Report

    P.T. Barnum once said “There's a sucker born every minute.”  I can think of no greater aphorism that applies to getting a room full of idealistic business majors to shell out $15 a head for a gigantic exercise in the Forer effect writ large across the landscape.  David Keirsey's exercise in pseudoscience has become a splendid means by which insecure people can delude themselves into believing they are special and engage in the peculiarly American tradition of dividing ourselves into categories when there is nobody around to do it for us.

    First, a discussion of the Forer effect.  You can read the original paper at http://www.scribd.com/doc/17378132/The-Fallacy-of-Personal-Validation-a-Classroom-Demonstration-of-Gullibility, but I will quote from Wikipedia purely to simplify: “The Forer effect (also called the Barnum Effect after P.T. Barnum's observation that "we've got something for everyone") is the observation that individuals will give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically for them, but are in fact vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people.”  I thought of this instantly when reading the descriptions of the four personality types.

    But enough editorializing; we will come back to this later.  A job worth doing is a job worth pawning off on one's friends, so I asked Nora Sawyer, who has known me since we were five and in kindergarten together in 1982, and Marcella Caldwell-Gadson, an Indiana-based attorney whose professional relationship with me primarily consists of questioning my sanity at having decided to major in business; her stake in my life extends in large part to encouraging my creative writing so that she may act as my literary agent.  I asked them the questions in the assignment sheet.  I also put the question to my 157 followers on Facebook; their comments will be interspersed in the text as I go.

    My Keirsey temperament was the Crafter variant of the Artisan personality type.  Indeed, though I may appear gregarious and outgoing on the surface, I am anything but; my reserved, quiet style and complete distaste for human interaction beyond small groups and one-on-one relationships netted me a diagnosis of atypical autism from a psychologist when I was eighteen.  Nine points for introversion vs. extraversion surprised and slightly disappointed me; living in a trash can with a green Muppet (according to some of my ex-girlfriends) should have netted me a ten.  I am a get-down-to-business sort with a strong BS detector; I've no patience for feelings when there is thinking to be done and scored a 10 out of 10 on the Thinking side of the Thinking/Feeling spectrum.  I was surprised by the Sensing score; every Myers-Briggs-type assessment I have ever taken to this point has been “INTx” but the Keirsey sorter gave me eight points for S.  Judging/Perceiving was a 6:4 split and indeed has been the most variable type indicator in the history of these sorts of tests.

    Said Marcella: “I think you are probably reserved in situations where you do not know people or feel uncomfortable. Although you appear to be an extrovert most of the time, I think you are an introvert because you"...are more concerned with the inner world of the mind... You enjoy thinking, exploring your thoughts and feelings..." and that "... being around people drains...your energy.”  Nora, for her part, had similar commentary on my introversion, saying “Like me, you were one of those rare introverts who always dominated discussions in and out of class, and had trouble keeping ideas and opinions to yourself.”  I have no tolerance for what I perceive to be stupid, grossly inaccurate ideas, so of course I'm going to be a loudmouth in that academic discipline most greatly enamored with what I have publicly referred to as “rah-rah BS.”

    Said Nora on the subject of the Crafter type, “'Humorously insightful,' sure. 'Closet daredevil?' See years 1993 through current. I definitely would agree with the assessment that you 'may sometimes act without regard for procedures, directions, protocol, or even [your] own safety. I'd also agree that you 'enjoy self-sufficiency' and that you 'take pride in developing [your] own solutions to problems.'”  Marcella's comments, influenced as they have been by my literary efforts, said “I think that you feel that education is solely for achieving an economic safety net and that learning for the sake of learning is a waste of time which is sort of in conflict with your ability to speak and write extensively on a number of topics unrelated to accounting.”

    That conflict is one of the strongest conflicts at the core of my personality, and Marcella truly nailed it down.  I have said tongue-in-cheek that “if someone offered me a staff writer job at a decent pay rate tomorrow, I'd be out of here faster than you could say Jack Robinson.”  It is not so much that I purely believe education to be a means to an end, only that the harsh reality of student loans being unable to magically pay themselves off influences my behavior as a rational actor in the US economy.  My vocation will be accounting; my passion is creative writing.  If I could make the latter practical I would have no need of the former.

