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Your Opinion of You

A brief history of personality tests—and how they lend themselves to cultish misdirection.
scientology personality test cults

Stop by for a personality test and just a little indoctrination. (Photo: Tupungato/Shutterstock)

In 1923, an aspiring novelist named Katharine Cook Briggs read the psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s treatise on Psychological Types. In this work—which Jung undertook, in part, to understand the reasons for his falling out with Freud 10 years previously—Jung distinguished between what he called “introverted” and “extraverted types”: “The one sees everything in terms of his own situation, the other in terms of the objective event.” He also evinced four “basic psychological functions ... thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition.” Logically, this produced eight different categories of people, since a thinking type could be either introverted or extraverted, and so on.

Briggs became an early popularizer of Jung’s ideas in America. In 1926 she published “Meet Yourself: How to Use the Personality Paint Box” in the New Republic: “To meet oneself through the good offices of Jung’s theory of types is to be like the motorist who, after driving a car for years without knowledge of its mechanism, suddenly comes upon one of those cut-away engines and begins to understand the hows and whys of motor and transmission,” she wrote. “A most valuable experience, especially to such as are dissatisfied with their mental powers and self-starters and gearshifts; and not too difficult if approached gradually and from the proper angle.”

Elaborating slightly on Jung’s original scheme, Briggs named “the observant, the expectant, the personal, and the analytical” as “the four primary character colors which each individual combines and blends according to his taste as he unconsciously paints in the detail of his own personality portrait, and thus reveals his type.” While Jung propounded his theory of typology in the rather austere language of European psychoanalysis, Briggs presented it as a cheerful hobby for amateurs: “One need not be a psychologist in order to collect and identify types any more than one needs to be a botanist to collect plants.... The collector of types acquires a new conception of wholesome living, a new basis for the criticism and if necessary the reconstruction of his own life.”

Emma Bovary, for example, is an INFP; Mad Max is an ISTP; Carrie Mathison from Homeland is an ENFJ.

Briggs’ interest in personality type was humanistic: She thought Jung’s system would make people happier, that it would be useful to artists and writers seeking to understand the human condition, and that it might have some application to progressive education. Her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers, by contrast, brought a slightly more practical, technocratic emphasis to her mother’s ideas. Isabel was also a novelist, though a more successful one than her mother: her mystery novel Murder Yet to Come was published in 1930 to good reviews and excellent sales. But her career stalled, and she soon shifted her attention from fiction to psychology.

In the 1940s, Myers read an article in Readers’ Digest entitled “Fitting the Worker to the Job” about a personality test called the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale. The Humm, widely used in business at the time, was based on categories that the psychiatrist Aaron Rosanoff had derived from working with mental patients. It tested for seven basic “Personality Syndromes”: “Hysteroid,” “Manic,” “Depressive,” “Autistic,” “Paranoid,” “Epileptoid,” and “Normal.”

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, modeled on the Humm and other industrial “people-sorters” but grounded in Jungian theory, was conceived as a career-placement tool that would help employers identify the strengths of job candidates and individuals find their proper line of work. The MBTI was tested first on Myers’ friends and family—one of the first questions was “Do you prefer to (a) eat to live, or (b) live to eat”—and, later, on students at Swarthmore College and at the George Washington School of Medicine. (Myers sent Jung himself a copy of the test in 1950; he responded politely but without much enthusiasm.) Beginning in 1962, it was carried by the Educational Testing Service, the publishers of the SAT, although it didn’t really begin to catch on until it passed to the smaller but more aggressive and business-oriented Consulting Psychologists Press in 1975. (The CPP’s slogan, circa 2015: “The people development people.”)

The massive popularity of the MBTI probably has a lot to do with the way it flatters those who take it.

By 1980, when Myers died, the MBTI had sold a million copies; today it is available in more than 20 languages, and is widely used by management schools, government agencies, churches, colleges, and other organizations. Though the test itself is protected by copyright and can only be administered by those who have completed an expensive certification program, its basic categories have long been common coin. The MBTI has a vocal fan-base on the Internet: There are dozens of Myers-Briggs message boards and Facebook groups, and even a kind of fan fiction: Tumblr sites like Funky MBTI in Fiction provide extensive MBTI profiles for characters from novels, films, and television shows. (Emma Bovary, for example, is an INFP; Mad Max is an ISTP; Carrie Mathison from Homeland is an ENFJ.)

The massive popularity of the MBTI probably has a lot to do with the way it flatters those who take it. The test is designed to discover skills, not flaws: In the 1962 MBTI manual, for example, introverts are praised for their “depth and concentration,” extraverts for their “ease with environment,” the Feeling for their “sympathetic understanding and handling of people,” and the Thinking for their “capacity for analysis and logic,” etc.

