Introduction - Psychobook: Games, Tests, Questionnaires, Histories - Julian Rothenstein

Psychobook: Games, Tests, Questionnaires, Histories - Julian Rothenstein (2016)



Lionel Shriver

As a kid, I was always befuddled by classmates whose reigning ambition was to “fit in”—to blend with their peers as if into human wallpaper. I wanted to stand out. Admittedly, I came of age in the 1960s, an era that celebrated oddity. Yet even during that age of transgressive individualism, most of my contemporaries wanted to keep their heads down. By contrast, I proudly declared that my favorite color was black (and grew bored with people informing me that black is “not a color”), and that I far preferred overcast skies to sunny days (my father worried there was something wrong with my eyes). At fifteen, every day at school I wore a little black velvet tam, an unfashionable signature I was so afraid of losing that I secured it with a shoelace tucked behind my left ear and safety-pinned to my collar. A good four decades before the rest of the world followed suit, I cycled everywhere I went, refusing to learn to drive when I came of age. Using ineffectual masking tape, I decorated the ceiling of my bedroom with dangling strings of beads, which continually plopped back down on the bedspread. I strode the halls of my Atlanta high school in a homemade sash pinned with my complete political button collection—a source of great hilarity behind my back, I’m sure. I was a bit of a nutter, and I wanted to be a nutter.

Thus I’ve been naturally hostile to conventional psychological testing, insofar as it is designed to weed out the weirdos from the regular people. In my life, the whole concept of the normal has functioned as a neutral backdrop against which I can loom forward in relief. Of course, throughout my adulthood, the drive to slot everyone into a category, to slap a diagnosis on every variation from the mean, has only accelerated. Indeed, we now live in a time when if you don’t have a diagnosis you don’t know who you are, and people wave their designated psychiatric ailments like football trophies. With a wealth of new classifications at our disposal, we can easily peg me now: I am an attention seeker. Damn straight. I have sought attention and often got it, if not always the nice kind.

Granted, in adulthood I have repudiated the careless view popular in the 1960s that it’s the crazy people who are sane, and the sane are crazy. There’s such a thing as crazy, and it isn’t pretty; serious mental illness rarely entails access to a higher truth. But then, serious mental illness isn’t subtle, either, and therapists contending with a raving schizophrenic don’t generally need to resort to questionnaires.

As a novelist, too, I instinctively resist the quantification of character, the reduction of such an elusive concept to a set of measurements, to a score. Theoretically, I suppose, fiction writers might construct protagonists by choosing numerical points on various key continuums: on a scale of one to ten, say, our hero scores two for “fearfulness,” nine for “openness to new experience,” one for “risk aversion,” eight for “ego strength”…But good luck with charting out our story’s principals in this manner and coming up with Pierre from War and Peace. In other words, even when they are not misleading, the results of much psychiatric testing are crudely descriptive, and tell you little you didn’t know before.

Nevertheless, the psychological tests collected in this book are often compelling, if only, especially in the early, more historical instances, compellingly stupid. Some of the statements are comical: “I do not like to see men in their pyjamas.” Some of the questions invite wistful existential speculation: if asked, “Does the future seem pointless?” who wouldn’t, on some days, say “yes”? Ditto, “Do you feel that there is some sort of barrier between you and other people so that you can’t really understand them?” Isn’t that the standard state of affairs between anybody and anybody? Isn’t real intimacy the exception? And the few folks who fail to confess, “I do not always tell the truth,” are lying, if only to themselves.

Psycho-quizzes are also blind to context—the specific circumstances that dictate even truthful answers to which the test is oblivious. An air traffic controller might agree, “I work under a great deal of tension” without having an anxiety disorder. A Nobel laureate might affirm “I am an important person” without being a narcissist. A well-adjusted subject who concurs “It would be better if almost all laws were thrown away” obviously lives in the EU. A woman who concedes “Once a week or oftener I feel suddenly hot all over without apparent cause” may simply be over fifty. These days, those who tick a box beside “Are people talking about you and criticizing you through no fault of your own?” aren’t implicitly paranoid; they participate in social media. Likewise, a tick next to “Someone has been trying to get into my car” means something different depending on the neighborhood where the car has been parked. Were I to check, “Once in a while I think of things too bad to talk about,” it would help the test giver to know that I write novels and thinking abominations is my job.

