Episode 159: The Anti-Worker Pseudo-Psychology of Corporate Personality Testing
Citations Needed | April 27, 2022 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Is it a higher compliment to be called a) a person of real feeling, or b) a consistently reasonable person?” “Are you more successful at a) following a carefully worked-out plan, or b) dealing with the unexpected and seeing quickly what should have been done?” “Which word in each pair appeals to you more? a) scheduled, or b) unplanned?”
Adam: Questions like these are posed to millions of current and prospective workers and students every year. They come from personality tests, whether the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Clifton StrengthsFinder, or other surveys purporting to assess personality traits and job aptitude. Through a series of tens to hundreds of questions, personality inventories claim to identify qualities like dominance, neuroticism, or introversion, synthesize a user profile, and determine that user’s fitness for a given job.
Nima: But beneath this ostensibly neutral goal of matching a person with their ideal form of employment lies a much more sinister aim: Identifying and weeding out would-be dissenters, labor organizers, and union sympathizers. Additionally, studies have shown repeatedly that commercial personality tests like the commonly used Myers-Briggs have little to no scientific value. Why, then, does their use continue — with anywhere from 60 to 80% of prospective workers taking a personality test — and given their anti-labor history, what harms do they pose?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the history of personality testing used in military, educational, and corporate settings; the relationship between personality assessments, labor law, and the corporate consultancy class; how personality testing threatens the livelihoods of people based on race, disability, and other factors; and media’s role in laundering these tests as benign instruments of self-realization.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Liza Featherstone, a columnist for Jacobin and The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Nation magazine. Liza is co-author of the book Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement and the author of the books Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart and Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation.
Liza Featherstone: The idea was, how can you work through your issues not four times a week for 10 years, but more quickly, and how can you become more of a member of a team? How can you be more socially functional, more cooperative, and with respect for authority, and a sense of responsibility and a sense of striving, which would have been so vulgar to Freud. The idea, you know, why bother? You’re miserable, that’s valid, you know, but the sense of, you need to be striving to improve yourself and be better, I mean, so that’s really useful to American employers. It’s also really useful in the drive by capital to create consumers, people who are really striving for something, want to look better, want to show off their better status, want to have a better car, you know, this whole notion of striving to better yourself is also really important.
Adam: So, as I’m required by law to say —
Nima: Yeah, Citations Needed law now.
Adam: This is a spiritual successor to Episode 109: Self-Help Culture and the Rise of Corporate Happiness Monitoring. This is a similar theme, but it’s going to cover a different territory altogether, which is, instead of talking about the ways in which corporate psychology is used to, I know it’s an overwrought term that should have been retired in 2019, but gaslight you into thinking that you’re happy in lieu of having higher wages, lighter workload and more family time.
Nima: You’re productive so you don’t need to get paid more because your productivity makes you happy. You’re contributing.
Adam: Yeah, right. This is another part of that, which is the idea of using personality tests to not only weed out labor agitators, queers, pinkos, sympathizers, and also, of course, as a backdoor way of discrimination, but also a way of kind of creating this self-fulfilling tautology of putting people in little boxes that effectively become job expectations of the people they’re supposed to be at work.
Nima: So as we do so often, we want to first dig into the history of what we’re talking about. In this case: personality tests. The advent of the modern personality test came about really during the First World War. In 1915, British Army physician Charles Myers began documenting a soldier’s case of what he termed “shell shock” — a response to the trauma of surviving a shell explosion that we now know more broadly as post-traumatic stress disorder, or more recently, post-traumatic stress. Psychiatrists in 1870s Germany had previously recorded similar reactions in German soldiers, but Myers was the first to give the condition a proper name.
Soon after, American psychiatrist Thomas Salmon began to study the psychological effects of war, writing this, quote, “The most important recommendation to be made is that of rigidly excluding insane, feebleminded, psychopathic and neuropathic individuals from the forces which are to be sent to France and exposed to the terrific stress of modern war.” End quote.
Adam: They were so sensitive and PC back then, weren’t they?
Nima: That’s right. The “feebleminded.”
Adam: The “feebleminded,” “psychopathic.”
Nima: The US War Department took heed of Salmon’s recommendation. By 1919, the US military had administered psychological evaluations for over 1.7 million potential soldiers. These evaluations, created in 1917 by Columbia professor Robert S. Woodworth, were oriented toward negative personality traits, such as an inability to adapt to new situations. According to Smithsonian Magazine, quote:
The questions on what would become the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet [WPDS], or Psychoneurotic Inventory, started out asking if the subject felt ‘well and strong,’ and then tried to pry into their psyche, asking about their personal life — ’Did you ever think you had lost your manhood?’ — and mental habits. If over one-fourth of the control (psychologically ‘normal’) group responded with a ‘yes’ to a question, it was eliminated.
Some of the roughly 100 questions that made the final cut: Can you sit still without fidgeting? Do you often have the feeling of suffocating? Do you like outdoor life? Have you ever been afraid of going insane? The test would be scored, and if the score passed a certain threshold, a potential soldier would undergo an in-person psychological evaluation.
Adam: Also in 1917, amateur psychoanalyst Katharine Briggs and her daughter Isabel Myers — also not a trained psychologist if that matters, but probably not — began researching what they understood to be different personality types, borrowing from the work of psychologist Carl Jung. Briggs had been formulating proto-personality tests for years before; while raising Isabel, Briggs was seemingly obsessed with cultivating obedience, and much of her experimentation with personality testing was rooted in this concept.
According to author Merve Emre, around 1910, Briggs began authoring a column in American Magazine, on child psychology thanks to her husband’s friend, who co-owned the publication. She offered the following advice on, to quote Emre, “transforming any child into an obedient and curious one.” Quote:
1. Be consistent and persistent.
2. Punish Only one thing — the disobedient spirit, as manifested by direct face to face disobedience and tantrums.
3. Punish only once.
4. Punish sufficiently.
5. Never threaten or warn of punishment. To warn a child is to teach him that prompt obedience is unnecessary.
6. Don’t talk too much.
7. Make only such commands as are worth enforcing.
8. Reward the child with exploration and enjoyment.
It’s all very Protestant. Briggs would go on to have bylines in lifestyle magazines like Ladies’ Home Journal and Woman’s Home Companion. Some three decades later, during World War II, Isabel Myers reportedly found a new use for personality testing. As more women were being recruited to enter the labor force, Myers sought to identify their job qualifications based on supposed innate character traits rather than prior professional experience, which many women of course did not have.
