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And Now I Shall Rub Your Head

Employers have been trying for centuries to identify the best hires, just as researchers have been trying to measure personality. Some stops along the way:
  • 400 B.C. In Platonic Athens, civil service candidates are required to pass physical and cognitive tests.
  • 202 B.C. The Han Dynasty begins testing civil service candidates. By 1370, it's become an onerous process: a day in isolation writing essays and a poem, three three-day district exams, and a final test in Peking. The system was finally abandoned in 1906.
  • 1823 The Phrenological Journal and Miscellany advocates a way of assessing personality in which the skull shows bumps where corresponding parts of the brain are well developed. So a bump at the top of the skull, just before the crown, is an indicator of benevolence. Wander half an inch down and you're at mirth.
  • 1869 Francis Galton argues that there are measurable differences between individuals' minds, introducing the idea of psychological testing.
  • 1917 The American Psychological Association asks Robert Woodworth for a test to assess emotional stability in Army recruits. Woodworth devises 116 yes-or-no questions. The questions on his "Personal Data Sheet," the first job-related personality test, seem fascinatingly outdated today: "Do you have too many sexual dreams?" "Do people find fault with you more than you deserve?"
  • 1928 Harvard's Henry Murray devises tests to analyze "normal" subjects (as opposed to, say, shell-shocked soldiers).
  • 1940 At a mental hospital in Minnesota, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is born. It is meant to call out neuroses with yes-or-no questions such as "Were you considered a bad boy?" and "Everything is turning out just like the prophets of the Bible said it would." Oddly, it becomes a popular (and, as of last year, illegal) employment test.
  • 1943 The Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA, begins putting would-be spies through exercises that mimic what they would do on the job. Sample: Devise a propaganda campaign to dispirit South Manchurian Railway workers. These are the first work assessments.
  • 1946 A psychologist named Raymond Cattell uses an IBM sorter and the brand-new Illiac computer to perform factor analysis on 4,504 personality-related words. He concludes that there are 16 measures of personality, including boldness, tough-mindedness, and self-sufficiency.
  • 1956 AT&T, following the example of the OSS, sets up assessment centers to test executives.
  • 1963 W.T. Norman analyzes Cattell's work. His verdict: Only five factors--neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness to experience--really shape personality. The "Big Five" approach, as it's called, becomes the basis for many modern personality tests.
  • 1964 The Civil Rights Act is passed...
  • 1972...followed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act...
  • 1990...and the Americans with Disabilities Act. All the acts challenge conventional hiring practices.
  • 2000 Personality tests go online, and interest in them revives.

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