What’s especially stupid about much psychological testing is that the psychologists think we’re stupid. That is, the test designers fail to give subjects credit for being able to intuit the purpose of the test, and thus which answers it is in their interest to provide. Even way back when, looking at Rorschach inkblots, half-sussed patients knew perfectly well that they were better off seeing not bats but butterflies. Were you to tick, when taking a personality test as part of a job application, “I am afraid I am going out of my mind,” you would indeed be out of your mind. One is reminded of those naff American visa applications that ask, “Are you a terrorist?” And then when jihadists manage to slip through this brutal interrogation anyway, law enforcement is consternated.

In a circular fashion, even the later, more playful tests in this book rely on self-knowledge to generate self-knowledge. When taking the Family Relationship Test (a set of drawings from which to pick the best pictorial representation of you and your kin), subjects who select image 4—three figures looking passively on while one figure lugs loads of baggage—know full well they feel imposed upon by relatives without looking up the key at the back (“burdened”) or they wouldn’t have chosen that answer. As an expat who has put the Atlantic Ocean between herself and her family, I had no trouble selecting image 5: three figures in the foreground bent toward one another, while a smaller figure in the distance runs away. But then, I already knew I was an absconder (“escaping,” according to the key), which is why I circled image 5 in the first place. What have we accomplished? (Though, the drawings are charming.) In other instances, there may be a big difference between what subjects claim they would do in a given hypothetical situation, and what they would really do. For example, in the “Matter in the Wrong Place” Test, I answered the theoretical “Your partner adopts the annoying habit of turning on the kettle most times they walk past it” with c) “You politely explain to your partner that there is little advantage in keeping water close to boiling point in this way.” But anyone (like my husband) horribly familiar with my bossy, autocratic modus operandi in the home would have chosen d) “You seek to impose a ban, to nip this insidious habit in the bud. It could lead to other bad habits, after all.”

Yet if you usually know the answers—anyone who lives in an unabating state of rage probably doesn’t need a questionnaire to identify an “angry” temperament—why are these tests so addictive? In general, the earlier examples in this book are efforts by authorities to identify aberrant proclivities for their own evil purposes, whereas the more recent, more open-ended tests in the latter chapters encourage self-exploration, but taking both types is entertaining. Once freed from the anxiety about failure that school days impose on the experience, test taking is fun; it’s a game. Psychological tests are an opportunity to look in the mirror, and recognizing traits in ourselves is validating, regardless of which traits they are. Personally, I’m more apt to look for evidence that I’m an outlier rather than for proof that I’m just like everybody else, an inclination that lately, alas, makes me just like everybody else: while Western culture grows more conformist politically, in respect to sex and psychology we have grown less normative. As an alternative to an amorphous blob, any form reflected back at us is a relief: I am fucked up, therefore I am. It was curiously satisfying to take the Shyness Questionnaire and confirm that I am far shyer than most friends would imagine, even if I knew that already.

Psychobook is part comedy, part history, part self-help, and part coffee-table objet d’art. It’s part sincere, part tongue-in-cheek, part meditation, part mockery, but its production is universally beautiful, its sensibility universally droll. I suggest reading it with a pencil.

Mental Meddlers:
A Brief History of Psychological Testing


Oisín Wall

Psychological testing has always been an expression of power—from the colonial assumptions of nineteenth-century anthropometrists to the pastoral power of the psychologist today. Psychological testers agree on a normal range of emotions, behaviors, intelligence, etc., and by doing so they identify people outside this range as abnormal or deviant. Over the last century people have exploited this power to discriminate against, lock up, and even sterilize their fellow human beings.

Psychological testing has also been an expression of hope: from the Soviet Union to the United States of America psychological tests have been hailed by many as a way to achieve a fairer society. Generations of psychologists have worked tirelessly to improve the tests, to overcome biases, and to use them to enable people to overcome class and social disadvantages.

Many writers like to claim that psychological testing has ancient roots and, depending on the point they are trying to make or the audience they are trying to court, they point to sources from the Bible to the Chinese civil service in the second millennium BCE. However, the first major practice that claimed to objectively and scientifically measure a psychological trait was craniometry. It emerged in the eighteenth century and claimed that by measuring the skull it was possible to discover the size of the brain and, by extension, the extent of a person’s intelligence. In the late eighteenth century this was refined into phrenology, which claimed that the shape of the skull could be used to map which “organs” of the brain were better developed. The assumption was that these organs could be mapped, in turn, onto psychological characteristics such as language, parental love, self-esteem, and musicality.

