Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Thematic—Missing Character

Sorting the Self

Assessments and the Cult of Personality

Christopher Yates

Illustration by Boris Zhitkov/Alamy Stock Photos.

“We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers…and there is good reason for this. We have never looked for ourselves—so how are we ever supposed to find ourselves?”11xFriedrich Nietzsche, “On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic,” in The Nietzsche Reader, eds. Keith Ansell Pearson and Duncan Large (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006), 390. Essay first published 1887. Much has changed since the late nineteenth century, when Nietzsche wrote those words. We now look obsessively for ourselves, and we find ourselves in myriad ways. Then we find more ways of finding ourselves. One involves a tool, around which grew a science, from which bloomed a faith, and from which fell the fruits of dogma. That tool is the questionnaire. The science is psychometrics. And the faith is a devotion to self-codification, of which the revelation of personality is the fruit.

Perhaps, whether on account of psychological evaluation and therapy, compulsory corporate assessments, spiritual direction endeavors, or just a sporting interest, you have had some experience of this phenomenon. Perhaps it has served you well. Or maybe you have puzzled over the strange avidity with which we enable standardized tests and the technicians or portals that administer them to gauge the meaning of our very being. Maybe you have been relieved to discover that, according to the 16 Personality Types assessments, you are an ISFP; or, according to the Enneagram, you are a 3 with a 2 or 4 wing. Or maybe you have been somewhat troubled by how this peculiar term personality, derived as it is from the Latin persona (meaning the masks once worn by players on stage), has become a repository of so many adjectives—one that violates Aristotle’s cardinal metaphysical rule against reducing a substance to its properties.

Either way, the self has never been more securely an object of classification than it is today, thanks to the century-long ascendence of behavioral analysis and scientific psychology, sociometry, taxonomic personology, and personality theory. Add to these the assorted psychodiagnostic instruments drawing on refinements of multiple regression analysis, and multivariate and circumplex modeling, trait determination and battery-based assessments, and the ebbs and flows of psychoanalytic theory. Not to be overlooked, of course, is the popularizing power of evidence-based objective and predictive personality profiling inside and outside the laboratory and therapy chambers since Katherine Briggs began envisioning what would become the fabled person-sorting Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in 1919. A handful of phone calls, psychological referrals, job applications, and free or modestly priced hyperlinked platforms will place before you (and the eighty million or more other Americans who take these tests annually) more than two thousand personality assessments promising to crack your code. Their efficacy has become an object of our collective speculation. And by many accounts, their revelations make us not only known but also more empowered to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Nietzsche had many things, but he did not have PersonalityMax.com or PersonalityAssessor.com.

Taking Inventory

Our fealty to the assessment establishment seems benign enough. According to Psychology Today, “The psychology of personality promises to help people better understand themselves and those they know in relation to others.”22x“Personality Tests,” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/personality/personality-tests. Accessed November 9, 2023. That promise depends, though, on what the American Psychological Association describes as a form of “specialized knowledge.”33x“Personality Assessment,” American Psychological Association, 2011, https://www.apa.org/ed/graduate/specialize/personality. Naturally, and appropriately, there are debates about what this entails, but in practice the path to personality expertise is typologically paved.

Most assessment tools consist first of a sequence of questions (usually ranging from ten to two hundred) that ask subjects to identify the extent to which they believe listed trait descriptors apply to themselves. The popular Big Five Inventory, for example, focuses on openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability/neuroticism. Scores are tallied and compared to ever-growing pools of trait trends. Calling such instruments “tests” is actually a misnomer; “measurement instruments” is the preferred nomenclature. There is a tacit assurance in the term instruments (think dental equipment, not the clarinet section). It undersigns the powerful exactitude of, say, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI, or its latest iteration, the MMPI-3), the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R), the HEXACO Personality Inventory–Revised (HEXACO-PI-R), the Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI), the aforementioned MBTI, and Enneagram-related tests. Not all instruments are equal in the eyes of research psychologists. Approaches that have undergone revision (“R”) seem to enjoy more peer-reviewed respect.

We’ve created our own personality inventory. Are you a Breezicle? Or a Scorio? A Struggilist? Perhaps a Docmeister? Take the Deceptagram and find out.

