I had the weird pleasure of listening to two books back-to-back that created a serendipitous connection. The first was Mindf*ck by Christopher Wylie, a behind the scenes first-person account of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and its attempts to usurp democracy. The second was The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre, a look into the strange history of the popular Myers-Briggs personality test.
I’ve been skeptical of Myers-Briggs since college. It always felt like a weird mix of psychology and astrology which reeks of pseudoscience. It’s okay if you use a tool to understand yourself, but I don’t think it survives widespread application. I also personally don’t like being put in boxes, so I hate it when people take the test “for me.” Classic ENFP, I know, I know. I always joked that it was “nazi science” and… well… I wasn’t that far off.
The story starts with Austrian Carl Jung who pioneered the study of psychological types with the dichotomies of rational vs irrational and introverts vs extroverts so he could (apparently) sleep with his students, patients, and coworkers. Notably, Jung was an anti-semite and ethno-nationalist who sympathized with the nazis until 1936 when he felt like they were going a little too far right. So he was not-not a nazi, if you catch my meaning. He went on to study psychedelics, presumably so he could sleep with his students, patients, and coworkers.
The mother-daughter team of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers picked up where Jung left off and created a personality test to help get people jobs that matched their personality. That’s a cool idea except they weren’t scientists by any standard. Katherine (the mom) wrote fiction and Isabel (the daughter) also wrote fiction. The last story Isabel published was about a Southern family grieving that they might have “Negro blood”… yikes, if you catch my meaning.
Briggs and Briggs Myers riffed on Jung’s work and did little research outside their own family and limited relationships. Inspired by Reader’s Digest quizzes, they conjured up a quiz-style personality test. They were so sure of its potential one even wrote in their diary about how they wanted to give Hitler the test so they could figure out the supreme nazi’s personality type. They wondered if you could use that intel and the power of personality tests to find more nazis.
The book mentions the story of a Jewish man who survived the holocaust that got wind of this whole plan and basically said “Classifying people like that is what fascists do.” Nevertheless, they persisted and personality tests became a popular tool in the 1950s for testing your employees (and rooting out Communists, union organizers, and other lazy people from the workplace). Mary McCaulley, Briggs Meyers’s successor who popularized the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator got her start non-consensually testing black individuals in her hospital trying to tease out the psychological differences between black and white people which is… uh… problematic, if you catch my meaning.
So… Is Myers-Briggs actually nazi science? Well, it’s not-not nazi science in my opinion.
Bringing this back to the books, in Mindf*ck I read about how Christopher Wylie wrote a psychographic targeting algorithm that did such a good job getting out the vote for the Obama campaign that after some years Cambridge Analytica got a hold of it. Funded by the right wing billionaire Mercer family, CA ran under the leadership of alt-right (read: “nazi”) bobblehead Steve Bannon. After 270,000 people took a University of Cambridge “Big Five” personality test on Facebook, CA got the data points and access it needed to harvest the personal data of 87 million users. CA used that data to influence the 2016 elections, Brexit, and a multitude of other global elections. It did a good job of “rallying the base”, if you catch my meaning.
The connection I made after reading these books is equal parts sad and poetic. In the end, the dream about using personality tests to discover nazis worked… and it worked well enough to radicalize them and bring rise to a new era of authoritarian fascism across the globe. The fabric of Western democracy torn to shreds. Your personality test might tell you a lot about yourself, but in the hands of unchecked authoritarians those tests tell them more. They will use any data and any means necessary to “nudge”, distort, control, and enrage the masses.
So, that was some interesting juxtaposition I got from reading two different books in the same month. Books are cool in that way. Anyways, what Hogwarts house are you?