Briggs and Myers would develop the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, publishing The Briggs Myers Type Indicator Handbook in 1944. The test produces a four-dimensional psychological profile of subjects, categorizing them as either “introvert or extrovert,” “sensing or intuiting,” “thinking or feeling,” and “judging or perceiving,” resulting in a total of 16 possible personality “types.”
The test began to garner publicity in 1945. At that time, Katharine’s Briggs’s husband and Isabel Myer’s father, Lyman Briggs, a career federal worker who had led President Franklin Roosevelt’s Uranium Committee, leveraged his professional connections to persuade the George Washington University Medical School to let its students serve as guinea pigs for the new psychological assessment, kickstarting the test’s institutional acceptance. Myers-Briggs is now one of the most commonly used personality tests in the world, but more on that later.
Nima: So first, let’s go back to the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet or WPDS. After the war, the WPDS began to attract heads of industry who sought to sniff out workers who were sympathetic to labor unions, a position they associated with maladjustment. Other personality tests arose as well. As professor Michael Zickar writes, quote:
Nearly all of the popular personality inventories prior to the 1950s focused on the negative and maladaptive aspects of personality. In the summaries of the tests, writers described maladaptive aspects of personality as involving ‘lack of emotional control’ and ‘emotional instability’ and used clinical-sounding terms such as psychasthenoid, neurasthenoid, and hysteroid.
This practice was consistent with management theory promulgated by people such as Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo and was consistent with the ethos of the 1920s and 1930s. Mayo believed that problems at work were most often due to ‘mental disintegration’ and maladjustment. These maladjusted workers could cause problems by lowering work morale, fomenting workplace violence, and agitating for unions. Mayo’s writings were inﬂuential in the business world and the psychological community; his work, along with colleagues, at the Western Electric Company’s Hawthorne Works facility outside of Chicago provided much fodder for those who thought emotional adjustment was the major cause of problems in the workforce.
Now, Mayo was thus sending a clear message: If a worker was dissatisfied with their labor conditions, it wasn’t because of a problem with the workplace structure, but a problem with the worker’s personality. Not only did this pathologize workers who sought to agitate for — oh, I don’t know — unionization and representation, better wages, fewer hours, but it also helped weed them out entirely from the workplace. As more personality tests arose, employers continued to adopt them well into the 1930s and ‘40s.
Two of the most noted tests to arise in the 1930s were the Bernreuter Personality Inventory (BPI) and the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale (HWTS). Now, the BPI claimed to assess the following: Neurotic Tendency, Self-Sufﬁciency, Introversion-Extroversion, and Dominance-Submission. The HWTS, meanwhile, claimed to determine personality based on seven dimensions: hysteroid, manic, depressive, autistic, paranoid, epileptoid, and self mastery plus a response bias scale. According to Michael Zickar, the test was developed in 1934 after an employee working in a large factory killed his supervisor. These tests were endorsed across personnel management trade publications of the time, as well as in news media more broadly.
Adam: The LA Times Sunday magazine heralded the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale, a personality inventory created by Drs. Aaron Rosanoff and Doncaster Humm — Doncaster Humm is a great name.
Nima: That’s my name of all time.
Adam: And Guy Wadsworth — a name that only existed in the 1930s, he was born in 1930 and died in 1938. The Los Angeles Times Sunday magazine for March of 1936, the headline shows a guy with a personality test looking very inquisitively and the headline reads, “How Far Are You From Crazy?” By Don Carr. Don Carr, if you’re 130 years old and you’re still alive and reading this, I’m sorry we’re putting you on blast, buddy.
Nima: That’s right.
Adam: We’re going to take you down a peg, you’ve been getting away with this for 90 years.
The kind of spiritual bronchos we have determines our personality, determines our aptitudes, our fitness for various kind of jobs, our social behavior, our life pattern.
Rosanoff and his pupils distinguish five main components of temperament, including the normal or controlling element (the man with the reins.) Their table gives these components with the corresponding symbol and the form of lunacy toward which the component advances if unchecked.
Some sample questions would include, quote:
Answer these questions ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ They are samples from the Humm-Wadsworth temperament test. Answers will be found on page twenty-nine.
So you get to check to see if you’re crazy. So I’m going to check to see if I’m crazy.
Nima: Right, do it.
Adam: So why don’t you ask me the questions and I’ll answer them.
Nima: Okay, here we go. “(1) Can you see situations in a good book so clearly that it seems almost as if you were present?”
Adam: Sure, yes.
Nima: Okay. “Have you found that many people are more apt to ‘toe the mark’ if they get a good ‘blowing-up’ every so often?”
Adam: Not sure what lingo you’re using because it’s 1930s.
Nima: It’s 1930s lingo.
Adam: Should we yell at people to toe the mark? No, no.
Nima: “Have you ever settled a quarrel between two or more of your personal friends?”
Adam: Sure, yes.
Nima: “Do you have some difficulty in adding up a long column of figures?”
Nima: “Do you think most people would be crooked if they had a chance?”
Nima: “Do you spend a long time thinking out a problem before you undertake it, and then follow your plans almost to the letter?”
Adam: That seems like a very loaded question, but I’m gonna say no.
Nima: “Do you sometimes have to stop and think about some step you are about to take?”
Adam: Doesn’t everybody? That seems rather universal, right? Yes.
Nima: “Does a person usually have to have rich or powerful friends to succeed in a big way?”
Adam: So that one’s obviously testing to see if I’m a communist. Right? I mean —
Nima: So what’s your answer? I’m about to turn to page 29 and find out.
Adam: Of course, of course the powerful and rich, you have to have powerful and rich friends succeed in a big way. Obviously, that matters.