The corporate world is less circumspect. As of 2021, 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies were using psychometric instruments to assess employees, and a sprawling personality testing sector is expected to be a $6.5 billion industry by 2027.44xVanessa Leikvoll, “80% of Fortune 500 Companies Use Personality Tests, But Are They Ethical?,” Leaders, September 14, 2022, https://leaders.com/articles/business/personality-tests/. The investment, so holds the general mindset of the Human Resources universe, pays smart dividends on the pre-hire and post-hire sides of workplace dynamics, where assessments help calibrate matters of culture fit and efficiency, talent development, and team synergies. Such practices are also praised for their potential to “drive diversity and inclusion rather than conformity.”55xManasi Patel, “Do Personality Tests Belong in the Workplace?,” Resources for Humans, August 2, 2021, https://lattice.com/library/do-personality-tests-belong-in-the-workplace.  Hogan Assessment Systems goes so far as to claim that its boutique suite advances “principles of social justice.”66x“Who We Are,” Hogan Assessment Systems, https://www.hoganassessments.com/about/diversity-equity-and-inclusion/#:~:text=The%20Drs.,we%20all%20can%20find%20meaning. Accessed November 30, 2023. MBTI remains popular (see business management writer and speaker Patrick Lencioni’s influential shout-out in his 2012 book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business77xPatrick M. Lencioni, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 30–32.). Among the many other go-to assessment tools are the DiSC Behavior Inventory, the Predictive Index, StrengthsFinder, Caliper Profile, the Korn Ferry Assessment of Leadership Potential (KFALP), Traitify, and Suited. When their use is seriously qualified, it is with a cautionary eye toward litigation exposure. (Firms such as Kroger, Best Buy, CVS, and Target, for example, have ended up in hot water for their use of such instruments in their hiring practices.88xSee also Lauren Webber and Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Are Workplace Personality Tests Fair?,” Wall Street Journal, September 29, 2014, https://www.wsj.com/articles/are-workplace-personality-tests-fair-1412044257.

How did we come to submit to this belief in self-typologies? And what does that tell us about ourselves?

How the Person Became a Personality

The rise of psychometrics to the status of a social orthodoxy can be broadly charted according to three paradigmatic sociohistorical regimes that in the last century converged in the manner of a Venn diagram: the aptitudinal, the psychological, and the commercial. Examining them closely, one discovers that they are webbed together by an explanatory function that confuses the conditional mood of inquiry (i.e., “It’s as though you are a …”) with the declarative mood of determinative judgments (i.e., “You are a …”). We will see how the slippage between the two matters a great deal.

Some six centuries before the term personality became the coin of the modern humanistic realm, aptitudinal assessment programs found a toehold in China under the direction of civil service recruitment efforts. The individual became an object of attention, at least in the sense of his functional potential. By the time of the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), skill-focused testing and selection measures were on a firm footing, later approaching national use during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Then things set sail.

In 1832, the English East India Company employed assessments in the selection of personnel for overseas duty, a practice that led to the British Civil Service’s initiation of such testing in 1885. In 1883, the US Civil Service Commission was vested with responsibility for administering numerous aptitudinal examinations relevant to government work.99xJerry S. Wiggins, Personality and Prediction: Principles of Personality Assessment (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1972), 516.  During World War I, Columbia University psychologist Robert S. Woodworth began developing the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet for use by the US Army to sift out panic-prone soldiers. After Germany’s defeat in that war, the German High Command “established a program for the assessment and selection of officers and specialists that was of unprecedented proportions,” ambitiously seeking to interpret the “total person.”1010xIbid. The US government would go on to stitch comprehensive assessment examinations into the fiber of the War Officer Selection Boards starting in 1943.1111xIbid., 520. Increasingly psychologically informed and questionnaire based, the aptitudinal trajectory was principally concerned with what we call personality as a matter of fine-tuning job placement for the sake of building state power and winning wars. At the same time, such pragmatism was nested within a much larger transition in the Western conception of the self, the full significance of which was not yet apparent. What the adoption of Woodworth’s instrument reflected was a slight tilt in civic managerialism away from what historian Warren Susman calls the “culture of character” and toward a new “culture of personality” (my emphases).1212xWarren I. Susman, Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2003), 274, 278. First published 1984. I say “slight” because the aptitudinal developments just noted had one foot on the character side and the other on the personality side. In the American milieu especially, the duty to serve was partly derived from the nineteenth century’s understanding of “character” as those aspects of a citizen that promoted the health of the societal order. The worth and meaning of the self were measured (not entirely, but significantly and intuitively) in terms of how well one embodied “a standard of conduct that assured the interrelationship between the ‘social’ and the ‘moral’” in their own localized and/or institutionalized ways.1313xIbid., 273. In short, personhood was understood in terms of duty, and duty lay in the application of virtues.