Through the growing interest in phrenology we can see the emergence of a trend that has dogged psychological testing throughout its history. As early as 1821 Johann Gaspar Spurzheim, a leading phrenologist in Britain and France, argued that, through phrenology, hereditary tendencies toward criminality could be identified and therefore bred out of society. In time a clear pattern began to emerge in phrenological literature. White middle-class men from northern Europe, with a few notable exceptions, had the best heads—they showed strength of character and intelligence—while everyone else, from the European working class to colonized Africans, had skulls that told of intemperance, violence, and stupidity. Ireland had proved to be a troublesome colony throughout the nineteenth century, and Irish skulls came in for particular criticism. George Combe, a leading British phrenologist, declared, based on his phrenological study, that Irish Catholics were “coarse, groveling, and unintellectual.” But he reassured his readership, who were no doubt worried by ongoing Catholic emancipation, that these very traits meant that Ireland would never have the wherewithal to challenge the racially superior authority of Britain. Inevitably, political narratives were played out through phrenology. The right of the wealthy to rule the poor and the right of the European empires to rule the world were buttressed by this pseudoscience.

As interest in phrenology declined, new psychological tests began to emerge. The first that relied on the test subject to actually respond to stimuli, rather than simply being poked, prodded, and measured, emerged in anthropometry in the late nineteenth century. One of the most vocal proponents of these tests was Francis Galton, an anthropologist and statistician who invented the dog whistle, established the whorl-loop-arch approach to analyzing fingerprints, and coined the term eugenics. In 1884 Galton established an “anthropometric laboratory” at the South Kensington Museum’s Health Exhibition, the precursor in London to today’s Science Museum. If members of the public paid three shillings, Galton would measure everything that he could think of, from breathing capacity to reaction times. He built up a lot of interest in psychological testing but was acutely aware that he was failing to measure the “keenness of the senses.” By the time the lab closed in the 1890s it had measured over nine thousand people, and similar labs had been opened around the world, bringing with them psychological tests, dog whistles, and eugenics.

In 1904 Alfred Binet, a self-taught psychologist, was tasked by the French minister of public education with identifying schoolchildren who were having difficulties academically. Binet devised a series of tasks which were assessed and marked to give a single score called the pupil’s “mental age.” If this was below their chronological age they received special education. While Binet’s test assessed educational development, William Stern, a German psychologist, claimed that the same test could be used to measure intelligence itself. He developed the idea of “mental age” into an intelligence quotient (IQ) by calculating that IQ was the ratio of mental age to chronological age times one hundred.

During the First World War psychological testing was viewed rather skeptically in Europe, but things were different in the United States of America. Before the war, in 1908, Henry H. Goddard had interpreted Binet’s work for the United States, introducing a strict new marking system and the terms moron and feeble-minded to describe ranges of abnormally low mental age and IQ scores. Although the army was nervous of the “mental meddlers,” as one general referred to them, between 1918 and 1919 Robert M. Yerkes and the other US military psychologists used tests based on Goddard’s work to evaluate more than 1.1 million men.

Like phrenology and anthropometric testing before it, intelligence testing tended to find that the children of wealthy white parents were more intelligent than everyone else. What was different, however, was that intelligence testing had a direct influence on US lawmakers, fueling a campaign of legal, as well as social and cultural, discrimination. In 1912 Goddard had recommended that anyone classified as feeble-minded should be segregated and stopped from having children; others went further. By the end of the First World War, fifteen US states had passed compulsory eugenic sterilization laws, and by 1937 that number had risen to thirty-three. Ultimately, between 1907 and 1970, around sixty thousand “mental defectives” were sterilized in the United States. In the 1920s and 1930s similar laws were enacted on the other side of the Atlantic, from Denmark to Switzerland, and, of course, in Germany in 1933.