Nima: Adam, it seems that not only are you absolutely crazy, but you’re definitely a communist.
Adam: It was all filler until question eight, they were just trying to see if you are a fucking red. Do you ever get a sense that the bourgeoisie are keeping the proletariat down? Yeah, yeah.
Adam: Don’t answer that, it’s a trick question.
Nima: Yeah, but I have a hard time adding up numbers too. What does that mean? Oh, nothing, nothing.
Adam: You’re not smart enough to bring on a red, if you’re a good accountant, we’ve maybe let it slide. A syndicated newspaper series called “Let’s Explore Your Mind” featured three psychological questions. Here’s one from 1949 that answered one of those questions, using the Bernreuter Personality Inventory as its basis. “Do good traveling salesmen possess ‘social dominance’ in higher degree than store salesmen? Yes or No?” The answer to question number two, “Yes.”
Relatedly, there are scholarly arguments that these tests’ proliferation was directly linked to the suppression of labor organizing, as we already indicated. Multiple labor historians and psychologists observed, the rise in corporate personality testing was catalyzed by a growing class of corporate management consultants. Reliance on these consultants was a reaction to the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which outlawed discriminatory hiring practices used previously to exclude union sympathizers. As Professor John Logan explained in 2014, quote:
After the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) established the right to organize and the Second World War solidified the position of the new industrial unions, firms seeking to operate union free could no longer resort to the bare-knuckle anti-union tactics of old. They needed more subtle and sophisticated tactics to forestall unionization, which consultants were able to provide.
Nima: Now, the success and longevity of the Humm-Wadsworth Temperament Scale and the Bernreuter Personality Inventory were minimal, but personality testing and psychological techniques in the workplace had a resurgence a few decades later. In 1967, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) outlawed company polling that asked workers for their views on unions; personality testing, propped up by industrial psychologists and quote, “union avoidance consultants,” end quote, then became a seemingly savvy alternative to asking these questions outright.
One such psychologist was Charles L. Hughes, a management consultant for IBM and Texas Instruments from the 1950s to 1970s. At the time, both companies were among the US’s three largest non-union — and indeed very anti-union — firms, and thus some of the organized labor’s chief targets; the United Auto Workers, International Association of Machinists, and Teamsters had all attempted to unionize TI’s workers, but were all thwarted. This of course dovetailed with the mass de-unionization of workers throughout the country and companies’ attendant growing confidence in suppressing labor organizing, especially through the use of consultancy firms.
Writing for the American Prospect last year, Nathan Newman called Charles L. Hughes, quote, “a key modern proponent of personality tests to assist corporate clients in screening out pro-union hires.” Hughes “would argue that what distinguished U.S. workplaces from their European counterparts was unfettered management control over the workplace. Maintaining that control was a core motivation for remaining non-union, and pre-hire screening and surveillance facilitated that.” End quote.
Adam: By the 1970s, Myers-Briggs had found its way into corporate offices as well. In 1975, Isabel Myers, keen to turn the test into a business, signed over the publishing rights of the MBTI to Consulting Psychologists Press, now CPP. After that, the Washington Post reports, quote, “Isabel saw the test gain momentum in the marketplace. Its use in organizations benefited from CPP’s aggressive marketing push.” And by the end of the decade, management consultancy firms had secured personality testing as a union-busting tool — and one based on highly dubious pop psychology. In a 1979 U.S. congressional oversight hearing, management consultants explained that, to quote Nathan Newman again, quote:
they told clients to use surveys to identify traits often associated with union support, such as avoiding employees who participated in too many outside clubs, expressed ‘loving a challenge,’ or were the youngest members of the family.
Nima: If you love a challenge, then you’re associated with supporting unions.
Adam: They use proxies for union sympathy, basically, you can do a profile of a typical union sympathizer, find out traits, you can literally like statistically map certain traits and then you test for those traits. It’s a workaround basically.
Nima: Meanwhile, other trends in workplace psychology spawned new personality assessments. As job security waned in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, according to author Erin Cech, industry began to disseminate the message that personal fulfillment through one’s job, rather than job stability, should be the primary motive for workers.
In the late ’90s, the recent advent of “positive psychology,” which founder Martin Seligman defines as, quote, “the study of what constitutes the pleasant life, the engaged life, and the meaningful life,” end quote, was used as the basis for tests like the VIA Character Assessment Design and Clifton StrengthsFinder, the latter of which is owned by Gallup. Clifton StrengthsFinder now boasts that it’s been used by more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies. Gallup’s website even has a map showing the test’s global distribution. Would you believe that the countries in which the tests are administered Adam most frequently are either the US or US geopolitical allies or homes of outsourced, underpaid labor for US companies? Would that shock you?
Adam: It would not shock me. The “Clifton” in the name of the test comes from “positive psychologist” Donald O. Clifton. Clifton, along with motivational speaker and business consultant Marcus Buckingham, co-authored the 2001 book Now, Discover Your Strengths, which was effectively an elaborate ad for the expensive, 180-question Clifton StrengthsFinder test. A review of the book from Detroit Free Press endorsed the book as a, quote, “joy to read,” and the test as, quote, “accurate” and, quote, “hard to second-guess.” The headline reads, “Gallup experts get even better at improving us.”
Here are some excerpts:
Buckingham and Clifton distinguish between what can be changed and what can’t. Talents like empathy or assertiveness are habits of mind and are hard to budge, they argue. You’re hardwired to be the kind of person who loves to talk to strangers or the kind who hates it, to give one example. The shy person can get better at talking to strangers, but he’ll never be a natural at it.
To take the quiz on the Internet, you must buy a hardcover or audio-book version of ‘Now, Discover Your Strengths.’ (The abridged cassette version is $18; the CD is $23.50.) Each book has a unique pass code, which cannot be reused.
