All Personality Tests Are Wrong

by John Rowan

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On reading Vol.2 No.1 of Nurturing Potential it seems that people are still attached to the idea of personality tests being useful for one thing or another.  The most dangerous use of them is that they can be employed in selection and development.  Yet the only possible basis for using a personality test is that the person being tested has just one personality.  Research shows, however, that people actually have a number of subpersonalities; which one comes to the fore depends upon the situation.  The person who takes the test may not be the same person who operates at the place of work.

Let us just remind ourselves of the relevant work on this subject.  One of the most interesting developments in recent personality theory (Lester 1995) is the idea that people are basically multiple.  There is a continuum of dissociation:


At one end of this continuum we have altered states of consciousness (ASCs) such as dreams, drunken states, drugged states, hypnagogic states, hypnotic states and so forth, which are quite transient and wear off quite predictably.  Then quite close to this we find moods, defined as states of mind which we cannot shake off at will, but which go away quite unpredictably after a while.  Then come subpersonalities, defined as semi-permanent and semi-autonomous regions of the personality capable of acting as a person; some of which seem to be universal, and which again are quite normal.  Then comes possession, defined as states of mind where we seem to be taken over by another person or other being, voluntarily or involuntarily.  And then comes multiple personality, where one person inside us does not know anything about at least one person, who is leading quite a different life, and who takes over quite unpredictably, causing a real psychiatric problem.  There is a good recent discussion of all this in the book by Stanley Krippner and Susan Marie Powers (1997).

The left-hand end of this continuum is quite normal and everyday, and the right-hand end is more of a psychiatric problem, which may be quite hard to treat, and which has been recounted in books like The Three Faces of Eve, Sybil, The Minds of Billy Milligan, When Rabbit Howls, etc.

Subpersonalities, which are mostly quite normal, can at times become a problem, and this is most likely when we hotly deny that we have any such thing (Watkins 1978).  Repression, splitting and denial are likely to cause trouble (Watkins 1986).  Subpersonalities have to be taken at times as solid characters, but they are really in process, and may split into two, merge into one, appear or disappear (Ornstein 1986, Sliker 1992).

There are twenty-five (at least) synonyms for subpersonalities, such as ego states, subselves, subidentities, identity states, alter-personalities, deeper potentials and so on.  They are common in everyday life and are often mentioned in literature and the media (Redfearn 1985).

There seem to be at least six different origins for subpersonalities: they can come from the roles that we play; from our internal conflicts about what to do and how to be; from our images of how we would like to be or become; from the personal unconscious, like the superego or the complexes; from the cultural unconscious, like the patripsych; or from the collective unconscious, like the archetypes. 

So far as psychotherapy is concerned, there are at least sixteen different schools of psychotherapy which use the concept of subpersonalities in one form or another.  Freud's superego and Jung's complexes are examples of regions of the personality which answer very well to our definition of subpersonalities (Rowan 1990).

So far as psychology is concerned, there are now many researchers working in the field of cognitive and social psychology who are using the concept of a self-schema, and finding it very useful (Cantor & Kihlstrom (1987, Martindale 1980).  McAdams (1985) has introduced the notion of an imago and done a good deal of research on it.  Hazel Markus has found that the idea of "possible selves" is useful in studying long-term motivation for study (Markus & Nurius 1987).  Brain researchers such as Gazzaniga (1985) have also found that the brain is divided into modules which are quite compatible with the idea of subpersonalities.  People studying artificial intelligence, like Minsky (1988), have found that it is quite possible to set up computer models to show how this can happen.  In the field of hypnosis, the important researcher Hilgard (1977) has uncovered a wealth of data.  Woolger (1990) has even opened up the possibility that some subpersonalities may come from previous lives, but this is of course less orthodox.  So far as philosophy is concerned, there are several young philosophers who are saying that it makes perfect sense to talk about the person being more than one (Glover 1988, Parfit 1984).  These are important steps, because they make the whole idea more respectable.

