In my last post, I considered how employers turn personality tests into profiling machines, and how this functions as an expansion of the mental health system’s diagnosis mentality and places the source of problems squarely within the individual. I discussed my concern with the use of such assessments as part of more and more job applications with some friends recently, and one of them suggested I just answer the way I thought the employer wanted. “It never occurred to me to answer those things seriously,” he said.
In the first place, it’s not like employers’ codes of interpreting the results of these tests are obvious. Does the employer regard introversion as advantageous or pathological? How does the employer read an endorsement of the statement “I like to be the center of attention at parties?” It’s a safe bet that they assess all answers based on their needs, which capitalism mandates businesses that want to stick around do (more on this below), but that doesn’t provide much further clarity. I would have to engage in some level of profiling and stereotyping myself — “I’m applying to work at a library so maybe they want introverts” — to use “employer need” as a filter for my own answers.
But if that’s the case, the tests are not assessing personality — allegedly the “fit” between applicant and workplace. They are assessing your ability to lie. So, even if it had occurred to me to simply play the game and say what I thought the test administrator wanted to hear, these tests are yet one more meaningless yet invasive hoop job seekers have to jump through in order to make it in the current economic system, which already directly or indirectly bars so many people from access to survival (also known as money). In other words, my friend’s suggestion, then, when pushed to its logical conclusion, basically amounts to punishing honesty. Employers in today’s markets may or may not benefit from honest employees; the general public relies on them. Do you want the engineer designing the elevators in your building to be honest when the contractor building the thing calls him and asks if he possibly made an error calculating the load that elevator could carry? Do you want those working in food service to follow the requirements of washing their hands before handling your order, after using the restroom, etc., whether or not anyone’s watching to make sure?
Personality tests themselves are not the enemy. They are just one example of what runaway capitalism does to otherwise humorous, innocuous or possibly useful tools. They happen to be especially dangerous in the reputation age — the era where information is no longer processed on its own merits but in relation to your personal connections, who’s evaluating your data (it will likely not be the person who met you face to face), how well your presentation of required information matches the expectations and preferences of the people making the ultimate decisions. The great lie of the Information Age is finally being revealed: data is never neutral. Personality tests function for an employer, intentionally or otherwise, much like diagnostic criteria function for the mental-health system: these labels determine who gets resources that capitalism itself makes scarce — not only basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter, which require money to obtain, but empathy, understanding and support, which capitalism together with individualism keep in short supply.
Capitalism cannot provide for everyone’s needs, which is why it relies on massive buy-in to the myth that human beings are naturally competitive. There isn’t sufficient evidence to draw this conclusion but even if there was, it’s not those who are the most competitive that will get their needs met in our current system. It’s those who are most compliant since survival under capitalism requires access to money. Entrepreneurship is exploding in popularity for this reason, but there are many aspects about it, including start-up capital that’s often needed, that make it just as inaccessible to many people as traditional employment.
It’s no coincidence that, as reputation replaces information as the defining force in so many aspects of our lives, personality tests as part of the job-application process are proliferating. It’s not just people who have reputations, but companies do as well and brand maintenance relies heavily on how well representatives of that brand, also known as employees, need to be able to perform the rigorous emotional labor required to stay competitive in a customer-is-always-right environment. Employees need to be as low-maintenance as possible and willing to comply with employer demands. Of course, high unemployment rates are quite effective at influencing the behavior of the employed in these directions as well, but turnover costs money and money is survival for people (which we have generally accepted includes corporations). Capitalism may have made human beings disposable and interchangeable in the workplace, but capitalism, especially ours, which centers around shareholders, also mandates ever increasing profits; companies want to save as much money as they can. If you can assess for fit before expending time and resources onboarding new employees every other week, and collect data in the process, it would almost be malpractice not to do so!
These tests are also beginning to regulate our social interactions — and not just their results, but personal beliefs about the tests themselves. I can’t seem to go a week without someone asking me my Myers Briggs type; when I’ve told them of my skepticism of their accuracy or my concerns about stigma/dogma, I’ve been all but shunned by several people. Computer-generated data is treated as infallible, even if it got that data from flawed human beings (most personality assessments are self evaluative). If I didn’t know my Myers Briggs type or my Enneagram number, I got looks like I had three heads or worse: condescending encouragement to “know thyself” and submit to a personality assessment, despite my increasing feeling that they feel more like personality evaluations.
Again, the root cause of the problem with personality tests in the workplace is not the personality test. It is the linkage between work and staying alive, otherwise known as capitalism. This entanglement makes work involuntary on some level. The choice between working and not working is similar to having a gun held to your head and choosing between doing what the gunman says and not doing what the gunman says. When your life is on the line, it’s not a free choice. The compulsory aspect of work has the potential to introduce some measure of trauma into the workplace that compounds with every extra obstacle one has to clear: capitalism mandates you work if you want to live; its demands of short-term profits for shareholders drive instability and volatility that cannot provide everyone the access to money they need to sustain life.
This setup may seem familiar to those who have been involuntarily committed: the way the system works is by blaming the damage it does onto those who receive it. The name for this is victim blaming. When you’re involuntarily committed, you’re likely told that such “treatment” is for your own good; when you experience it as trauma, you’re told that your suffering is part of your “illness.” It’s not surprising, though in the second case it’s ironic, that capitalism and the current mental-health system not only lack self-reflective capacity but actively work against it. The trauma of involuntary hospitalization is invisibilized by the idea that such a violation is necessary (allegedly for the wellbeing of the individual, or, if we’re willing to be honest, the community). The link between basic needs and a job is invisibilized both by the constantly-repeated myth that people are poor because they’re lazy and the equally pernicious lie that human beings are naturally competitive.