Nima: Estimates of the prevalence of corporate personality testing vary, of course, but it’s clear that it’s only grown in popularity among employers. In 2014, a consultant formerly at auditor Deloitte LLP estimated that 60 to 70 percent of prospective workers were facing these tests, up from 30 to 40 percent just five years earlier in 2009. As of 2015, a reported 76 percent of companies with more than 100 employees, at least in the US, not globally, relied on assessment tools such as aptitude and personality tests for external hiring. That same year, 2015, the Harvard Business Review projected that that number would rise to 88 percent “over the next few years.” More than 2,500 colleges and universities and 200 government agencies in the United States, including the State Department and CIA, use that test as of 2012.
Adam: Indeed, the New York Times has used personality testing in its hiring. The newspaper of record has used the DiSC model, which according to the New York Times, quote, “diagnoses a person’s dominance, influence, steadiness and conscientiousness.” McKinsey and hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, meanwhile, have applicants and new hires take the Myers-Briggs. Currently, the estimated value of industry is anywhere from $500 million to $3 billion, again, with Myers-Briggs being the biggest player. According to the Washington Post, since the early ’90s, the publisher of Myers-Briggs, CPP, has created, quote:
a cadre of regional sales teams to pitch organizations on how they could use Myers-Briggs. The company also, according to Katharine Downing Myers, ‘has a lawyer in practically every country in the world looking for plagiarism — and there’s lots of it.’
Here’s how the business model works: It costs $15 to $40 for an individual to take a Myers-Briggs assessment, depending on the depth of the test and how fast a customer wants the results interpreted. Supplemental guides and toolkits quickly make the cost grow. Moreover, the only way to take the test is through a certified administrator. And the only way to become a certified administrator is to pay $1,700 for a four-day training class.
This is like Scientology.
Nima: Yeah, it’s pretty smart.
Adam: Here are some sample questions of the contemporary personality test — the one you would get today if you decided to go work for McKinsey and Company — with commentary from the Harvard Business Review on different answers.
So a sample question for employers to use to measure selected traits. Now I’m a podcaster. I’ve never had a real job. I waited tables. This is, I guess, pretty standard. I don’t know. Nima, have you ever taken one of these?
Nima: I’ve taken a Myers-Briggs but not as a prerequisite.
Adam: Oh, okay.
Nima: No, I already had a job and they were like, ‘Anyone want to do this? It’s kind of fun, it’s like astrology, but it’s kind of neat,’ and I was like, okay.
Adam: Okay, what personality type are you?
Nima: You know, I have searched mightily for my results, not just because we’ve been doing this show, but at other times, I’ve been like, where the hell are those results? And I have no idea. People who know Myers-Briggs, please feel free to write in and just ascribe one of the 16 personality traits to me, and I’ll probably believe it.
Adam: Sure, why not?
Imagine that you’re a hotel concierge, and a guest asks you to make a dinner reservation at a specific restaurant. You know the place fairly well, and previous guests have given you negative feedback about it. But this guest seems very excited about the prospect of eating there and has not asked for your opinion. What do you do?
A. Congratulate the guest on his or her choice and make the booking.
B. Make the booking without providing your opinion.
C. Offer a couple of alternatives, explaining that they are probably better.
D. Share your opinion and say that several guests have been disappointed with the restaurant.
E. Pretend the restaurant is fully booked and offer to find an alternative.
Nima: So here’s the commentary from the Harvard Business Review on this question, which is to measure competence. “Options C and D,” so “C. Offer a couple of alternatives, explaining that they are probably better,” and D. Share your opinion and say that several guests have been disappointed with the restaurant,” “seem wiser than A and B,” which is where you congratulate the guest on the booking or make the booking without providing your opinion because you don’t want your guests to be unhappy, right? “E is dishonest and a bit extreme.” That’s to pretend the restaurant is fully booked. But the quote-unquote “right” answer, Harvard Business Review says, “may actually differ from hotel to hotel; it will be whatever the establishment’s top-performing employees would do.”
Here’s another question to measure work ethic:
Choose the most accurate statement below.
A. It is important for me to excel at everything I do.
B. I am good at everything I do.
C. If you want to be successful, you can’t always put others’ needs first.
Adam: And the assessment reads:
“People who select B,” which is “I am good at everything I do,” “tend to be narcissistic — research shows that narcissists don’t hesitate to reveal themselves in assessments. Those who select C are likely to be overly ambitious. (If that seems obvious, you probably don’t fall into either camp.) Statement A captures a healthy degree of ambition.”
So, I mean, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, clearly, it’s set up to say “A,” it would be fucking nuts to say “I’m good at everything I do.”
Nima: (Laughs.) “I am good at everything I do.”
Adam: So you sort of get the general idea. It’s to make sure you’re not a wacko or a malcontent, mostly just weeding out union agitators, but also probably just trying to make sure that you optimize a certain position, right? You want someone who meets a certain psychological profile of obsequiousness but not brown nosing, hardworking but not keel over your desk.
Nima: Overzealous, right.
Adam: Ambitious, but not too ambitious. You want to hit the sweet spot.
Nima: Exactly. So, to quote Nathan Newman again, writing for the American Prospect last year in 2021, he wrote this, quote:
Kenexa, bought by IBM for $1.3 billion in 2012, reportedly does 20 million assessments each year. Human resources software company UKG, owned largely by private equity firms Hellman & Friedman and Blackstone, reportedly has a database of information on hundreds of millions of job applicants and employees, as it tracks people as they move from job to job. And test prep isn’t just for the SAT anymore: Companies like JobTestPrep provide materials to prepare for personality and other pre-hire tests for hundreds of leading employers, from McDonald’s to defense contractors like Raytheon.