Yet on the other side—where the character ideal could still be faintly assumed without needing to be named so much—personhood was becoming a matter of emotional fitness, something to be arbitrated on the basis of tendencies and traits. One’s ethical resolve still mattered, but the enthusiasm for standards of conduct gave way to an enthusiasm for standardization itself as a means of designation. It would take a further advance of the psychological into the commercial before the aptitudinal paradigm would contribute to the full reification of “personality,” but preparation for this stride was in the works.

What of the psychological paradigm in its own right? That is a bigger story. Some allowance should be made for a line of descent that began in the ancient concept of the four humors—blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile—the presence of which supposedly determined someone’s temperament. For example, black bile was believed to predominate in someone with a melancholic personality. Allowance also perhaps should be made for the Enneagram’s roots in Pythagorean cosmology and various mystical religious practices of antiquity. The most formative developments, however, began at the threshold of the twentieth century.

Spurning the old preoccupation with so-called universal laws of human behavior, in 1879 German psychologist Wilhelm Wundt opened a laboratory devoted to quantification-based measurements of personhood based on controlled stimulus-response experiments.1414xLoren Baritz, The Servants of Power: A History of the Use of Social Science in American Industry (New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1960), 23.  This was a step forward in the scientific itinerary, but the move to the laboratory also represented a relocation of discourse about the self from the space of “character” to that of “personality.” Pioneering American psychologist James McKeen Cattell adapted Wundt’s method to focus on differences between people, sparking debates about the hows and whys of human variability.1515xIbid., 24. By 1921, the Individual Differences Movement was charging out of the gate, and soon came efforts to narrow the gap between the behaviorist and humanist sides of psychology. Leading personologists at Harvard and Columbia, says clinical psychologist Jerry S. Wiggins, pursued “a theoretical framework for viewing human behavior that combined the rigor of the laboratory with the immediacy of the clinic.” The “exigencies of human existence” called for as much.1616xWiggins, Personality and Prediction, 445, 444.

It is hard to ferret out exactly where in these precincts of nascent psychology personality officially became the term of art. Ludwig Wilhelm Stern’s early-twentieth-century work in differential psychology and personalism (from which came the intelligence quotient, or IQ) operationalized it nicely. Sigmund Freud’s tripartite schematic of the self—Persönlichkeit as consisting of ego, id, and superego (German translators supplying the now-familiar Latin forms)—gave it psychosexual scope. And Carl Jung’s 1921 book Psychological Types surely had a big hand in it. (We owe to this work our distinction between extroversion and introversion, and the component functions of thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuition.1717xSee also Carl Jung’s 1932 lecture “The Development of Personality,” in The Collected Works of C.G. Jung, vol. 17, Development of Personality, ed. Herbert Read, Michael Fordham, and Gerhard Adler, trans. R.F.C. Hull (London, England: Routledge, 1992), 165–86.) But much credit also goes to the term’s more positivistic usage in the groundbreaking and highly influential personality psychology of Gordon Allport, and its attempts at “trait” analysis through the mechanism of value scales. In any event, by the mid-twentieth century, when Raymond B. Cattell (no relation to James McKeen Cattell) devised his multivariate model of traits, personality was flourishing as only a well-potted signifier can. It was the signified that was starting to wither.

By applying statistical forecasting to human behavior, multivariate analysis conceived of “traits” as interrelated aspects of individuals that determine observable behaviors and, once deciphered, provide a means of predicting future behaviors. Per Cattell, a person was something composed of surface, source, ability, temperament, and dynamic traits, and he devised questionnaires according to rubrics that linked letter symbols with matters of “life-record” in the subjects. It all seems so quaint now. The letter A, for example, went with “outgoing versus reserved,” L with “suspicious versus trusting,” N with “shrewd versus forthright.”1818xWiggins, Personality and Prediction, 495, 500.  Such microdesignations had the feel of empirical rigor, something suggesting a readiness to answer the haunting question posed by Dostoevsky’s Underground Man: “Where are the primary causes on which I can rest, where are my bases?”1919xFyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 1993), 17. First published 1864.  Raymond Cattell’s “factor analysis,” once ironed out, offered sixteen such designations. (Take the 16-Factor Personality Model, trace it through the MBTI, watch it shrink into the Big Five Inventory, and you’ve got the gist of the psychometric storyline on the psychology side.)

