2008 – Playing the part in personality testing
Some actors get jobs because they are well known. A strong
body of TV or repertory work is sufficient to keep them
in the frame when directors and producers are casting new
productions. It helps to explain why you see so many familiar
faces every time the BBC decides to create a classic serial.
The recipe goes something like this: take one Jane Austen
adaptation, stir in a bit of Dench and Gambon, add a sprinkling
of Sawalha and Atkins, bring to the boil and serve with
a garnish of stately homes and cobbled streets.
The vast majority of actors, however, rely on their faces
to fit the parts under review. The problem, according to
Danny Richmond, the managing director of CastNet, a casting
service for actors and directors, is that their photographs
are often too neutral or natural to allow them to stand
out from the crowd.
He makes the point in a recent blog that it’s important
for actors to understand the parts to which they are best
fitted. This will allow them to “play up” their
character in their promotional photographs.
Outside the acting profession, our looks are supposed to
be less important but we would be fooling ourselves to believe
that the way we present ourselves at an interview is insignificant.
How is it that some actors can be chosen time and again
to look like a business executive, while others might play
murderers and yet others, aristocrats or tramps? We might
not like to acknowledge this, but there is a “business
look” and it’s not just about a suit and a briefcase.
Most of the male executives I have met recently have been
nurturing a smart casual appearance, typically a black suit
with an open plain shirt and cuff links. If they want to
turn up the entrepreneurial image they go for a short hair
cut, wear a chunky watch and possibly allow a touch of gold.
Invariably the women I meet will go for subdued tones and
trouser suits but I have been noticing a greater variety
of dress creating a much softer appearance in the past few
years. Power dressing has been out for some time.
But dress is only part of the deal. The other thing to
consider is the character we choose to adopt. This might
seem superficial stuff compared to our qualifications, skills
and experience. But it matters more than we care to believe.
Mr Richmond has produced a list of adjectives most used
in casting descriptions. The top twenty are: attractive,
confident, bitchy, arrogant, business type, beautiful, sexy,
serious, pretty, charismatic, strong, authoritarian, aggressive,
handsome, glamorous, ruthless, intellectual, neurotic, sophisticated
Most of these would probably fail discrimination tests
for job advertisements. Apart from those which highlight
the sex of the character it is noticeable how many of the
descriptions outline strong features. In the theatre, at
least, there is little demand for pale, limp characters.
The same may apply to other forms of work. In fact there
is an argument for job candidates to go along to an interview
“in character.” This goes against everything
I have ever heard from occupational psychologists when making
the case for personality testing.
The underpinning premise for personality testing is that
some people have personality types better suited to some
roles than others. The extrovert, for example, is likely
to have an advantage over the introvert for a sales job
that requires cold calling on the telephone. Equally a sunny
disposition will count for nothing if your job requires
a concentrated analysis of tables and figures.
Personality testing is most often recommended, alongside
other selection methods, in working out how people may fit
within a team or respond to some specialist function. Sometimes
you can work out what is required and adapt your character
to reflect the answers you give in the test.
I have “cheated” this way in the past when
carrying out some tests, to prove to myself that personality
questionnaires looking for your working style or preferences
can be skewed by candidates. The response from psychologists
has been to argue that, in the long term, those who adjust
their behaviour in this way are only going to make themselves
unhappy when they find themselves doing work to which they
are not fitted.
This means that where personality tests are not used -
and for initial candidate selection this is still the case
across most sectors - all of us are risking the possibility
of finding ourselves doing work that we might not enjoy.
In reality – unless we are extremely fortunate - there
are aspects to almost every job that we dislike. But most
of us are prepared to take the rough with the smooth.
In a new book, Multiplicity,* the science writer Rita Carter
argues that most people have multiple personalities. While
conventional psychology underpinning the personality testing
market in workplace selection and team building, assumes
that everyone has a base personality informing their personal
preferences, Ms Carter argues that each individual comprises
a team of personalities and that people switch back and
forth quite naturally, adopting different moods to meet
If her theories are correct, it throws into question the
worth of selecting people on the basis of their personality.
While few psychologists would reject the idea that people
are capable of play-acting in certain circumstances, there
would be less support for the notion that adopting different
demeanours for prolonged periods is perfectly natural. Behaving
out of character is usually regarded as a source of stress
or, at the very least, unhappiness. The argument goes that
an adopted personality is ultimately unsustainable.
The ability to assume different personalities explains
why some comedians are nothing like the cheery people you
see on stage if you meet them in the street. It explains
why a boss can appear a tough autocrat in the office while
behaving as a gentle parent at home.
If we do have Chameleon personalities, there may be a good
argument after all for representing ourselves in personality
tests in a way that assumes what we regard the right personality
for a chosen roll. This means that we might dress for a
job both outwardly and inwardly.
The Romans encouraged the study or rhetoric and oration,
using the same word – actor – for both a legal
prosecutor and a performer on stage. Indeed whether you
were performing in the theatre or performing in a job, it
was accepted that you were playing a part.
Just as Shakespeare argued that “one man in his time
plays many parts” in a lifetime, the part-playing
may extend to almost everything we do each day. And if we
seek to land a particular part there may be little to lose
in second-guessing our approach. If an actor can play an
executive, so can the rest of us.
*Multiplicity, The new Science of Personality, by Rita
Carter, is published by Little Brown, price £12.99.
See also: Faking