Adam: Now we’re going to talk about some of the problems with personality tests from a scientific standpoint, not just an ideological one. Even if one sets aside the noxious ideology they advance, personality tests are proven repeatedly to have little to no scientific merit. A 1995 study found that between 39 percent and 76 percent of people taking the test on different occasions got totally different results each time, even with as little as five weeks between the tests. The categories measured by the Myers-Briggs test that are presented as mutually exclusive, such as “judging” and “perceiving,” and “thinking” and “feeling,” are not independent — this probably doesn’t even need to be said of course — but some have even been that can correlate with each other. And the tests rely far too heavily on reductive assumptions and tenuous connections, as even many psychologists have noted. As Angus Chen wrote for Scientific American in 2018, quote:
Commercial personality assessments seem to depend heavily on [potentially incidental] correlations [between personality traits and job performance]. For example, one assessment from The Predictive Index, a company that measures behavioral characteristics and matches personality profiles to jobs, views such correlations in their own studies as a measure of success. ‘[We showed] in one client, a retail jeweler, that increases in dominance or aggression was responsible for $125,000 in revenue,’ says Thad Peterson, one of the company’s executives. The idea behind The Index, Peterson says, is to use those measures to help ‘marry people to [job] positions.’
Such personality assessments — particularly those targeted toward hiring recruiters and managers — aim to uncover a kind of ‘hidden truth about the person,’ says Randy Stein, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University, Pomona. ‘They assume that there is an essence of you and an essence of the job, and you should be matching up those two things in hiring,’ he says. ‘But I don’t think there is a hidden truth — and even if there is, a personality test doesn’t do it.’
The biggest problem, of course, is discrimination. There’s mounting evidence that personality tests exacerbate discrimination against people based on disability, mental health diagnoses and other factors.
Nima: The 2021 HBO documentary Persona featured the story of Kyle Behm, who applied for a job at a Kroger supermarket in 2012. Behm, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, found out he was rejected from the job because his test indicated that he was likely to ignore customers if they were upset or making him upset. In the film, Behm says this, quote:
I was taken aback because I’ve worked in customer service before and one of the things I’ve learned is to completely separate your personal feelings from the job. It’s not fair that by answering honestly about things that were related to my mental health I was excluded from work. In my head, I’m thinking, there’s no way this can be legal.
According to the Guardian, the Myers-Briggs Company claims to have stopped selling to companies that use it for hiring, and the Wall Street Journal reported in 2014 that Kroger removed many of the questions Behms objected to from its assessment.
Adam: And if you haven’t watched that documentary, Persona, it covers much of the same territory, but it’s more contemporary, and it’s very good, definitely go watch that.
The Center for Democracy and Technology lists a series of pre-hire screening types that commonly run the risk of discriminating against people with disabilities and mental-health diagnoses. For example, it notes that personality tests might look at how, quote, “enthusiastic” a person is — something that, say, depression might affect. Other forms of pre-hire screening can include figuring out emotions from pictures of faces — things that not only are harder for people with diagnoses like autism to do, but also may not even be necessary for the job itself.
So they’re increasingly under scrutiny for literally discriminating against people for disabilities. So yeah, it is both a way of weeding out labor agitators, it discriminates against people with disabilities, it has a history of being racist, all sorts of bad things. It doesn’t even work by its nominal criteria, because its nominal criteria isn’t really the point of it for the most part. I do think there is probably like 20, 30 percent where you want to optimize, you want to make sure that people have a certain attitude, and there are probably indicators or signals you can get in certain questions where you have, if you have honored employees over 10 years who all marked down answer B on this question, it can become a predictive tool to sort of know if someone’s going to quote-unquote “workout.” But it’s obviously very bleak and deterministic, as well as having a very narrow scope of who deserves employment and who doesn’t, because again, there are hundreds of people applying for this job.
Nima: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, there’s this kind of totalizing effect, right? I mean, there’s this we are just different types, you can sum people up, even if things are complicated, if there are all different kinds of indicators — I mean, only up to 16 though if it’s Myers Briggs — it can get however sophisticated something like this can get, but I think it all winds up being kind of like astrology or like reading your horoscope, there are things that it’s going to fit you sometimes, it’s going to fit you maybe even in ways that you’re like, ‘Whoa, I didn’t expect that, that’s me, totally.’ But what does that mean, in terms of the way that we even assess ourselves the way that our employers are assessing us, and then do we then follow those traits because they’ve been repeated back to us, right? Does it become something that then we start acting like our type has said?
Adam: All this shit is very self-fulfilling. It’s actually one of my major objections to it. It’s also very patronizing because it’s this, I mean, it’s like you’re getting an apartment, you know, you have to show 18 forms of credit cards and references and you have to have 85 bank statements and 17 years of rental history, but you don’t ask anything of the landlord, right?
Nima: You’re like you’re the one with the apartment or your employer is the one with the job, they don’t have to prove to you that they don’t treat their employees like shit.
Adam: In a sense they’re just kind of seeing how many humiliating tests you’ll do, right? Not that it’s the Kobayashi Maru, but the test itself is part of the conditioning where you need to, you need to beg for this job and do all this bullshit to make sure you’re the right fit. Well, how the fuck do I know? What’s the personality test on my boss? Or my boss’s boss?
Adam: What’s the personality test for the CEO? How do I assess whether or not they’re gonna come in and kill me? I mean, there’s this totally one way presumption that you need to sort of be mentally fit but the 85 year old psycho who goes golfing all day who runs the company, he doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone.
Nima: To discuss this further we’re now going to be joined by Liza Featherstone, a columnist for Jacobin and The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Nation magazine. Liza is the co-author of the book Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement and the author of the books Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart and Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. Liza will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Liza Featherstone, thank you so much for joining us again on Citations Needed. It’s great to have you back.
Liza Featherstone: Oh, it’s always a pleasure.
Adam: So we’ve been speaking about the advent of the personality test at the workplace for the better part of an hour, especially as a kind of pre-hire screening assessment that has long been used to weed out workers who may think independently from management or worse yet could favor unionization or even worse yet promote unionization to the unwashed masses. Now that we’ve seen the amazing success of Amazon, the JFK8 in Staten Island to unionize, I want to sort of talk about another older, more prominent anti-union corporate giant which is Walmart, which has pretty much laid the groundwork for a lot of this stuff for Amazon. You wrote about this in the 2004 book Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart . You touch on the use of personality tests to kind of weed out malcontents and reds and queers and all the sorts of people you typically don’t want in your corporate bullpen. Can we talk about what you found when you looked at this? What Walmart is looking for when they do these personality tests, to identify what they call quote-unquote, “cause oriented associates,” which is such a great dystopian phrase, as a key to kind of highlighting keeping an eye on and surveilling pro union elements?
