Beware of Barnum Statements in Personality Test Interpretations

"We have something for everyone."

Barnum statements are generalities—statements that could apply to anyone—though they often appear to the readers of astrology advice columns to apply specifically t them. Astrology predictions are very popular in newspapers and magazines. For example: "You sometimes have doubts about whether you have done the right thing" or "You have a need for others to like or admire you" or "Although you are able to deal with confrontation in a pinch, you typically like to avoid it if you can." These are Barnum statements. People read such statements and think, "Y es, that's me all right," when in fact such statements could apply to anyone.

Personality test interpreters also sometimes of fer interpretations that consist of Barnum statements. To illustrate this, one of the authors of this textbook completed an online version of the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, a very popular personality test. He then submitted his answers to three dif ferent online interpretation services, to get feedback about his personality . Reading the results of the first interpretation, he felt it had it right: "Y ou advance toward good and retreat from evil. . . , you hate to miss out on what is going on around you . . . , you always try to tell the truth to those around you . . ., you strive to be authentic and genuine and you communicate well with others . . ." The second interpretation also sounded accurate: "You want to be liked and admired by others . . . , you are interested in new ideas . . ., you have a great deal of charm and others genuinely like you . . . , at times your attention span can be short . . . , you dislike bureaucracy . . ." The third interpretation, too, seemed to apply: "Y ou are fun to be around . . . , while you can be intellectual, serious, and all business, you are also capable of flipping the switc and becoming childlike, interested in fun . . . , you enjoy learning new things and have good self-discipline . . ."

These interpretations all sounded personally relevant. The only problem was that the answers to the questionnaire were filled in at random. That is, the author of this book did not read the questions, but merely clicked "true" or "false" randomly . How then did these test interpretations seem to apply so personally and directly? Read the interpretations again and you will see that they are Barnum statements. They could apply to just about anyone.

This example is not meant to suggest that the MBTI is not a good test. Rather , it is the personality feedback or test interpretations that can sometimes not be accurate. Recall that these interpretations were obtained from free online services. So this example could also be an illustration of the advice, "you get what you pay for ." Most reliable test interpretation services char ge a fee for this service.

Reliable test interpretation services typically make statements that are quantitative or that provide information about a person' s standing on a trait relative to others. So, for example, an interpretation might state: "Y our scores on extraversion put you in the highest or most extraverted 10% of the population." Or the statement might refer to research results, such as: "Persons with extraversion scores such as yours were found to be extremely satisfied in careers that involved frequent social contact, suc as salespersons, teachers, or public relations work." Also, reliable test interpretation services typically include checks for careless responding, as discussed earlier in this chapter. They typically provide an assessment of how suspicious one should be regarding the validity of the person's responses. None of the free test interpretation services used in this example provided such checks, and so none of them detected that the responses were random.

So far we have discussed some of the theoretical and measurement issues in trait psychology. Trait psychologists do not only concern themselves with these somewhat esoteric and academic issues. Trait psychology also has some real-world applications. We turn now to a consideration of some of the practical uses to which personality trait measures have been put.

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