Apps aren’t neutral. All technology effectively outsources work from humans to machines, promising purported efficiency gains at the expense of individual knowledge and learning. In the case of MUSE, the rich, if stressful, experience of parenting is delegated to a piece of software. But the automation paradox shows that the less we do something, the worse we get at it. The loss is two-fold: it isn’t just that the child gets computer-generated parenting; it’s also that the parents lose the complex lessons of uncertainty, delight, anxiety, growth and wisdom that are the rewards of family life. What’s the point of having children if they’re raised by other people’s products?
The failure here isn’t exploiting anxious parents – that’s been a goldmine for decades. It is treating the child as an object to be efficiently programmed: in other words, to relate to the child as a nascent machine. Implicitly, the app perpetuates a myth that each individual is no more than an aggregation of data and, with enough data, profiles can be drawn up that can fully describe what someone is and will be in the future. This is what astrology has always promised and what personality tests have offered for nearly a century.
Of these, the most popular, taken by some two million people a year, is the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, developed by Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers. Briggs, an ardent Jungian, had been captivated by Jung’s concept of types and used them for experiments to study her daughter. Briggs pioneered what Ming adopted with MUSE: she looked to historic leaders to define her frame of reference – incurring, of course, all the same biases.
Initially, Briggs had designed her questionnaire to identify solid marriage partners, but after the Second World War, her daughter repositioned it to place people in the right jobs. The MBTI does what all profiling systems do: asks batteries of questions and organises the answers into types which are supposed to define your personality. And yet the test has no basis in clinical psychology, though it is deployed by most Fortune 500 companies, many universities, schools, churches, consulting companies, the CIA, the army and the navy.
The MBTI test-retest validity lies below statistical significance, meaning that if you test someone more than once, you are likely to get different results. More worrying is that the questionnaire poses binary questions, asking, for example, whether you value sentiment more than logic or vice versa. The question assumes that there is a simple answer to this question, absent of context. Yet in real life, preference is highly contextual: I value logic when purchasing car insurance; I may value sentiment more when choosing to play with my son. Binaries always simplify, often to the point of absurdity, and they polarise what are often complements.
More worrying, however, is the underlying assumption that people neatly fall into one of sixteen types – and that this never changes. In her eye-opening biography of Myers, Briggs and their test, author Merve Emre describes attending an MBTI official accreditation session eerily reminiscent of evangelical prayer meetings. Personality, her fellow participants insist, is innate and immutable, like left-handedness or blue eyes, and they urge her to join in chanting: ‘Type never changes! Type never changes!’
This is narrative essentialism at its most crude and static – because we do change over time – just as Jo and Luca did, just as Jacob Dunne did. Experience changes us, flukes, imagination and accidents change us. The complex interplay of personality, work, illness, education, friends, family, history, success and failure will alter who we are. We play with, and add to, our memories and experiences all the time, constructing a myriad of different permutations from them. Most people become significantly more agreeable, conscientious and emotionally stable as they age. But a Myers–Briggs profile encourages us to think of ourselves as defined for all time along a mere four dimensions. ‘I’m an ENTJ’ the name badge says, meaning I am an extroverted, intuitive, thinking, judging individual. That is my fate, all I will ever be – I may as well forget about developing whatever other qualities I might have. Small wonder that, after her immersion in the history of Myers–Briggs, Merve Emre concluded that personality typing was ‘among the silliest, shallowest cultural products of late capitalism’.
That there are powerful commercial motives for profiling people is obvious: worth some two billion dollars annually, the marketplace for personality assessment is swollen with contenders. After making its name with forecasting polls, the Gallup organisation moved into profiling with its CliftonStrengths report. Like the MBTI, this test also asks an array of binary questions (routine vs variety, heart vs head) and then arithmetically generates an analysis of thirty-four strengths. If one of your strengths is that you are a ‘learner’, you get to learn that ‘It’s very likely that you might have a particular desire for knowledge.’ The report is more subtle and less rigid than the MBTI, with qualities ranked in order of strength, but few people can resist the implication that those at the bottom are weaknesses.
When pushed on issues of validity, most profilers concede that these tools don’t have much in the way of predictive power, they’re just useful as conversation starters or to build a sense of community among common types. In itself, that might not be so bad – were it not for the evidence that people tend to believe what they are told about themselves. Telling a parent, or a teacher, that a child is destined for greatness – or not – is not a neutral action; it can influence how they see and respond to their children and what they expect of them. Well understood as the Pygmalion effect, the insight derives from an early experiment where primary school teachers in California were told that a few named pupils were especially talented. At the end of a year, when the researchers returned to the school, they found that, indeed, these children had achieved high marks. The catch was that the children had been chosen at random. The prediction had changed the way the teachers treated the children more subtly than the teachers themselves noticed. (A later experiment with Israeli military platoons showed the same effect.)
How people are described changes the way others relate to them and may create expectations that are unfair, irrelevant or inaccurate. Tell someone that they’re bad at maths, lazy or uncreative, and it’s amazing how quickly that child conforms to those expectations. Tell an adult that they’re punctual, and they start turning up on time. Profiling subtly merges into influence or conditioning, nudging a person’s behaviour and self-image in one direction or another.
Or consider the Forer effect. This is the strong tendency that subjects show to believe feedback from personality tests, regardless of whether those results are bogus. It is sometimes also known as the Barnum effect because it explains why descriptions which offer ‘something for everyone’ are nevertheless taken seriously. The Forer effect is regularly cited when discussing why people believe in astrology, infamous for its non-specific descriptions and predictions, so bland that they mean almost anything.
Astrological profiles at the back of fashion magazines may not matter much, but psychographic profiles do. It’s bad enough when we invest them with authority; it can be worse when employers do likewise. Increasingly, companies turn to profiling software to facilitate their recruiting: to sift through resumes and match individual characteristics with job requirements. This form of matching is not wildly different from online dating: matching the profile of a job with the profile of a person derived from job applications and sometimes also psychographic tests. It’s fast and cheap and up to 90 per cent of employers depend on such algorithms to produce their candidate shortlists. But it’s wildly problematic.