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, and, you know, I should say, I would guess that in a labor market like this, I would doubt that Walmart could actually be that particular right now, they are probably having to let in a lot of people who their personality test might have previously screened out just because of the need of finding workers right now. But yes, definitely, in the past, their so-called personality tests, were definitely aimed at screening out potential union activists, that phrase the “cause oriented associate” is indeed very evocative, that should be a red flag, if the applicant is really dedicated to causes, issues, activism.
Adam: The ultimate sin.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, causes, they definitely want you to be not a rebel, and definitely without a cause. There’s also other stuff, you know, in terms of your response to authority, if your supervisor tells you something, do you question it or do you just do it without asking any questions? The latter is the correct answer. All kinds of things like that. Also, they’re screening you out for having complaints, they don’t want you to be a person who has complaints, and you know, I’m sure Walmart would say, ‘Well, that’s a negative, you know, you don’t want people with a negative attitude in your workplace,’ and that’s an explanation that would sound sympathetic to many people. But what they’re specifically looking for with those attitude questions are, they don’t want people who might have criticisms about how they’re being treated by their employer, they don’t want people who might seek to improve their workplace conditions, the negative attitude is really a proxy for, you know, having a critique and seeking change, they do not want you to have a critique or seek change.
Adam: Yeah, and presumably, there are many ways you can kind of identify somebody who has a non kind of myopic mercenary view of the world where their sole focus in life is climbing up the corporate ladder, and I assume there are certain signals or I guess, hints they tried to sort of suss out, I assume, both through personality testing, and one thing you also talk about, which is parallel to this, which is surveillance, you kind of keep monitoring them, worker chats, emails. Can you give us a sense of what some of those personality traits may be? What are some of the kinds of red flags? We have, I think Nima has had a bad attitude lately so I’m going to sort of see how I can monitor him on the show.
Nima: Yeah, I still need to fill out my test Adam. I swear, I’ll have that to you by the end of business.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, the surveillance is, they’re listening to your conversations with your co workers, people are encouraged to rat on each other, not only if someone is bringing up unionization, but you know, any kind of complaints, gripes, and, of course, in practice, people mostly do gripe to each other in the workplace without narcing on one another, you know, most people do have kind of a sense of basic human solidarity not to do that, but they are being encouraged to do it.
Nima: So we’ve previously discussed on the show how employers use happiness quotients as a metric for productivity and performance at work, and how so often, as Adam just said, these are used to surveil and monitor workers, right? It’s not just in the pre-hiring stage for, you know, potential employees for applicants, but you know, personality testing conducted after someone has been hired things like well known Myers-Briggs testing, the SHL Occupational Personality Questionnaire, which is also known as the OPQ32, or what is known as the Caliper Profile, yeah, literally call that the Caliper Profile, these all do a similar thing. We know that you’ve looked into workplace psychology, psychoanalysis, and kind of how this fits in with this ongoing personality testing. Can you talk to us about how all of this really is part of the ever increasing surveillance by management on the job site?
Liza Featherstone: It definitely is part of the ongoing surveillance for sure, and the personality tests to some extent are a way of constantly checking whether the worker is going to be disruptive or is going to be problem, so you know, they’re especially looking for like, is the worker going to organize a union in their workplace? Worst-case scenario stuff. But they’re also looking, collecting data on how is this person’s performance likely to be? Are they going to perform well or are they complaining?
Nima: Are they a lazy malcontent that needs to be disciplined?
Liza Featherstone: Yes. Are they a lazy malcontent?
Adam: I feel like we’re pandering to our average listener a little too much here.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, totally. I mean, really, one of the reasons that psychoanalysis took off in the direction that it did when it came to the United States, precisely has to do with what American employers thought that they needed. So psychoanalysis in Europe, was for lazy, malcontents, absolutely. You could go see an analyst for many years and you could get a more complicated understanding of your childhood and perhaps why are you such a lazy malcontent? And you wouldn’t necessarily be pressured to change that, you could really just achieve a deeper understanding, and the goal, as Freud once said, was to reach a state of ordinary unhappiness, which is really a wonderfully low bar.
Adam: That is very, very European.
Nima: The most human bar, yeah, the most human level of existence.
Liza Featherstone: The most human level. So, you move toward being, from maybe being so neurotic that you can’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend or, you know, if you want one, you know, or you can’t do the basic things that you need to do or find joy in life ever, ordinary unhappiness, right? So that was sort of the goal. You might already be guessing that this was not what the American system would have in mind for humans. Psychoanalysis comes to the United States, mid-century, in the post-World War II era, everyone is getting back to work from World War II, women to some extent, men to a large extent. American capitalism is trying to find new markets since the government as a massive supplier of everything during wartime is going away. So we need to get people excited about buying things again, and really promoting consumerism, promoting new kinds of more stable nuclear families, and most of all, workers who can go to work and be part of the team, and this is sort of where we start seeing in the, you know, late ’40s, early ’50s, real emphasis on people being able to do things in groups, people being able to be team players, conform to sort of social expectations in an office context.
So we see psychoanalysis itself, goes from having this moody commitment to ordinary unhappiness to something quite different, and there was already in European psychoanalysis, a strain coming from a social democratic analyst named Adler, who focused on trying to get the individual to adapt to society, trying to not just get the person to have insight and understand themselves, but to strive more and to adapt to society the way that it was, as you might guess, this was the strain of psychoanalysis that was very useful in the American capitalist context. The idea was, how can you work through your issues not four times a week for 10 years, but more quickly, and how can you become more of a member of a team? How can you be more socially functional, more cooperative, and with respect for authority, and a sense of responsibility and a sense of striving, which would have been so vulgar to Freud. The idea, you know, why bother? You’re miserable, that’s valid, you know, but the sense of, you need to be striving to improve yourself and be better, I mean, so that’s really useful to American employers. It’s also really useful in the drive by capital to create consumers, people who are really striving for something, want to look better, want to show off their better status, want to have a better car, you know, this whole notion of striving to better yourself is also really important.
