October 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Not my type

By Anna Funder
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

I once saw, on a wall at the Stasi Law School in Potsdam, this dissertation topic: ‘On the Probable Causes of the Psychological Pathology of the Desire to Commit Border Infractions’. Or, in plainspeak: ‘Why People Want to Get Over the Wall.’ At the time the Stasi recruit wrote his dissertation, discussion of the real social and political reasons someone might want to leave the country was forbidden. So, as well as making leaving a crime, the state made even thinking about it a mental condition worthy of thousands of words.

Recently I was reminded of this manoeuvre, in which a person’s real material or political motivations are reduced to a personality characteristic, when I read of a proposal to use personality tests on Victorian police in an attempt to identify potential ‘leakers’. The Office of Police Integrity’s (OPI) discussion paper, ‘Sensitive and Confidential Information in a Police Environment’, is a sophisticated and carefully worded analysis of some of the situations in which police (apparently endemically) leak confidential information. It examines both inadvertent leaks (gossip) and deliberate or malicious ones (for financial gain or in reprisal for real or perceived injustices). It suggests that leaking is “more complicated than just an individual’s frustration or ego” and that “it is likely that any act of disclosure is overlaid by personality preferences or traits, which, in the absence of any discipline or guidance, can overcome an officer’s recognition of their obligations.” The report recommends the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test as a way of identifying these personality ‘preferences’ or traits that need overcoming.

Greg Davies, secretary of the Victorian Police Association, says, “It is never right to leak operational information or anything that might endanger a person.” But he admits, “we encourage our people to leak – to communicate to the outside authorities in certain circumstances because it’s the right thing to do.” Sometimes, Davies tells me, the mechanisms within the police force for internal change are inadequate. When complaints sent up the chain of command fall on deaf ears, police lower down the ranks will leak to the media “in the community’s interest”, using mechanisms such as ‘The Rumour File’ on Melbourne radio station 3AW. This occurred recently, when police union members felt regional police stations were “cannibalised” and left understaffed because officers were sent to Melbourne CBD to deal with escalating gang violence. Davies believes that “people are entitled to know there aren’t enough people there to look after them.”

Is it possible to stress-test a human being for loyalty – like concrete for load-bearing – before the event arises in which that loyalty is tested? In particular, is it possible to test, on paper, for loyalty strong enough that a person will play by the rules of an organisation but not so strong as to prevent them from blowing the whistle (leaking, going to the media) if they consider the organisation itself to be dysfunctional or corrupt?

Davies supports his members’ leaking “when things go awry”. This kind of whistleblowing is not the result of a particular psychological characteristic: it is strategic. Leaked information damaging to Julia Gillard during the election campaign was widely believed to be an act of revenge, or spite, or a tactic to force a concession for a future appointment. It was a matter of vicious but – let’s face it – fairly standard political strategy and not, at least in the first instance, a matter of personality. This kind of ‘strategic leaking’ occurred in the Victorian police force when the former assistant commissioner, Noel Ashby, launched his “drive for power” against his then-colleague Simon Overland for the top job. Peter Geyer, an expert in interpreting MBTI results, differentiates this form of leaking from whistleblowing. He says any ‘type’ is capable of this behaviour because it’s “to do with power”. Whistleblowing, by contrast, is to do with conscience, a sense of duty owed beyond the organisation. He agreed that strategic leaking was ubiquitous, in politics, banking and large organisations “where people are after the main job”. I asked him whether the MBTI could test for it. “No,” he replied, “because it’s pathological.” The MBTI only deals with ‘normal’ psychology, so it wouldn’t pick this up.

As I write this, I am waiting for Geyer to give me an assessment of my personality (at least in so far as it is ‘normal’). I completed the MBTI two hours ago, after the paying $89 to CCP Inc., the publishers of the test, and Geyer’s fee of $165. The test, based on Jungian archetypes, sorts the human personality into 16 different types. I will soon know what I am on a scale of Extroversion–Introversion, Sensing–Intuition, Thinking–Feeling and Judging–Perceiving. I found the 144 questions, each with two answers to choose from, disappointingly general and obvious: Do you let your head rule your heart or your heart rule your head? Do you like to do things at the last minute or plan ahead? Does the unexpected excite or stress you?

I wanted sneakier, more complex situational questions that could reveal me to myself. Then again, my bad attitude may be a symptom of my ‘type’, which, the theory has it, I can try to overcome once diagnosed.

