Monday, February 18, 2008

Corporate Quackery

Lafayette has, over the past few months, had to suffer two nauseating spectacles of pseudo-science at close quarters, each packaged neatly as powerful business tools. It appears that people employed in such scarily reactive fields as Human Resources or Personnel Management are soft targets for any magic bean that might come their way, just as long as the magic bean is dressed up in a bit of scientific lingo. Here are a couple of cases in point.

1. Myers-Briggs Type Indication

MBTI is a psychometric personality test devised by Katherine Cook Briggs and her Isabel Briggs Myers. They had latched onto a piece of abandoned Jungian psychology, and used it to create a tool they would hope would allow women to better judge what sort of role they would be good in following the second world war. It has slowly gained in popularity and is now perhaps the most used personality test by employers and managers. And why not? It's an attractive proposition. Rather than trying to gain the measure of an interviewee by their interview performance alone, a test would be able to place the person on an easy-to-digest chart. One could then compare their results against the results of other team members and use that to inform one's decision. Sadly, though, such a panacea of recruitment MBTI is not.
The test consists of a series of statements with which one must agree or disagree in varying strengths. These responses are then computed and used to position the individual across four "dichotomies". These dichotomies are Extraversion / Introversion; Sensing / Intuition; Thinking / Feeling; Judging / Perceiving. Thus an individual may come out as ESFP, or INFR, or any one of the 16 possibilities. Generally the type will be summed up in a description. Here's one:

Usually gentle and kind, they are intense and passionate about their values and deeply held beliefs, which they share with trusted friends. Because of their discreet manner, their enthusiasm may not be apparent. They are sensitive to others' pain, restlessness or general discomfort and strive to find happiness, balance and wholeness for themselves in order to help others find joy, satisfaction and plenitude. They are deeply empathetic.
They live life in an intently personal fashion, acting on the belief that each person is unique and that social norms are to be respected only if they do not hinder personal development or expression. They strive to adhere to their own high personal moral standards and are particularly sensitive to inconsistencies in their environment between what is being said and what is being done. Empty promises of adhering to something they value – such as environmental causes or human rights - set off an inner alarm and they may transform themselves into modern day Joan of Arcs.[sic!]They are quietly persistent in raising awareness of cherished causes and often fight for the underdog in quiet or not-so-quiet ways. In a team, they will raise issues of integrity, authenticity, and good or bad, and may to opt out if the team refuses to address the questions raised.
They are usually tolerant and open-minded, insightful, flexible and understanding. They live for the understanding of others and feel deeply grateful when someone takes the time to get to know them personally. They have good listening skills, are genuinely concerned, insightful, and usually avid readers. At their best, they inspire others to be themselves.

Personality Pathways

I hope by now alarm bells are starting to ring; a lengthy bit of creative writing consisting almost entirely of Forer statements. Added to this is the variability of the test. MBTI advocates will claim that the test cannot be cheated, but this is patently absurd. One can quite easily fool the test simply by answering "in character", to think "what would Jim Carrey put". What is more, if the test was so perfect, then you would expect to get the same result each time. Not so. It has been found that results can vary wildly when repeated. This ought to make intuitive sense. When asked "at parties do you generally like to mingle, or do you hug the walls" it rather depends on the party. The answer depends on whatever the person associates the word "party" with at that particular moment. But it only takes a few points here or there to tip you over one or other side of a so-called dichotomy.

MBTI is presented as a science yet its results are non-falsifiable. An ESTJ does not exist outside of the taxonomy of MBTI itself, so how can one test the accuracy of the test in identifying ESTJs? The only way is through consistency, and the test is inconsistent. We are left with nothing. Which might be all well and good when the test is just being used as the basis of a team building exercise, where a person is being led towards a level of introspection they don't usually have. Leaving aside that MBTI is a pseudo-science (and further warning bells should ring out when one learns that it is distributed in Europe by a company plumping for the CAM favourite of naming yourself after a respected university - clamouring for authority status) it may be quite useful. The trouble starts, though, when people begin using it to inform decision, which is akin to basing one's personnel decisions on that other Type Indicator system - the one that positions an individual across a range of 12 personality types on the basis of their birth date.

2. NLP

Neuro-Linguistic Programming is based around the notion that one can, in one's communications with someone, use various linguistic tools to better ensure they respond in the way you wish them to. It grew out of Bandler and Grinder's study of three successful therapists, Fritz Perls, Virginia Satir and Milton H Erickson. It has subsequently taken on a peculiar, pyramid sale form, and is pushed on to, amongst others, salesmen, marketeers, magicians and speed-seducers. A noble bunch. The sell is to turn its users into power communicators, to make more sales, and become more charismatic. But as Derren Brown points out in his book Tricks of the Mind, if NLP was as good as its prospectus suggests, then why are so many NLP teachers and users such an odd bunch of short, repellent, chippy, would-be arch manipulators you wouldn't leave your kids with(not DB's exact words)? It's not a particularly detailed or sophisticated criticism, yet it is a difficult argument to dismiss.

The second trouble with NLP is that it often seeks to describe mechanisms that occur naturally, providing users with the ability to consciously employ those same mechanisms. But when one tries consciously to perform something that people do unconsciously, the success will come down to how successful an actor they are. This is supposed to be an aid to communication but can serve to erect a barrier to it. We're all familiar with the notion that folded arms makes someone look tense and defensive, but not as tense as defensive as someone who goes to fold their arms and then stops themselves.

So there we are; two flavours of nonsense I have been exposed to recently. But what is more troubling than the nonsense itself is the context in which I experienced it. As a free-thinking fellow I can use or dismiss MBTI and NLP as I see fit, were I encountering them on my own, out in the real world. As it was, however, these things were foisted on me at work. The difference is the level of what appears to be socially acceptable coercion, that the hogwash is encountered in a situation where it becomes potentially damaging to speak out against it, no matter how reasonably one does so.

Ben Goldacre, he of Bad Science fame, wrote recently about the continuing love affair that many educators still hold for Brain Gym, a series of physical exercises believed to assist the brain despite being palpable nonsense. Here the end users, the children, have hardly any voice at all, and are actively encouraged to dispense with reasoning they ought to be embracing, with teachers unable to counter the wishes of head-teachers, children unable to counter the wishes of the teachers, and parents unable to counter the views of their children's schools.

The great overarching worry is that there exists a general perception that questioning the wisdom and knowledge that one is being presented with is in some way negative. The false logic runs thus: we have Aim Q; we have bought untested Solution P to fulfil Aim Q; you speak out against Solution P, ergo you are not interested in fulfiling Aim Q. I shall leave it to the reader to provide ad absurdum values for Aim Q and Solution P. The point is, questioning one's solutions is vital and should be encouraged, and when Solution P comes at such a cost, as it does with Brain Gym, Applied Scholastics, MBTI sessions and NLP training, that questioning really ought to come before any cheques get signed.

PS - Also, in case you were wondering, I shall be posting soon on the recent and forthcoming Anonymous vs Co$ demonstrations.

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