Nima: Well, yeah, I mean, it also kind of has this idea in the workplace of wanting employees to feel ownership over something that they don’t own.
Liza Featherstone: Yes, that’s right. And to feel a part of it.
Adam: It’s much cheaper to sort of psychologically condition people than it is to materially improve their conditions, right?
Nima: (Laughs.) Improve their conditions, right.
Adam: It’s just, you know, you realize, oh, okay, you have unions, you have wages, you have benefits, all these things that could make people happier, but what if we just trick people into thinking they were happy or had these kinds of shortcuts, it’s like the Amazon, you know, booth where you go in and you yell, and as we talked about at the top of the show, is sort of the ultimate example of this, we’re gonna spend millions of dollars a year crushing a union, which would improve your life, but here’s this placebo, and obviously, that’s where the kind of corporatization of psychology comes in. It’s not that psychology, as you mentioned, is per se bad, you know, we’re not Scientologists here or that it’s like demonic or whatever, inherently, it’s that in the hands of power, like anything else, like capitalist science, like culture, like art, it begins to become a producer and reproducer of kind of bourgeois ideology — a reoccurring theme on the show for anyone who listens. One thing I do want to talk about, I feel like we have to kind of talk about, is also the way in which increasingly personality tests, corporate personality tests, kind of culture-fit tests, Myers-Briggs, as well as others, there’s many different versions of this, they’ve come under scrutiny for basically being thinly veiled ways of engaging in racial, gender, and more potently, I think, those with disabilities discrimination. Disability activists have been complaining about these personality tests for some time now, and I think for good reason. So I want to touch briefly on that, not only do they kind of ideologically filter, and there’s obviously kind of overlap here, right? But they filter for those who are seen as minorities who are not playing by the rules or who may have other causes by virtue of what their identity is, to talk about them as a kind of discrimination, I know the Wall Street Journal, CNN even did something on this, it’s increasingly under scrutiny for being just basically backdoor discrimination methods.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, it does fit in with the whole history of psychology in the American workplace. It’s like the whole goal of screening people or of treating people or whatever it is, is a kind of a normativity. The workplace is not supposed to accommodate you, you are supposed to be able to adapt to it. Now, in the decades since Adlerian psychoanalysis entered corporate America and the mainstream, a lot of things have happened. I mean, there’s the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a lot of laws have been passed saying that corporations do to some extent have to accommodate people’s disabilities and variations in the workplace. But that said, that drive to seek a normative employee who is not going to rock the boat is still really prevalent.
Nima: Well, yeah, because I mean, the NLRB has long, I think, prohibited, specifically polling employees on certain things, especially their views about unions.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah.
Nima: You’re not allowed, right? But that there’s this, you know, as Adam said, there’s almost this back door to legalizing a certain kind of assessment where you get the answers you want, but can couch it as this other thing.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, you’re not allowed to not hire somebody because they have union sympathies but you are allowed to look at all the personalities, all the different kinds of personalities associated with wanting to have a union in your workplace. So hence, the “cause-oriented.”
Nima: Exactly, you know, one of the really kind of dystopian elements of all of this winds up being this self fulfilling prophecy, like astrology or other totalizing categorizations of humans, there’s a risk that if one believes are a certain type, right, like the result of a Myers-Briggs test, ‘I’m that type, I’m a blah blah blah,’ right? You then sometimes conform to that, you begin to act in a way that’s consistent with that type. So while this can be subtle, sometimes totally benign, there is something kind of bleak and restricting, foreclosing about this, that we can all just be put into these different kinds of profiles, these different kinds of types in a way that can not only predict our behavior, but actually once we know what quote-unquote “type” we are, it can influence it as well.
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, and that’s probably also part of the intention, right? In a workplace context, you know, it probably is supposed to reinforce that you are some generic type, you aren’t a full person who might have a lot of different ideas about what’s going on in your workplace or, you know, you aren’t someone who has a lot of complexity, you are going to be easier to manage.
Nima: Right, because if you’re this type of person you can be dealt with in this way or whatever. Yeah, I mean, just like astrology, I mean, I think it’s complete horseshit and also totally weirdly accurate. When I read this stuff, I was like, wait, that horoscope is me.
Liza Featherstone: Yes, exactly.
Adam: For our last question, I wanted to ask, because again, I think this kind of comes back to something we talked about the last time you were on, which is, again, psychology is not per se bad, you even argue that focus groups can be used to kind of push a socialist vision, that if put in the hands of the collective, or the worker, or some kind of worker control that some of these tools can be used for non-sinister means or non kind of authoritarian or kind of controlling means. So I guess I’ll ask this question: To what extent can psychology or psychological profiling, is there a context with which it could actually help workers? I know, I would imagine that certain unionizing efforts, I know that when unions do person to person outreach, they will categorize workers into kind of their willingness to accept the union themselves, right? Obviously that’s how you focus your attention, because you’re not going to waste your time with someone who goes home at night and reads Ayn Rand, there’s a limited amount of resources, right? So are these tools inherently sinister and can they be used to kind of push unionization in the workplace themselves?
Liza Featherstone: Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I think that most of these psychological tactics are kind of neutral, and only really take on a sinister quality when used by capital against workers. I think we could probably find some value to almost anything. I don’t find personality tests particularly appealing for some of the reasons that you suggested, I think most people are more complicated than these types, but, you know, probably could, as you suggest, develop ways of using them to have an idea of who is going to be more sympathetic to the union, as you suggested, like when any organizer uses a system of one through four, you know, is this person someone who seems really likely to be on board? Is this person really going to just blow us off and we shouldn’t waste our time? And I would imagine that if you’re organizing your workplace, you’re going to be seeking out the “cause oriented associate” too.
Adam: Yeah, I was about to say, it seems like the goal should be to hack into Amazon’s logs and then find their data and be like, who are the malcontents? And then yeah, and then go recruit those people.