But as with any science, trait analysis assumed a theory of knowledge as its accrediting agency—in this case, a correspondence model of how determinations of truth are warranted. At first, this seems perfectly sensible. Where “A” represents “outgoing,” for example, and sufficient profiling tells you that “outgoing” corresponds to the makeup of a given test subject, then that person is the kind of person who is outgoing. But here occurs an almost imperceptible leap of faith. The polish applied in adjectival designation inclines one to believe that a definition has been achieved, a conclusion won. A pile of qualities furnishes a synoptic view of the whole, and so begins the slippage from the conditional mood to the declarative. What is the status of the is here, the copula? Does it carry the authority of an equal sign (=)? If I am found to trait-trend in the manner of A + L + N (and so on), then what are we really saying? That I am an “ALN”? Where is the line between speculation and discovery? And does an assemblage of behavioral properties really represent one’s essence? Even if we are told that the deduction concerns one’s “ego,” not one’s essence, we are still banking on the revelatory power of predicates, and still presuming to know some archetypal essence on the indirect basis of knowing that the ego is a construct around that. Would we presume, by the same token, to define the earth’s existence on the basis of its weather patterns?

The emerging science of personality was not entirely without self-criticism, but epistemic questions were unlikely to stick because of cross-pollination with another gathering paradigm, a well-suited upgrade to all things aptitudinal: the commercial. When, circa 1915–17, psychologists Hugo Münsterberg and Walter Dill Scott pioneered approaches to industrial psychology, factory managers who were keen to give their workforce better training and resources took notice. By 1919, explains Loren Baritz in The Servants of Power, “the lure of the miraculous had taken hold” in personnel management. Consultancies such as the Scott Company and James McKeen Cattell’s own Psychological Corporation, founded in 1921, promoted questionnaire-based testing of laborers.2020xBaritz, The Servants of Power, 49, 52. Sociometry, developed in 1934 by psychiatrist Jacob L. Moreno, made human relations quantifiable. The Thematic Apperception Technique (TAT) was devised to clinically determine “leadership” markers. The MBTI was a fine-tuned machine by the late 1940s.

By the 1950s, American manufacturing had really caught the psychometric bug. As Baritz explains, the coal industry embraced “human engineering” as the means to “higher productivity,” and a Standard Oil executive expressed the growing conviction that “the nature of the modern corporation was social.”2121xIbid., 169. Where improvements in wages and benefits could only go so far, personnel strategies could stoke efficiency, motivation, and therefore output. Corporations such as Sears, General Electric, and Westinghouse fell in love with worker tabulations, which fed the growth of a test-servicing sector led by groups such as Industry Psychology, Inc., and Science Research Associates of Chicago. Industrial psychology had lifted the old aptitudinal paradigm to a new upland of personnel relations, developmental training, and leadership investment. All the while, the term personality continued to function as a directive point of reference without having a settled definition.

For William H. Whyte, a Fortune magazine editor, the whole thing was just a jargony, disingenuous, and grossly reductive cover for identifying “loyalty” markers in people. In The Organization Man (1956), he detailed how the use of assessment batteries in the workplace, though sugarcoated with overtures to aptitude evaluation, leadership promotion, and social cohesion, harbored suspect epistemic assumptions. Beneath the sheen of “scientific method” and objective-projective precision in tests such as the Thurstone Personality Schedule, the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, and the Worthington Personal History, Whyte saw a positivistic myth that supported an imbalance of power. What exactly was a “trait,” anyway? How was it adaptable to a linear scale? The science, he argued, purported to reduce “the whole” of a person to quantifiable units of measurement, and the mathematics in play took on an “entrapping” persona that obscured this sleight of hand.2222xWilliam H. Whyte, The Organization Man (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), 172, 178, 184–85. Aptitude still mattered, naturally, but armed with so much psychological precisionism and commercial opportunism, the object was no longer just to identify what you could “do.” It was to isolate who you “are” and who you “will be” for the sake of deciding—and here is a telling phrase—what role you might perform (see above on persona). Exactingly calculated goals of marketplace competition pushed organizations into a self-deceiving embrace of measures for typologizing human beings.