If competing for the wares of survival were “natural,” mental and emotional distress would not be skyrocketing as capitalism and its increasing need for new markets seeps deeper into every facet of our lives. Capitalism, at least the way we’re currently practicing it, has an inverse relationship to the amount of available resources, which is legitimately terrifying. As more and more of us become aware of this, the current system will function to process, diagnose, label and drug us according to our personality “defects.” As technology makes jobs scarcer and scarcer, personality tests are just one way employers can respond to the “surplus” of workers.
They are a particularly troubling way, however, in a society with the capability to blindly collect and store data. Personality tests do not create accurate pictures of the way human beings actually are — contradictory, dynamic and constantly changing. Yet the set of four letters (from the Myers Briggs) or five letters (from the Big Five Traits) or the single digit (from the Enneagram) or the phrase (from the Kolbe Index) or the color or the animal or the season serve more like brands, not only as in the “personal brand” in everything from the current labor market to access to social opportunities (that we’re required to build if we want access) but as in a permanent mark or scar. Whether we endorse being a “thinker” rather than a “feeler” — an ostensibly unchanging personality structure — our personnel file will reflect not only the results of these and employer-created personality tests for the duration of your employment and beyond, but what the employer (not you) think they mean. There is no accounting for change. If fact, just like capitalism and involuntary hospitalization, these tests have a built-in mechanism that explains away their own deficiencies: placing the problem on the people subjected to the problematic thing, in this case by the wide acceptance of their accuracy and belief that they measure the unchangeable parts of you (which assumes such parts exist).
I used to hold such beliefs to the point of being fairly stressed out when I would take, say, the Myers Briggs and get different answers. Was that “what was wrong with me” — that I was inconsistent? Did this reveal a flip-floppiness I had a hard time seeing in myself otherwise? Were my different ‘scores’ indicative of an underlying instability in my personality that could someday flower into full-blown “mental illness?” It wasn’t until I got into an argument with a therapist about whether I was an introvert or extrovert that I realized the flaw was with the test, not with the taker: no version of the Myers Briggs I took (official or unofficial, online or in person, short or long) explained its terms until you got your results. The disagreement between that therapist and I was due to different personal definitions of introversion and extroversion, and, though the Myers Briggs does not overtly ask whether you identify as an introvert or extrovert (perhaps this is actually one if its flaws), it does have a definition that underlays the inferences it makes in the questions it asks. My definition of introversion, which I believe is the same as the Myers Briggs, was, at the time of the tiff, “needs time alone to recharge/is not especially energized by being around people.” Even there, I had to qualify it as there are always exceptions: there are certain people I do feel energized by spending time with; and there are certain times I feel energized by people in general. The therapist characterized the difference between introversion and extroversion respectively as one who needs time to process versus one who thinks quickly; we clashed because I staunchly identify as an introvert and I also think very quickly. The conclusions of our argument were that granularizing like this, attempting to define these things is not going to be nearly as fruitful as learning how to love the people in our lives as they are, including ourselves (I realize how simplistic and pedantic that may sound), and, most importantly, that there is no wrong way to be.
That last conclusion is at stark odds with the real world, though. There are, even in our individualistic society, undesirable personalities. That’s what happens when individualism — which isn’t individuality as much as it is a system that demands that every human being meet all of their own needs, including that for relationship and connection with other people — intersects with capitalism. The undesirable personality will be denied access to resources necessary in our current economic system to sustain life much like the person who has been involuntary hospitalized is denied their rights, and often dignity and the ability to vouch for their own experience thereafter. Once an “ISTJ,” always an ISTJ, without much thought to the accuracy of the test that branded you as such, the biases that were baked into it (it was designed by humans after all) or the implications of labeling yourself as an “introverted sensing thinking judger.”
Incidentally, I recently started a position in the field of social work. I work at a crisis center run by an organization whose mission is to serve people no one else can or will serve due to overly wrought screening criteria, distasteful requirements for participation (like religious rituals or the taking of oaths before being “eligible” to receive a meal) or too-limited resources. This means I work with people who the public health, public mental health and charity systems have all labeled as “too difficult,” and who, as a supervisor said during orientation, “society would rather just die.” In other words, I am interacting with human beings all day, all of whom are experiencing crisis (as defined by them not by the staff at the center).
Even though I was required to take a personality assessment as part of my application to my previous position at a law firm, which involved minimal contact with clients (or even other coworkers), I was not required to take a personality assessment of any kind as either part of the interview process or upon hire at the crisis center. What matters at the crisis center is developing relationships regardless of diagnosis from the DSM, a personality test or otherwise. Almost all of the questions I was asked during my interview were about my beliefs — about the causes of poverty, mental and emotional distress and homelessness — and did not focus much on my “core competencies,” “greatest strength and weakness” or even my accomplishments. The interview was over two hours long, which I see now was a way of measuring how (or if) I start to form relationships. Given the unceasing crises of capitalism in our social, economic and environmental worlds, our priorities should be on creating and sustaining relationships with human beings not as they are on paper/screen/medical chart/personality pie graph, but as they are in the far messier, less data-driven realm of real life.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.