Liza Featherstone: Exactly, and you know, and you’re going to be thinking, ‘Okay, who in my workplace is a really big complainer, but also has some positive qualities like that person could be a natural leader,’ you know, and for sure the “cause oriented associate” you have somebody who’s always going on about animal rights or something, it’s like, well, they might very well be sympathetic to your cause too. So it’s certainly ways in which this stuff could be used from below.
Nima: So Liza, before we let you go, tell us what you have going on, what our listeners can be looking out from you in the various outlets that you write for, or, you know, what do you have going on?
Liza Featherstone: Sure. Well, in the short term, I just did a column in the New Republic on how some data showing that OKCupid users were turning against climate deniers and climate denial had emerged as the number one deal breaker on the site, people did not want to date climate denialists, and looking at that as a broader rejection of petro-masculinity, and the column got a lot of attention in the conservative media and made some really terrible people really mad, and so yeah, so that was nice, and that always makes one feel one is leading one’s best life when really terrible people are mad. But then I got interested in why this made them so mad, because you know, it’s the New Republic, every week there’s stuff they don’t agree with. So there’s obviously something particularly psychosexual about this issue, and sort of the idea that conservative men, that they’re going to be rejected by women for their views is potent, but I suspected there was something deeper there. So I just did a follow up on what are the connections? Why is climate change a culture war issue when it seems like it would make sense for everyone who isn’t a fossil fuel executive or a major investor in a fossil fuel company, it would make sense for all of us to get together and support climate mitigation?
Adam: They think it’s part of a Marxist agenda to turn men into bug eaters and emasculate them. It’s the take away your meat and become a vegan. It’s why half of Tucker Carlson’s content right now is obsessed with bug eating and becoming a bug eater. Yeah.
Liza Featherstone: Exactly. So I did my recent column, which is about to go up, as I look at some of the recent scholarly work on why this is, why there is such an effective attachment to fossil fuels among certain conservative white men. And more broadly, or more long term, I’m also working on a book about Alexandra Kollontai, the Bolshevik women’s liberationist, and it’ll be updated collection of her writings, update of one the Communist Party publisher did years ago that was really boring and didn’t include any of her really spicy stuff, and we’re bringing it out again with a big introduction, a big essay from me, and some better selections that represent her work.
Nima: Well, good. Well, we will look out for that. We’ve been speaking with Liza Featherstone, columnist for Jacobin and The New Republic and a contributing writer to The Nation magazine. She is the co-author of the book Students Against Sweatshops: The Making of a Movement and the author of the books Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker’s Rights at Wal-Mart and Divining Desire: Focus Groups and the Culture of Consultation. Liza, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Liza Featherstone: Thank you, always a pleasure.
Adam: I think a lot of people intuitively kind of see this stuff as being very dystopian, because it is deterministic, and I think there’s an innate part of the human condition that hates to be put in boxes, because we want to believe that we have freewill and free choice, which I think we are.
Nima: Sure. (Laughs.)
Adam: I don’t want to be theological here, but also people are messy and complicated, and people’s personalities change over time, and people’s personalities such that they are this definable thing are also heavily reliant on context, people are different people around different people, you know, if I have a manager who’s sexually harassing me, or if I have a manager who’s super checked out, and is on his phone all the time, I mean, I’m going to respond differently in different contexts. So it’s, I think there’s something that we sort of want to reject, because it does seem very Minority Report-ish.
Nima: At the same time, I would argue that because humans generally are pattern-seeking, storytelling animals, that we want to have a singular story about ourselves repeated back to us, that we want to understand this sort of who we are in a kind of quick, ‘Oh, yeah, I am that kind of person.’ ‘Oh, that’s right. I am that, I am extroverted, and I am feeling rather than thinking.’ I think that there’s something entertaining about that, actually, kind of like reading your horoscope, right? It’s not that, ‘Oh, my God, this shit is real,’ it’s that you’re like, it applies to you in a way that works for you, and when you take these tests, because you want to take these tests, it can be fun, when you take these tests as a prerequisite for work, when you know that they are being judged by others, where you don’t get to kind of look at it and have it be a self assessment, but rather it’s an externally viewed and judged assessment of you based on, like you just said, Adam, where you are in a certain context, in a certain headspace at a time when you’re taking a test, you know, if you almost got hit by a truck on your way to the test, maybe you’ll feel differently than if you were dropped off in a car and had a lovely conversation, grabbed a coffee beforehand, all of those things can factor into it, and when you know, you’re going to be judged on it, especially when it’s something as important as getting and then keeping a job, I think that it becomes totally dystopian in the way that you’re talking about.
Adam: Yeah, I mean, how could it be anything else but oppressive? I mean, it can’t really be very liberatory, right? It’s not going to, it’s not going to free you up to be your platonic self, you know, anytime someone starts making lists and ontologies of human beings, red flags should go off, you know, it’s sort of, because obviously, the goal is to control.
Nima: ‘What are you using that for? Oh, to make sure you’re happier.’
Adam: Right, you know, you’re making sure that I pump out X amount of widgets over Y amount of time, because that’s all you give a fuck about, and that’s fine, I guess, you know, as far as you go, but it’s never going to benefit me. There’s never, I mean, I asked that question of Liza at the end, but, again, I think certain, when you live in a world of limited resources, do you need to know certain dispositions to focus union efforts or to focus efforts of political organizing with say, we, you know, we want to, we want a person to run for Congress, are you going to waste your time trying to convince someone to vote for a progressive candidate who’s got HH88 in their Twitter name? Probably not.
Nima: Where’s that leverage? Where can you put your energy? Where are you not going to be wasting your time? Sure.
Adam: Yeah. So we all kind of make ad hoc judgments based on certain information, but I think the second you start coming up with these elaborate, you know, ontologies of the human condition, I think it becomes very, extremely bleak. It only exists for control. It’s the only plausible reason why you would need to invest so many resources in that, which of course, mostly is just about weeding out malcontents, union agitators, communists, queers, et cetera.
Nima: So what are those people going to do if they can’t get those jobs? I guess they’ll start a podcast.
Adam: That’s true.
Nima: Well, that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you everyone for listening. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always, a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, April 27, 2022.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.