Is the Scientology Personality Test Scientific?
June 17, 2016
The Church of Scientology is notorious for its aggressive outreach tactics, from bogus Hollywood seminars to free “movie tickets” for Dianetics: The Film. But none is so quintessentially Scientologist as the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA), or “personality test.”
The Church of Scientology claims that their personality assessment combines three elements—one’s IQ, personality, and aptitude—to give a unique perspective about a person’s strengths, weaknesses, and what they can do to improve their lives. The test is free and often marketed as quick (though my own test had me there for about three hours). Unfortunately, the test itself is about as scientific as an online quiz (e.g., “Are you a Monica or a Phoebe?”). The test itself has been barely examined by statisticians and social scientists, and with terrible results, but nothing drives this home more than going to the church and taking the test yourself.
When I entered Scientology’s “L.A. Org,” I knew exactly what I was getting into, and that the OCA was at best a religious recruitment tool, though many are not so lucky. My co-host, Ross, and I had visited the building for our podcast, “Oh No, Ross and Carrie,” as part of our investigation of personality tests. Unbeknownst to us, setting foot in that building would spark an investigation of the Church itself, spanning nine episodes over four months. But on that day, we just wanted to see whether the OCA would give us any special insight that other personality tests, such as the famed Myers Briggs Type Indicator, didn’t offer. We were quick to find out that the test is free, but followed by a sell no softer than a time share meeting.
Once inside the building, Ross and I were quickly greeted by a young receptionist. As we explained that we were there to take the personality test, voluntarily, rather than being prompted on the street, her eyes grew wider.
“You just heard about us and wanted to take the test?” she asked, mystified.
Her response didn’t exactly surprise us. After all, in the wake of Going Clear and Troublemaker—two famous exposés with enormous cultural saturation—foot traffic into “Big Blue,” Scientology’s big Los Angeles facility (Scientology calls their churches “orgs”), wasn’t exactly active.
We were taken to a side room and sat down in cubicles with tall sides, keeping us from cheating by trying to sneak a peek at someone else’s personality. The 200 questions, all of which can be found at the OCA’s website, range from the typical: “When others are getting rattled, do you remain composed?” or “Do you normally let the other person start the conversation,” to the not-so-typical: “Do you consider the modern ‘prison without bars’ system doomed to failure?” and “Are you in favor of color bar and class distinction?”
Each question has options for yes, no, and maybe (or, in previous versions, “Don’t know”). A Sea Org member in a three-piece suit advised that I choose the thing that seems most true to me now and that I shouldn’t over-think any questions. Having just completed the Myers Briggs inventory, I was used to pegging my personality into tiny boxes. Are you the life of the party? AM I EVER! Are you scientific and rational in your thinking? YOU BET I AM!
Proud to have finished the 200-question beast, I plunked my pencil down on the table and raised my hand. The man returned to deliver the bad news he must give several times a day: the test is not one, but three. He set down another test, “Just a quick one to make sure we got that one right,” he said, and set an alarm clock for five minutes. When that one was finished, I was given one final quiz: an IQ test, also timed. By that point, I was sick of the bait-and-switch, and eager to have my fortunes read by Sea Org members.
A Swedish woman (who immediately told me she was Swedish and here on study) invited me to her desk to discuss my results. On my way there, I passed a young woman who appeared to be about nineteen, crying as she reviewed her results.
“I just don’t always know who I am or what I want,” she said, leaning over her checkered skirt and crying into her hands.
“Absolutely, and that’s reading here on your test,” replied her aid. I wanted to tell the young woman that not knowing who you are or what you want is exactly where you should be at nineteen, and that if everyone became the thing they wanted to be at nineteen, the world would be overrun with music producers and clever T-shirt companies.
As I sat down with the woman who would review my test, she glanced at the paperwork, then back at me, in my Mickie/Minnie sweater and (at the time) shock of pink hair.
“Oh!” she said, “You’re very intelligent.”
“Well, thank you,” I said, feeling better about this test that obviously had been very insightful.
Paulina, as I will call her, then reviewed the scores on all three of my tests. I had “very high” aptitude, as evidenced by my ability to do things like circle the verbs in a sentence, and an IQ of 136 (full disclosure: Ross beat me out by eleven points, at 147). But more importantly, the OCA was here to save me from myself by identifying the pieces of my personality that don’t serve me well, for example, impulsivity.
“You make impulsive decisions, yes?” Paulina asked me, pointing to a dot on the line graph on her printout.