    But there's that word again; practical.  It is a word usually reserved for the “Rational” sorter type.  Meanwhile, two of my Facebook commenters said “The P should be a J”, which would place me in the Guardian type.  The only type I manage to completely avoid on all the judges' scorecards was the NF (Idealist) type which, while it draws me like a moth to a flame when I see it in others, has no correlation whatsoever to my personality except perhaps when I am working with my fellow writers and creative types who pull that sort of behavior out of me and insist that they like me better that way while also being exactly the sorts of people who would detest getting pigeonholed into neat little categories with more meaningless letter combinations than a list of boxing champions.

    With the test itself, even somebody who has known me for 28 years was unable to predict the result; before the interview, when I said I was taking a Myers-Briggs test, Nora said “I bet $5 it ends in TJ.  Maybe FJ.”  Even with her bet hedged she was still wrong (and I scored no points in the F dimension.)  Said my friend Phoebe, who has known me for about half a year, “INTJ is my guess.”  Two out of four.  Fifty percent.  F-minus-minus, thanks for playing, try again.

    Which brings me back to this being pseudoscience.  If indeed there were any validity to this sort of testing, you would think that someone who has known me longer than since last week would be able to successfully guess my personality type based on my behavior and history.  Yet this was not the case.  Indeed, my Facebook commenters were unanimous in their opinion that the test missed the mark at least in part.  This has dangerous, unfortunate implications further down the line as well.

    See, it is no longer acceptable for businesses to classify people based on race, ethnicity, national origin, or any of the other protected statuses under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Lacking this ability to discriminate against people the old-fashioned way, businesses have had to come up with new ways to pigeonhole people they don't like.  Personality tests, with the veneer of scientism (rather than science) behind them, make an ideal means of marginalizing certain elements of society to the point where they can be properly exploited.

    Show me a manager and I'll show you an idiot with too much power.  Show a manager an intelligent, insightful, creative, clever employee and, rather than see that employee as valuable, the manager will see him as a threat.  Especially if someone is introverted, this establishes a pattern in business.  Introverted is “the new black”, to steal and repurpose a popular term from fashion and give it a racial context.

    At Accounting 401 “boot camp” here at UNR last month, Dr. Richard Mason, chair of the Accounting department, said “accounting is not for introverts like you may be thinking; you will need strong networking skills to succeed.”  Similar sentiments are frequently echoed throughout the business department.  One person in four in America is introverted by nature; are we simply to sit back and forever discard our hopes and dreams because a bunch of damned extroverts run the world?  Are we little more than servants or playthings?  Or are we men and women with hopes, dreams, and rights and responsibilities of our own, dedicated, passionate, loving, caring, wonderful people in our own right?

    I don't know that the question can be resolved.  I do, however, know that nothing pleases an extrovert more than being told she is special, and nothing serves such a useful purpose to that end as these glorified horoscopes dressed up in science's clothes like a child putting on his father's business suit and pretending to be a grown-up.  The Forer effect is in full force here; indeed, P.T. Barnum would look at the setup the Keirsey Institute has going and think “now that's how you bring 'em in and soak 'em.”  Barnum himself would not have had the cheek to pull such an audacious stunt.

    What's more, Sir Francis Galton believed he was doing humanity a favor when he brought out the idea of eugenics as a means to get “desirable” people to mate and produce offspring.  People with undesirable traits were, in some jurisdictions, sterilized forcibly to prevent them passing on their “feeble” genes, and this was taken to its logical conclusion in the 1940s.  As the rich-poor divide grows and our society becomes more and more socially competitive and descends into economic infighting over increasingly scarce resources, who is to say that a permanent underclass will not be formed out of those who find social contact exhausting and unpleasant, especially with damn fool extroverts?  Indeed, I am filled with despair at my own career prospects because it is not in my nature to “play the game” and no matter how formidable my talents, those avenues will always be closed to me.

    In conclusion, I found this entire exercise strangely demeaning, dehumanizing, and irritating.  It truly filled me with anger and consternation at the nature of business and made me question the wisdom of my choice of major and likely future career while simultaneously thinking “now what?”  But the worst part?  It struck me as little more than the fortune teller's art of painting with a broad brush and letting the psyche of the reader filter out the inaccuracies.  I'll let Nora have the last word (which is more than I could say when we debated constantly in high school US History class): “But you, Mr. Doucette, are as much a cypher as you ever were. I don't think any one personality “type” could sum you up completely.”

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