Of all of the personality tests developed in the 20th century—and there have been hundreds—the MBTI is the closest to the language of pop psychology and self-help. “The Indicator’s unfailingly positive tone blends seamlessly ... with our society’s emphasis on promoting self-esteem,” the journalist Annie Murphy Paul comments in the Cult of Personality, her book about the history of personality testing. She notes “Myers’ deliberate focus on healthy, high-functioning individuals”—worlds away from the harsh, clinical judgments of the Humm. Myers’ posthumous book about the development of the MBTI was entitled Gifts Differing, and, as Paul puts it, she had “an insistent belief that no one type was better than another, that everyone had a different set of ‘gifts’ to contribute to the world.... Each description was carefully crafted to avoid hurt feelings and injured vanity.”

British psychologists who took the OCA in London and Edinburgh, answering the questions randomly, received “remarkably similar profiles” with uniformly low scores; they concluded that the test was rigged to produce a negative result, and that it was “a device of no worth.”

This positivity contrasts sharply with another of the 20th century’s longest-lived personality tests: the Oxford Capacity Analysis. The origins of the OCA are disputed, but all accounts agree that it was developed in the early 1950s at the behest of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Hubbard was fascinated by intelligence and personality tests, which were then very much in the scientific mainstream. In 1950, his Dianetic Research Foundation ran a battery of tests—including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, the California Test of Mental Maturity, and the Johnson Temperament Analysis—to try to establish the beneficial effects of dianetic auditing. (The results were inconclusive.)

Soon, Hubbard was pushing for Scientology to develop its own bespoke personality test. This may, at first, have been a matter of necessity: In the mid-1950s, publishers of personality tests began to require their customers to be accredited by the American Psychological Association, thus cutting Hubbard off from access to more legitimate scientific instruments. But it also allowed the Church to shape the test to its own institutional requirements. “The tests we need must be of a highly precise nature, depending on opinion of an operator not one bit,” Hubbard wrote in a 1950 internal memo to Scientology staff entitled “The Intensive Processing Procedure.” “Our tests must be administerable to a small group simultaneously, must be graded swiftly, must contain a high degree of arithmetical estimation, and must present to a layman the facts and figures he expects of a science.”

To this end, Hubbard commissioned Julia Lewis, a Scientologist with a graduate degree in psychology, to craft a test based on the Johnson Temperament Analysis, which had been developed in 1941 at a marriage clinic in Los Angeles. (It is still used today, in modified form, as the Taylor-Johnson Temperament Analysis.) Lewis copied or paraphrased most of the JTA’s questions, diagnostic categories, and scoring apparatus, introducing a few bizarre errors in the process (like the possibility of receiving negative percentile scores, which is mathematically impossible).

Lewis’ test, which was copyrighted under her name in 1955, was called “the American Personality Analysis.” In 1959, the test was revised, at Hubbard’s instruction, by the British Scientologist Raymond Kemp and re-named the “Oxford Capacity Analysis,” in the apparent hope that the implicit but specious association with Oxford University would lend it an air of legitimacy outside the United States.

My Scientology chart looked like the EKG of a fading heart patient. What this meant, my evaluator told me, was that I was a very unhappy man.

The Oxford Capacity Analysis has 200 questions. Some of them (“Do you browse through railway timetables, directories, or dictionaries just for pleasure? Do you often sing or whistle just for the fun of it?”) seem whimsical or irrelevant. Some are vaguely political (“Do you consider more money should be spent on social security? Do you consider the modern ‘prisons without bars’ system doomed to failure?”) Others are obviously probing for signs of depression:

Are you rarely happy, unless you have a special reason?

Do you often “sit and think” about death, sickness, pain and sorrow?

Do you sometimes wonder if anyone really cares about you?

Would it take a definite effort on your part to consider the subject of suicide?

And several seem to aim at ferreting out those with cult potential:

Would you prefer to be in a position where you did not have the responsibilities of making decisions?

Could you agree, to strict discipline?

Would the idea of making a complete new start cause you much concern?

Ultimately, though, the responses given to these particular questions don’t matter very much, because it appears to be impossible to achieve a “good” score on the Oxford Capacity Analysis.

In 1971, the British government commissioned an investigation into Scientology. As part of the enquiry, several British psychologists took the OCA in London and Edinburgh, answering the questions randomly, and received “remarkably similar profiles” with uniformly low scores. They concluded that the test was rigged to produce a negative result. Moreover, they were appalled by the follow-up evaluations they were given after completing the tests, in which their supposed personality deficits were presented in the harshest possible light.