Although The Organization Man enjoyed wide influence and great commercial success, few members of the nonindustrialized psychological fold listened to Whyte, being too busy trying to figure out how to better identify the pros and cons of their assessment techniques. The educational psychologist L.J. Cronbach, notably, was undertaking diligent metastudies of the nuances of test scoring and subject profiling. The preoccupation fanned out from there and, at least as of the early 1970s, the questions were still on the table.

Jerry Wiggins (noted above, and famous for his work on what he called the “circumplex model” of human relations) took stock of the efforts of Cronbach and others and acknowledged that “evidence for the generality of judgmental accuracy is far from conclusive.” For one thing, the inevitable human element of clinical judgments was tricky to get around. Also, it was hard to achieve perfect objectivity even in the selection of criteria for assessing the testing instruments themselves and the subject traits they targeted. Wiggins cautioned that predictive psychodiagnostics could fall prey to misadventures in what he termed “clinical lore.” He confessed, to boot, the “lack of a generally accepted theory of personality.”2323xWiggins, Personality and Prediction, 180, 200, 201. Still, the aspirational rule of thumb for Wiggins, as for his predecessors, was to try to get the science of personality over the hump of its tenuous objectivity by applying more objective science to it. What Wiggins did not consider was whether such positivism was itself a species of “lore.”

There is far more to this story. But here is the arc in sum: Born from an aptitudinal lineage, then elevated into a psychological enterprise with irresistible commercial applications, personality theory passed from its axial age into a fixation without ever really pausing to rethink its leap of faith from the conditional and speculative to the declarative and determinative. Seen from the perspective of the laboratory, clinic, classroom, factory floor, and personnel department, the meaning of personhood came to be subject to a calculation on a giant psychometric slide rule. A self “was” what it measurably “seemed,” a thing to be deciphered by the use of protoalgorithmic instruments that would tell its story and predicate its potential in bullet-point form. How far we had come from Heinrich Heine’s caution (c.1833) that “the composition of one’s own character description would be not only an awkward task but quite simply impossible.”2424xHeinrich Heine, as quoted by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground, 134, note 21. The explanatory power (and profitability) of finely calibrated diagnostics was far too expedient to be questioned.

So much for the genealogy. Imagine now a state of affairs in which the confident, naive realism of the whole profiling agenda cements and democratizes itself in mainstream culture, where people become psychometric natives and, owing to a peculiar sort of Stockholm syndrome, learn to enjoy it—even invest themselves in assessments as an avenue of self-discovery and well-being. Imagine that, and you will have imagined the scene today, to which we now return.

Codification Fever

The only difference between personality theory’s axial age and our own is one of scale and buy-in. The premises are the same. Worries about testing “lore” have mostly been allayed by technical refinements of our prodigious methods and models. With a dizzying array of typological campaigns waged on behalf of diagnostic protocols and psychopathological determinations, workplace team-building and professional matchmaking, and basic self-realization, we have come a long way from the likes of the Cattells, Standard Oil, and Moreno’s sociometry, not to mention the moment when Katherine Briggs wondered why her daughter chose the husband she did. Buoyed by the rise of data science, our instruments are more nuanced, more expert, apparently more proven. That the trend—now a $2 billion industry in the corporate world—is reported on obsessively in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and Forbes speaks to its esteemed status.2525xEmma Goldberg, “The $2 Billion Dollar Question of Who You Are at Work,” March 5, 2023, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/05/business/remote-work-personality-tests.html. When an even-keeled outfit like the Pew Charitable Trusts humorously throws its hat in the ring (see “What Kind of Penguin Are You?”), you know an idea has hit the big time.2626x“What Kind of Penguin Are You?,” Pew Charitable Trusts, April 25, 2017, https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/articles/2017/what-kind-of-penguin-are-you. We can laugh a little at our typecasting bonanza, but we evidently trust that psychometric means have proven themselves worthy of life-giving ends. That is a bold wager. The “lure of the miraculous” abides.

Firmly webbed in the shaded overlap between the aptitudinal, psychological, and commercial regimes, today we are citizens of what we may call the abbreviational paradigm. It has its practical uses, to be sure. But at what ongoing price do we abbreviate the self? Why are we so willing to pay?

