Don’t judge a book by it’s cover

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As humans we love classifying things. Our brains are immensely sophisticated organs, but even they have not evolved sufficiently enough to allow us to take in and process the extreme complexity and chaos of the World around us.

Imagine walking into the British library in London. As one of the two largest libraries in the World it has over 14 million books alone, as well as over 100 million manuscripts, drawings, recordings and other artifacts. As you walk in you might take in the majesty of the building, the colour of the wood, the hushed quiet, and that’s before you’ve even looked at any books.

Of course it would be impossible to read every book. So instead we pick and choose what we want to read. Our decision might be based on something we like the look of, or something that’s been recommended to us by someone else. And that is a bit how we deal with all the information being constantly hurled at our senses.

It’s impossible to take everything in, so we focus in on a few things. What our brains decide to focus in on is based on our preferences, our attitude and our mood at that time. Some information we take in and consider important may be stored in our memory for future use. Other stimuli that doesn’t appeal to us may simply be ignored or forgotten.

Now imagine all 14 million books in a giant unorganised pile. Ancient texts and modern novels, text books, classics and children’s stories. In an attempt to make sense of everything you pick up two books. An assessment of the cover tells you they’re the same colour, shape and size. From this, will you assume that the contents are also similar? Do you judge the book by it’s cover, or do you open it and find out what’s inside?

Of course this is a metaphor, a simplification and a poor approximation, of human personality. When we open a book we’ve read before and turn to a familiar page we know the same words will be there in the same pattern. Personality is certainly not as ordered or consistent, and infinitely more complex.

Personality is very important. It’s what makes you “you”, and is responsible for your behaviour, your approach and how you interact with others. No wonder we want to ensure via recruitment that a potential employee’s personality has the right fit with organisational culture. Unfortunately decisions based on someone’s behaviour towards us in a tense and time constrained interview situation can be unreliable and tainted with bias.

So thankfully someone developed a personality classification system (in fact more than one) that provide a scientific method of testing how somebody’s personality might cause them to behave. Yes, it’s putting ‘people in boxes’ and simplifying something that’s extremely complex, but that’s what classification systems do. I’m a trained personality tester so I understand both the positive and negative aspects of psychometric profiling. That’s why I think it’s healthy to question the validity of such instruments, like Martha Gill did in her highly entertaining article for the New Statesman last month (found here). However I also think it’s important to bear in mind that current personality theory is based on thousands of years of belief, culminating in decades of research which independently confirmed the main traits which provide the basis of all modern personality models.

The important message is just to be careful how much you rely on and interpret personality profiles. Used correctly, they can form an important part of a recruitment and selection process. It’s just an extra measure to help us to avoid the human deficiency of judging a book by it’s cover. After all, people aren’t like books, and once you’ve appointed you can’t easily return them if you don’t like the content.

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