We can now say that (a) we are single persons, who can act as a unity; (b) we are multiple centres linked together in a variety of ways; and (c) we are part of something larger.  All these are true, simultaneously and at all times.  Which way we regard the person is a matter of choice, depending on which is more useful for the purpose in a given situation (Beahrs 1982).  Much of the recent work has been gathered together in the book edited by John Rowan and Mick Cooper (1999).

This is an interesting concept, which offers a real challenge to personality theory and to personality testing.  How can we have a valid personality test if there is more than one personality in the same person?


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Beahrs, J O (1982) Unity and multiplicity  Brunner/Mazel, New York

Cantor, N & Kihlstrom, J F (1987) Personality and social intelligence  Prentice-Hall, Englew’d Cliffs

Gazzaniga, M (1985) The social brain  Basic Books, New York

Glover, J (1988) I: The philosophy and psychology of personal identity  London: Allen Lane

Hilgard, E R (1977) Divided consciousness: Multiple controls in human thought and action International Universities Press, New York

Krippner, S & Powers, S M (1997) Broken images, broken selves: Dissociative narratives in clinical practice  Washington: Brunner/Mazel

Lester, D (1995) Theories of personality  London: Taylor & Francis

McAdams, D P (1985) 'The "Imago": A key narrative component of identity' in P Shaver (ed)Self, situations and social behaviour  Sage, Beverly Hills

Markus, H & Nurius, P (1987) 'Possible selves: The interface between motivation and the self-concept' in K Yardley & T Honess (eds) Self and identity   John Wiley & Sons, Chichester

Martindale, C (1980) 'Subselves: The internal representation of situational and personal dispositions' in L Wheeler (ed) Review of Personality and Soc Psychol No.1  Sage, Beverly Hills

Minsky, M (1988) The society of mind  Pan Books, London

Ornstein, R (1986) MultiMinds: A new way to look at human behaviour  Houghton Mifflin, Boston

Parfit, D (1984) Reasons and persons  Oxford: Clarendon Press

Redfearn, J W T (1985) My self, my many selves  Academic Press, London

Rowan, J (1990) Subpersonalities  Routledge, London

Rowan, J & Cooper, M (1999) The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life  London: Sage

Sliker, G (1992) Multiple mind  Shambhala, Boston

Watkins, J (1978) The therapeutic self  Human Sciences Press, New York

Watkins, M (1986) Invisible guests  The Analytic Press, Hillsdale

Woolger, R (1990) Other lives, other selves  Crucible, Wellingborough


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John Rowan is the author of a number of books, including The Reality Game: A guide to humanistic counselling and therapy (2nd edition) (Routledge 1998), Ordinary Ecstasy: The dialectics of humanistic psychology (3rd edition) (Routledge 2001), Subpersonalities (Routledge 1990), The Transpersonal in psychotherapy and counselling (Routledge 1993), Discover your subpersonalities (Routledge 1993) and Healing the Male Psyche: Therapy as Initiation (Routledge 1997).  His most recent book, co-written with Michael Jacobs, is  The Therapist's Use of Self  (Buckingham: Open University Press) 2002

He has co-edited Innovative Therapy in Britain (Open University Press 1988) with Windy Dryden, and The plural self: Multiplicity in everyday life with Mick Cooper (Sage 1999).  There are chapters by him in many other books on psychotherapy.  He has had six books of poetry published.  

On the Editorial Board of Self & Society, the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, the Transpersonal Psychology Review and the Counselling Psychology Review, John is a founder member of the UK Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners, and is a past member of the Governing Board of the UK Council for Psychotherapy, representing the Humanistic and Integrative Section.  

He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (member of the Psychotherapy Section, the Counselling Psychology Division, the Transpersonal Psychology Section and the Consciousness and Experience Section), a qualified individual and group psychotherapist (AHPP and UKCP), a chartered counselling psychologist (BPS) and an accredited counsellor (BACP and UKRC).  He is a Fellow of the BACP.  He has been leading groups since 1969, and now practises Primal Integration, which is a holistic approach to therapy.  

He and his wife live in North Chingford, London: he has four children and four grandchildren from a previous marriage.