Consider first, for context, the subtext to “progress.” Sometimes new advances on old advances enhance our ability to forget the leaps of faith taken in the early days. What start out as qualifying statements become parenthetical caveats, which then shrink to ellipses, which in turn become periods, then acronyms. Guesswork becomes confident; speculation turns to certainty; possible fallacies become matters of fact. We mistake impressions for absolutes. As applied to what our genealogy has revealed, the person becomes a personality, and personality—in principle, a conditional abstraction—becomes an ascertainable essence. The self is flattened into a brand without mystery. Dostoevsky frets that, beholden to the calculative and classificatory, “all possible questions will vanish in an instant, essentially because they will have been given all possible answers.”2727xDostoevsky, Notes from Underground, 24–25. The promise of answers is compelling. Maybe personalityism offers a clinical third-party perspective on ourselves in a world where we don’t trust real people to do this. Maybe we consent to being abbreviationally sorted because of that existential restlessness to which Goethe’s young Werther confessed: “How we crave for a noticing glance!”2828xJohann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Sorrows of Young Werther, trans. Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan (New York, NY: Vintage Classics, 1990), 43. First published 1774. After all, to be sorted is to be noticed in a way, to be specified and thereby ratified. It answers a human need.

Answers, of course, sometimes reveal things about those who find them. Whatever we may think we know of ourselves in our preinventoried state, we sense that we are indeterminate until some instrument determines us. “The whole human enterprise,” Dostoevsky continues, “seems indeed to consist in man’s proving to himself every moment that he is a man and not a sprig!”2929xDostoevsky, Notes From Underground, 31. The proof comes when we are recognized, which today means codified. The phrase “We’ve processed your inventory” tempts us with significance, and we are not wrong to desire that. Being a self is a difficult business. But when we abbreviate ourselves through the instrument-driven order of operations, we also abbreviate, or even skip entirely, what needs to be a long and probing engagement with that difficult condition.

What is it about our modern era that makes such an engagement so difficult, and in turn compels us—people who allegedly abhor being categorized—to so covet abbreviational recognition and relief? Here we enter some deeper socioexistential waters.

In his much-debated work The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), sociologist and cultural critic Philip Rieff described a cultural shift occurring within what Warren Susman called the displacement of “character” by “personality.” Rieff argued that after World War II the West saw a loss of shared normative frameworks for considering who a person is and how that individual is to live. The coordination of individuals with some stock of shared life-premises got rattled, leading to the feeling of an awkward “dis-ease” over lost “innocence,” and in turn to a vulnerable eagerness to find new organizing principles for who we “are.” In this vacuum, society saw the emergence of “psychological man”—the person who wants most of all to find satisfaction in the promise of “individuality and freedom.”3030xPhilip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), 3–4, 43, 7. First published 1966.  The seeds of this emergence had been sown much earlier when, as Susman said of the turn into the twentieth century, “the vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization.”3131xSusman, Culture as History, 276. But what stands out about the postwar period is that the therapeutic tools for cultivating that realization, now under the auspices of liberation, were irresistibly well refined. And where the motive behind the character paradigm was largely one of preserving social cohesion, the motive force for Rieff’s “psychological man” was a struggle to endure the coming climate of social dislocation and preserve himself. While it may remain exigent to be a good citizen, it is more fulfilling to be a Somebody.

By no means opposed to therapeutic work, Rieff nonetheless worried about the shift toward atomized individualism and the domains of therapy that would reinforce it. He observed that “when the meaningfulness of social existence no longer grants an inner life at peace with itself, every man must become something of a genius about himself. But the imagination boggles at a culture made up mainly of virtuosi of the self.”3232xRieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, 26.

If this view is right, then it helps explain why the presumption to define the person in the declarative mood was so readily adopted. The personality assessment regime to which so many eagerly submitted did not just improve management or propel new clinical research lines—it salved an existential wound. By codifying the individual, it shortcut the unexpectedly long haul of internal reconfiguration.

More recently, philosopher Charles Taylor has similarly puzzled over how in recent decades we have morphed into a culture of “expressive individualism, in which people are encouraged to find their own way, discover their own fulfillment, ‘do their own thing.’” Less tethered to “larger ensembles” beyond ourselves, the person has become a “buffered subject” seeking to live by its own terms in a world that has become disenchanted and mechanistic. We abide by an anthropocentric consciousness that thinks itself anchored in its reason, power, and “disciplined self-remaking.”3333xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 299–300.  Such abiding represents a case in which, as Susman put it, a “system of ideas” is “inherent in the cultural forms.”3434xSusman, Culture as History, 283. How natural, then, to approach the project of personhood as, in Taylor’s terms, yet another “instrumental rational” undertaking. Yet amidst it all, we cannot escape “a wide sense of malaise,” a fragile feeling that “something may have been lost.”3535xTaylor, A Secular Age, 302, 307. There comes a strange nostalgia for something outside our self-enclosure.