This eugenic movement was greatly encouraged by the US Army’s wartime psychological testing. The tests claimed to measure innate intelligence but were written by white middle-class men and relied on cultural signifiers that those men regarded as obvious. As you might expect, groups that were not familiar with the signifiers, like immigrants, often did poorly in these tests. In 1912 Goddard was invited to conduct tests of new immigrants on Ellis Island and concluded that “the test results established that 83% of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians and 87% of the Russians were ‘feebleminded.’”1 A few years later an American analysis of the army intelligence tests made the story that the tests told more explicit: “At one extreme we have the distribution of the Nordic race group. At the other extreme we have the American negro.” But the tests did not only pick out people of different ethnic or racial backgrounds. The American working class appeared to be intellectual infants. Industrial and agricultural workers made up the majority of the 1.1 million recruits and draftees tested during the First World War, and the tests concluded that the average mental age of a white American man was about thirteen years old; it was lower still for black soldiers. While this prompted some to question whether the mental age scale was really as accurate as they thought, others, like William McDougall, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, pointedly asked, “Is America safe for democracy?” Nor was this kind of “scientific” racism limited to America; a British study in 1925 produced similar results. Margaret Moul and Karl Pearson, Francis Galton’s protégé, claimed that more than 57% of Russian and Polish Jewish immigrant children could be classed as “slow,” “dull,” “very dull,” or “mentally defective.” Based on their results Pearson and Moul asked: “What purpose would there be in endeavoring to legislate for a superior breed of men, if at any moment it could be swamped by the influx of immigrants of an inferior race, hastening to profit by the higher civilization of an improved humanity?” 2

By the early 1920s, psychological tests were gathering support in Europe. Influential psychologists, like Charles Samuel Myers, who had published the first paper on shell shock in 1915, were pushing hard to expand the social role of psychological testing. Through institutions like the National Institute of Industrial Psychology, they advised companies on how they could test potential employees and schools on how to test students. Schools and teachers around the world jumped at the possibility of using standardized tests to assess students’ natural abilities. For some it seemed that this was a chance to level the playing field between rich and poor, while others hoped that it would be a scientific justification for maintaining national, racial, and class divisions.

This new wave of enthusiasm, however, carried with it more than IQ tests. After the success of the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet (PDS) in the United States during the War, the 1920s and 1930s saw a flourishing of personality tests. These tests became increasingly sophisticated in the 1920s. In 1919 the PDS asked questions like “Did you ever think that you had lost your manhood?” and innocently expected subjects to understand the idiom and to answer honestly. Later tests developed a more critical approach to asking questions and cross-referencing answers. Over the next few decades thousands of different personality tests hit the market. Some were long and tedious lists of questions. Others, like the Lowenfeld Mosaic Test, allowed subjects to construct images or scenarios through which emotions and ideas could be expressed. Still others were “projective,” presenting the subject with images or other stimuli and allowed them to “project” their own meaning; perhaps the most famous of these is the Rorschach “inkblot” test, developed in 1921.

Also in 1921, Carl Jung, Freud’s prodigal protégé, opened a new debate when he published Psychological Types. He popularized the idea that it was possible to identify which psychological function was dominant—sensation, intuition, thinking, or feeling—and, by combining that with whether the person was an introvert or extrovert, to decide what “type” the person was. Jung’s idea set something of a trend and, over the following century, countless psychologists attempted to establish the basic personality types; some identified thousands, others suggested that there were as few as five. However, without consensus on a working model, personality testing did not become as culturally widespread as other forms of psychological tests. But it did make major inroads into the world of clinical psychology where personality tests, and particularly projective tests, were found to be diagnostically and therapeutically useful.

The 1920s and early 1930s were perhaps the most optimistic period in the history of psychological testing. Many prominent researchers believed that tests could be used to reform or even revolutionize society. If, they argued, people’s intelligence, rather than their education, could be tested, then poor but intelligent people could be advanced to positions of power, instead of stupid wealthy people. At that time, this idea was particularly strong in the Soviet Union, where some psychologists hoped that tests could be used to create the proletarian culture and the “new man” that they believed would emerge in postrevolutionary society. In other countries, like the United States of America, psychologists argued that crime and poverty could be drastically reduced by identifying and addressing the needs of people with learning difficulties, or intelligent people who were being held back by their environment. In Britain intelligence testing was championed by left-wing educationalists like R. H. Tawney who saw it as a challenge to the privileged position of the aristocracy and the public school-educated bourgeoisie. Like the Soviets, many on the British left argued that testing would allow for the rational planning of a society based on the skills of the people.