“To report back a man’s inadequacies to him in an automatic, impersonal fashion is unthinkable in responsible professional practice,” the report reads. “To do so is potentially harmful. It is especially likely to be harmful to the nervous introspective people who would be attracted by the leaflet [for the test] in the first place.” (It’s telling that, by the '70s, Jungian thinking had become so mainstream that scientists could denounce a bogus personality test using the language of personality type.) “The prime aim of the procedure seems to be to convince these people of their need for the corrective courses run by the Scientology organisations,” the psychologists concluded. Where the Myers Briggs test flatters and protects those who take it, revealing to them their special psychological gifts, the Oxford Capacity Analysis is designed to tear your personality down in order to re-build.


On a sweltering day in August, I walked into the gigantic blue Church of Scientology building on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles and asked to take a personality test. I was led into an open-plan office with Dianetics posters on the walls and a smattering of people conversing in English and Spanish. The OCA itself—200 questions that were roughly similar to what I had come across during my online research—took me a little under an hour to complete; after that I was given a half-hour IQ test and a timed “Aptitude Test”—seemingly a combination of IQ and personality test, which involved, among other tasks, writing your name in the left-hand margin of the page and circling it—that took me about five minutes.

Once my tests were scored, a pleasant-seeming woman in her mid-50s sat down with me and went over a line graph visualizing the results. The graph was divided into three layers: the top third was labeled “Desirable State,” the middle “Normal,” and the bottom “Unacceptable State.” My chart looked like the EKG of a fading heart patient: for the most part, my data points were near the very bottom of the scale, with a couple of dramatic spikes indicting that I was “active” and “aggressive.” What this meant, my evaluator told me, was that I was a very unhappy man. According to my OCA results, I was extremely nervous, irresponsible, and impulsive. I lived in my own head: always thinking. I didn’t trust people or get along with them, and I could be critical, cold-blooded, and even heartless. But—here was the good news—I had a high aptitude score and an above-average intelligence, which meant I was capable of a lot more. Did I want to keep going down the same road I had been traveling, or did I want to change my life?

The OCA, I knew, was devised to provide troubling results of this sort. I also knew that the speech that my evaluator had just given me—one which she gave every appearance of improvising on the spot based on the specifics of my chart—was basically a stock monologue. In a memo from 1959, Hubbard provided a script for OCA evaluators to follow, which begins: “Now let's look at your personality. This is what you've told us about yourself. Understand that this is not our opinion of you, but is a factual scientific analysis taken from your answers. It is your opinion of you.” The opinion that follows is always unremittingly negative, and it is always expressed in terms that, mutatis mutandis, sound very much like the ones I heard from my evaluator. The emphasis is on the test’s neutrality and objectivity, and while the remedy is, conveniently, near at hand—just a couple of cubicles over, in my case, where another Scientologist tried in vain to get me to sign up for a four-day Dianetics course on “How to Improve Relationships With Others”—the diagnosis has come from the patient. “Your opinion of you,” then, is that you are a problem only Scientology can solve.

The OCA is still used throughout the world as a recruiting tool for Scientology. Like almost everything about the Church, it has been a source of controversy. In 2008, a Norwegian college student named Kaja Ballo committed suicide after taking the OCA, inciting a public furor over the test’s demoralizing techniques both in Norway and in France, where Ballo was living at the time. French prosecutors were unable to establish a link between Ballo’s suicide and Scientology, but she has since become a kind of martyr to European anti-Scientology activists.

I thought about Ballo as my evaluator placidly delivered her (my?) verdict on my personality. She, clearly, was one of those “nervous introspective people” the British psychologists worried might be especially susceptible to Scientology propaganda. What would she have felt listening to a similar speech? Even if you are relatively mentally stable, you may find it distressing to hear someone you’ve just met rattle off a list of your flaws—some of which, inevitably, you will be inclined to agree with. (For the record: I am nervous! I can be impulsive!) It doesn’t leave you feeling great about yourself; it’s not meant to.

In my case, I knew that my evaluator was following, almost to the letter, a script that had been provided for her half a century ago and which, like the OCA itself, has remained essentially unchanged. But Ballo probably didn’t know that. Suicides rarely stem from a single external cause, and it can be argued that, if the OCA didn’t influence Ballo to take her own life, something else would have. (This, in fact, is exactly what the Church and its lawyers have argued.) But what if, instead of accepting a flyer from a Scientologist on the streets of Nice, she had logged onto her computer and taken a Myers-Briggs test instead? Would it have told her, maybe, that she was an INFP—an “Introverted Idealist”? That she shared a personality type with such notable cultural figures as William Blake, Virginia Woolf, John Lennon, and Isabel Briggs Myers herself? Would she have felt like she belonged? Was understood? She might not have felt any of this, or learned anything about herself that would have made her wiser or happier. But there are worse things than a waste of time.

Cults and (Sub)cultures is Pacific Standard's series of reported essays on all things cult, from religion to pop culture.