“Um, hm, I don’t think I make bad impulsive decisions. But I do like to be spontaneous. Live in the moment, go do something you think of right then even if you didn’t plan on it. That sort of thing.”
“Well, this says you’re impulsive.”
The session went on like this, with Paulina asking me if an adjective was true of me, then telling me what the results said. My results didn’t seem particularly extreme, but Paulina was digging deep to nail down exactly what to tell me I should change. Work? No, my work life was going fine. Personal self-esteem? No, I felt confident and self-assured more than I had at any other time in my life. Finally, she landed on romance.
“How are things with your boyfriend?” she asked, pleadingly.
“Wonderful!” I said, smiling and nodding with self-satisfaction.
“Well, it may start out that way, but over time, things can go bad,” she replied. “You should take a class on how to keep it wonderful.”
Then she led me across the room to a desk under a sign that said “REGISTRAR,” and introduced me to Howard (not his real name, either), who would give me the hard sell. Paulina explained to him that I needed a relationship course so that my so-far-so-good relationship wouldn’t fall apart over time. Howard dismissed Paulina and looked over my printout, nodding along to the ups and downs of my personality.
“I’m not sure this is the right course for you,” he said, pointing out that my relationships with others looked pretty strong, and that I had no major conflicts to report. But as the conversation wore on and he realized that none of the other Scientology classes would clearly benefit me, he agreed with Paulina’s assessment. A relationship class would keep my loving partnership from turning sour.
“Would you like to sign up for that, today?” he asked.
“No, I would like to sleep on it,” I said, trying to find any way to get out of there without giving them my credit card information. I explained that recent science has suggested that sleeping on big decisions actually helps us make better ones. Not to mention that I was keenly aware that he was using social pressure to make me sign up for a class I had never requested, but one can’t say such things out loud and make friends.
“Have you ever made a good decision quickly?” asked Howard.
“Yes, sure. But I’ve also made bad ones quickly, like anyone. And anyway, Paulina said I’m too impulsive.”
Beaten at his own game, Howard allowed me to put off my decision about the class until the next day, but sent me on my way with a booklet about relationships. I gave him its $5 cover price in sympathy, knowing that as a Sea Org member, he might be making as little as $50 a week. I tried to exit right away, but was sent through a parade of L. Ron Hubbard themed displays before I could fully exit. Unsurprisingly, I would hear from Scientology the next day, asking me to join their next class.
From my experience, it is clear that the OCA functions mostly as a way to get people in the door so the Scientology pitch can be made. But what about the science behind it?
The OCA clearly benefits from its deceptive name. It is in no way associated with the prestigious University of Oxford, despite one woman at the Org telling Ross that it was developed there. According to a research paper by Scientologist John H. Wolfe, published on the Social Science Research Network, the test was sloppily copied from the Johnson Temperament Analysis (JTA), “a psychological test of poorly documented validity.” Furthermore, he says, the OCA has none of the checks and balances that even the JTA has. Wolfe goes on to advise “establishing some degree of validity for the OCA would make the large database of OCA test results in the Church of Scientology case history archives relevant and useable for outcome research.” In a rare peek behind the curtain, we see a Scientologist and mathematician advise that the Church show a modicum of effort to make their test scientific.
The test itself appears to have no peer-reviewed research behind it, before or since its inception, and has been criticized widely by psychologists. In one UK government report titled “Enquiry into the Practice and Effects of Scientology” (or “The Foster Report” for short), Sir John Foster reveals that his researchers took the tests themselves, giving a variety of different answers, but that no matter how the test was taken, the results showed that the taker had personality traits that scored in the “unacceptable” field and needed to be fixed with Scientology classes.
In a similar but far more cheeky experiment, Dr. David Delvin took the same test but chose “Don’t know” as the answer to every single question. The Scientology representative administering the test not only did not notice, but returned with a printout with the same kinds of wild variations seen on all the others and recommended all sorts of classes specifically geared to his new pupil.
The Foster Report goes on that psychological professionals nearly universally reject or ignore the OCA, and that its lack of any scientific standing presents “an extremely strong case for assuming it to be a device of no worth.”1
The OCA appears to be nothing but an attempt to get recruits in the door, and promise them success with the smell of science to back it up. But you’re far more likely to find satisfaction in that online quiz we mentioned before. Personally, I think I’m a Phoebe.
1 Dr. David Delvin in World Medicine, 1969. As reported in The Foster Report. http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Cowen/audit/foster05.html#recruitment