If Taylor’s observations are correct, then our readiness to hasten the ascendancy of the tidy logic of personality instruments (obliged or elected) makes sense, as does the empty feeling that comes over us once the relief of the abbreviation has worn off. Taken together, Rieff’s diagnosis of our immanent atomization and Taylor’s concerns about the buffered self suggest that, with personalityism, we are snared in the performance of an afflicted but understandable mischief. We take the Good Life to be one in which we assert and instrumentalize our individuality.

But does the mask of me-ness ever really fit? We are fascinated by our inner lives, yet as psychometric natives we treat them on the basis of our scorable “traits” or “egos” (even our “soul shades”). Ironically, doing so leaves us all the more detached from our inner lives. Our allegiances and shared purposes, once formed, take shape by expressing those selves we presume to know and be, not through an investment in durable coordinates beyond our selves. That is not to suggest that we would be better off returning to some Victorian emphasis on self-mastery via sacrifice to higher laws and ideals, which Susman noted would urge “in effect a sublimation of self-needs…”3636xSusman, Culture as History, 280. Rather, it is to point out the concerning paradox in how, having hastened so far down the opposite path, we have wound up carrying out self-realization by means of sacrifice to schematics. How makeshift it is, yet so natural, that we now search for ourselves in the axioms of powerful “instruments” and the “profiles” they patch together.

But what of our other pursuits? The preponderance of mindfulness and meditation practices that take us inward? The pop-Stoicisms that cultivate our equanimity and self-reliance? Yes, we do these, too. We do them, or we promise to add them to our growing stock of daily twenty-minute well-being exercises. Maybe they help us settle into ourselves and know ourselves from the inside out. How strange, though, that what these practices intended in their precommodified form was the emptying of the self, the undoing of the conceits of personality. Are we subconsciously after that as well? Either way, in an age of “ever-increasing self-estrangement,” said philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, “the task of bringing people to a self-understanding of themselves takes on an intense urgency.”3737xHans-Georg Gadamer, Reason in the Age of Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 49.

What is more, with that urgency upon us, the abbreviational fetish happily (and profitably) draws upon the efficacy and authority of other modes of instrumentalist progress, mimicking their calculative conceits. Assessments have an aura of legitimacy made possible by polling data and other statistics, and these instruments borrow on the authoritative magic of “metrics,” a fixation historian Jerry Z. Muller (echoing Whyte’s early sentiments) characterizes as “the belief that it is possible and desirable to replace judgment, acquired by personal experience and talent, with numerical indicators of comparative performance based upon standardized data (metrics).” Muller red-flags a “rationalist illusion” in this creed, a faith in “the sovereignty of technique” as the means to “real knowledge.”3838xJerry Z. Muller, The Tyranny of Metrics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 18, 59–60.

Thus inclined, could it be that we tend to heed the siren song of psychometrics because it sounds in the register of technical certainty? Craving, as we do, a “noticing glance,” there is nothing like an acronym or numeric code to signify explanatory recognition. But any honest statistician or pollster will tell you that infographics on a slide deck cannot quite capture how life works on the sidewalks. A step counter on your watch does not tell you how fit you are. One swallow does not a summer make.

I have devised a psychometric instrument: the Deceptagram, consisting of fifty multiple choice questions with a simple scoring rubric to reveal your personality, or what I will call your Decepta-Type.

How to respond to your results? First, weigh the extent to which the typology feels right to you. Assuming it mostly does, then consider whether (a) you think your self-deceptive measures are useful and good (if so, then imagine what formalizing them purposefully would look like), or (b) consider whether you would like to change your ways (if so, imagine what doing that might involve). Either way, what matters is making the choice explicit and owning it. If you do not feel that your revealed Decepta-Type really “fits” you, then go ahead and try taking the test again to see if you can land on the one you prefer. Up to you.

—Christopher Yates

Click here to take our personality test online or download a PDF of the test.