The MBTI is probably the most popular psychological test in the world. The CCP Inc. website says, “as many as 2 million assessments are administered annually to individuals, including employees of most Fortune 500 companies.” The test has also been conducted in the military, the Pentagon and in churches. Its popularity, of course, does not mean that it shows what it says it shows or even that it is empirically valid – in the same way that full pews in churches are evidence of many interesting things about the human condition but no evidence of the existence of God.

The MBTI is popular in part because its founder, Isabel Myers, set out in the 1940s to examine “what’s right with people”, as opposed to psychologists, who seemed keener to find out what was wrong with them. Consequently, the 16 types into which humanity is corralled are all described in generalised, positive terms.

I was reminded – perhaps unfairly – of the psychologist Bertram Forer’s experiment in 1948. Forer gave his students results from a personality test, which each of them overwhelmingly considered accurate. In fact, he had given them all the same, vaguely worded text – based on horoscope copy – that could apply to many people. “You have a great need for other people to like and admire you”; “you have a tendency to be critical of yourself”; “you have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage …” Two factors made the results credible: that the students believed the result had been individually tailored to them, and that they respected Forer. 

More specifically, the MBTI has been criticised for its low-level re-test accuracy. A study in the American journal Research in Psychological Type found that, when people are re-tested, even at intervals as short as five weeks, as many as 50% turn out to be a different personality type. However, the American professor of psychology David Funder (no relation) says tests do exist that are “excellent predictors of job performance”. These measure “conscientiousness” in terms of “motivation to do well, organisational skills, and what’s generally called ‘work ethic’”. But, “none of this has much to do with cheating of various kinds, including stealing from the till or leaking company secrets. No personality test has shown any ability to predict this kind of thing.” Funder argues that the MBTI “is marketed brilliantly and has some intuitive appeal, but is pretty much useless for personnel selection”. Although “honesty and integrity are personality variables, for reasons that are pretty obvious when you think about it for a minute, [they] are not well detected by self-report tests. It’s not very helpful to ask people whether they are liars.” Funder suggests the old-fashioned method of checking people’s references is a better way to assess these things.

Heidi Ravenscroft, author of the OPI paper, stressed that reference-checking is an important part of police recruitment. As for whistleblowing, she identified the psychology of this acutely as an “unspoken promise” felt by the employee, that “I’ll be loyal to you [the institution] if you are to me.” It is important, she said, “to continue to make sure they feel valued.” But the discussion paper makes no specific recommendations on internal complaints procedures, focusing instead on education and discipline measures, and personality testing.

And this, I suppose, is what reminded me of the East German example. People wanted to leave that country because of things wrong with it, not themselves. Similarly, with those leaking for money, or leaking for power, or leaking because something is awry within the organisation, the causes are possibly more easily identifiable outside than in – and then, perhaps, remedied. If the mantra of the 1970s was “the personal is political” – an attempt to liberate people from various kinds of previously unseen domestic oppression – this psychologisation phenomenon is its inverse, in a conservative time. It is making the political – a call (or need) for institutional change, say – into the personal (‘You got a problem with that? – You’re the problem’). Although, as it turns out, with the Myers–Briggs, no one has a problem.

When Peter Geyer calls with my results, I am wondering whether I am an INTJ (as he thinks Kevin Rudd and Simon Overland might be) or an ISTJ (like John Howard and, in his view, many police). He starts by explaining in detail the meaning of the categories in each of the four groups, and then asks me to rate myself as one or the other.

“Which one does it look like from the test?” I ask.

“I can’t tell you that,” he replies, explaining that self-assessment is an important part of the test. “You’ve got to say, ‘well this is me’ and then I send you the results.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the way I assess myself is the way I come out on the form when he sends it through. Later, when I question him about the accuracy of the MBTI, he tells me it’s officially about 70–80% accurate, and, in his experience, 85%. When I ask how that is measured, he explains that it’s by self-assessment again.

The MBTI is a huge and long-wearing fashion in corporate, government and military recruiting spheres. Perhaps what it does offer is a way for people to agree on a starting vocabulary for talking about that most complex of things – themselves – and for trying to understand one another. That it is a vocabulary divorced from more tangible differentiators between us – of gender, class, intelligence, values and ambition (to name a few) – only serves to help find common ground. Discourses of the soul in other eras served a similar purpose: invented metaphorical languages in which we try to get a grip on ourselves. The aim of this one is not to weed and sift the pure from the damned, which is a relief. But, in terms of proving anything about you, such as whether you are likely to leak or not, it is probably about the same degree of hokum.

Anna Funder

Anna Funder is the author of All That I Am, which won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Stasiland. She is a chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UTS.

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