As you might have guessed, the optimism regarding psychological testing as a great leveler did not last. Just as in the West, many of the tests in the Soviet Union found that the working class, the peasantry, and national minorities tended not to do as well as the urban, educated former bourgeoisie. Believing that even communist psychologists were biased by their bourgeois backgrounds and training, the Soviet Union banned psychological testing of children in 1936. For similar reasons in Britain, many groups that had advocated its egalitarian power also began to turn against psychological testing in the late 1930s. Around the same time in France, many schools began to reject the Binet tests either for their perceived bias or because they were seen to usurp the role of teachers in the classroom.

The Second World War gave psychological testing another chance to shine. Building on the advances of industrial and vocational testing in the interwar years, psychological testing was set to work on the war machine. It was used to assess and allocate specific roles to soldiers, sailors, and airmen according to their skills, intelligence, and personality traits. Intelligence testing was widely used, but because Germany had soured, to say the least, the idea of eugenics for most people, no grand discriminatory decisions were made based on the tests as they had been in the aftermath of the previous war.

After the war, the rate at which new psychological tests were being produced slowed, although they continued to grow in popularity. Even though most people, as already mentioned, turned away from the eugenic and racist side of psychological testing after the shock of the liberation of the concentration camps, there were a few who never fully disentangled themselves. In the late 1960s a number of influential scientists in Britain and the United States published books and articles supporting the view that black people, among others, had genetically lower IQs. In 1972 William Shockley, a Nobel laureate, even proposed a “sterilization bonus plan.” Under this plan people who voluntarily submitted to sterilization would receive $1,000 for every IQ point less than 100 that they scored. Nor was Shockley alone in this idea. Many prominent scientists, particularly in North America, have been and continue to be funded by groups like the Pioneer Fund to promote ideas about eugenics and heredity.

Psychological tests had come under attack from some quarters as early as the 1930s and this intensified in the 1960s and 1970s as racial interpretation of IQ tests again began to gain in popularity. People attacked everything from the underlying ideology of the new racial studies to the reliability of psychological testing in general, and even its foundational principles. A particularly serious blow came in the mid-1970s when a string of articles and books began to dismantle the legacy of Cyril Burt, an influential British educational psychologist knighted for his contribution to psychology, a former president of the British Psychological Association, and Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College London. They claimed that Burt, who had been a leading proponent of the idea that intelligence was inherited, had misinterpreted important data, falsified many of his results, and even invented imaginary collaborators. The “Burt Affair” cast a shadow over the entire field of intelligence testing. Personality tests also came under fire from several influential books arguing that behavior is socially and environmentally shaped and so cannot be predicted by a set of tests conducted in controlled circumstances.

In spite of these attacks, psychological testing had become more common than ever by the mid-1980s. Around this time the “Big Five” consensus emerged. Many psychologists agreed that there were five basic personality factors: Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experience. This provided a working model for personality testing, and the 1990s and 2000s saw the personality test gain new levels of acceptance both clinically and in vocational assessments. Today, psychological tests are an everyday phenomenon. We encounter them in school, university, job interviews, and in clinics. Not to mention the countless pseudo-psychological tests that we see daily in magazines, on the internet, and on social media, which collect data for advertising agencies and others while promising to tell us which celebrity we are most like, what animal we are, or who we should vote for.

For most of us, psychological testing today seems neither threatening nor hopeful, but simply another part of the constant measuring and comparing that fills modern life. The power and the optimism of psychological testing, however, lie in the statistical correlation of results, the comparison of hundreds or thousands of test scores. Without this correlation psychological tests have no power to discriminate between normal and deviant, but they do allow us to probe ourselves and our assumptions about others.

1. Leon J. Kamin, The Science and Politics of I.Q. (London: Routledge, 1974), 16.

2. Karl Pearson and Margaret Moul, “The Problem of Alien Immigration into Great Britain, illustrated by an Examination of Russian and Polish Jewish Children,” Annals of Eugenics 1, no. 1 (1925): 16.


Sigmund Freud, photographer unknown, ca. 1920


Doodles classified: diagnostic chart from Major Types of Graphomotor Protocols, USA, ca. 1950s