Articles

My Day With The Head Shrinkers

They call it an aptitude test and feed you trick questions on animals, geography, vegetables, arithmetic, family problems and fancy words. But don’t be fooled. It’s all designed to get you a job scrubbing floors

HUGH GARNER November 26 1955
Articles

My Day With The Head Shrinkers

They call it an aptitude test and feed you trick questions on animals, geography, vegetables, arithmetic, family problems and fancy words. But don’t be fooled. It’s all designed to get you a job scrubbing floors

HUGH GARNER November 26 1955

My Day With The Head Shrinkers

They call it an aptitude test and feed you trick questions on animals, geography, vegetables, arithmetic, family problems and fancy words. But don’t be fooled. It’s all designed to get you a job scrubbing floors

HUGH GARNER

A FEW weeks ago, for reasons I didn’t suspect at the time, I was sent by the firm I then worked for to an aptitude testing service. These testing services are springing up in our cities almost as thick as beauty parlors and the end results are just about the same; you emerge from the tests with the feeling that your defects are no longer private, and that somehow you’ve been conned into giving away the camouflaged secrets of a lifetime.

A testing service is an organization set up to screen the natural aptitudes of job applicants, and to weed the obvious misfits out of the employment cul-de-sacs they’ve been inhabiting since they were t hrown out of high school. The answers to a day’s series of tests are screened by a team of industrial psychologists, who can then tell whether you should have clung to your job in the punch-press department, or listened to your brother-in-law when he coaxed you into becoming his partner in a mushroom farm. Actually, the series of tests corroborate what the boss has sus|>ected about you all along, and merely give an academic sanction to the blue dismissal slip in your pay envelope. Up to now the testing services have been mainly used as a gantlet down which eager-eyed junior executives, advertis-

ing copywriters, real estate salesmen, and other modern business fauna are led to the dull guillotine. They are broadening out so fast however that it will not be long liefore everyone in the country will have to face up to them. When it comes your turn, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My preliminary interview with the psychologistin-charge was a friendly one, and it was not until later that I realized I had managed to talk myself out of any kind of job more stable than that of water boy with a railroad extra gang. I regretted telling him, in a flush of self-abasement, that my happiest days had been spent as a hobo during the depression, that I took a position of secret superiority to my office bosses, and that my wife and I existed in a state of armed neutrality. At the conclusion of the interview he bowed me to the door, wearing the same snide grin that the income tax adjustor wore last year before rooking me for an extra two hundred bucks.

I was shown into the examination room, and

introduced to a pretty young lady named Miss Todd, which, strangely enough, was the name of a high-school teacher who once crowned me with an atlas for questioning the laws of gravity. I took a chair at a long table that stretched down the middle of the room, fitted with reading lamps, ash trays, and piles of pencils sharpened to stiletto points. Two fellow testees were waiting for the examinations to begin, wearing the wary, antagonistic looks of strangers in a doctor’s waiting room. One of them, who looked like an automobile salesman, had already half filled his ash tray with butts. The other, whom I instantly disliked, might have been a branch manager for a finance company.

I was just about to light a cigarette when Miss Todd set some papers before each of us, said, “You may begin when I say ready; you have three minutes in which to answer as many questions as you can,” and ominously picked up a stop watch. I just had time to read the title on the top of page one, “Learning Aptitude,” when she said, “Go ahead!”

The idea in this test was to tick off either true or false in answer to such statements as, “All men are animals, all monkeys are animals, therefore all men are monkeys.” I made a Continued on pane 7.5

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My Day with the Head Shrinkers

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negligent tick next to "false,” and prepared to run through the paper in at most a minute and a half. 1 was going great until 1 came up against question twelve which read, "There is only one place on the earth’s surface from which the only direction is south; is it the south pole, equator, north pole, or the Greenwich meridian?” I read the statement at least five times, wasting a precious minute, before I ticked off the wrong answer. Before I had a chance to change my mind, the bell rang, and Miss Todd picked up the papers. There were scill a dozen unanswered questions on my paper.

The next paper was titled "Idea Fluency,” and was supposed to be a cinch for those who spark ideas and show originality. I could hardly wait to begin it. The time limit was six minutes, and the examination consisted of two almost blank pages, each headed by the opening sentences of a short story, which were to be completedStory No. 1 began: "Mary Thompson walked out of the supermarket, forgetting her purse, which she had left lying on the shelf holding the tinned peas—” Ha! 1 said to myself, a trick beginning. How could Mary Thompson—or Hattie Carnegie, for that matter—have paid for her purchases at the cash desk if her purse was still on the tinned pea shelf! The thing worried me, and I tried to figure out if Mary had suddenly heard the baby crying outside in its go-cart, or if she had left her basketful of dog food and cream cheese at the checking counter while she ran home to look for her lost

purse in the cutlery drawer in the kitchen? Over to the right of me I could see the car salesman and the finance company branch manager scribbling away like .court reporters. I congratulated myself that I was the only one who had spotted the trick in the opening sentence.

I read the beginning of the second story: "Oliver Townsend came home from the office one evening to find that his wife, Angela, had left a note propped against the wisteria plant, telling him she had gone to the Mortons’ for dinner—” I have a theory that if a writer uses characters called Oliver and Angela Townsend, the story is bound to be bad. 1 turned back to Mary Thompson, just in time to hear j the bell ring, ending the test.

I looked over at my fellow testees, and noticed with consternation that both of them had almost filled their blank pages, while mine were still pure as snow. Miss Todd collected the papers, glanced at the spot where 1 had placed "Writer” as my occupation, j gave an audible snort, and went hack to her desk.

The third test was titled "Discriminative Judgment.” The first question read, "You are walking down the street and notice a house on fire; number consecutively the order in which you would do the following: ring in an alarm, enter the house to effect a rescue, stand by and watch it burn, ignore it.” Well, actually 1 can’t resist a good fire, and I know I’d never he able to find an alarm box, never being able to find even a mail box when 1 need one. Fintering a burning house to rescue the occupants is a thing I’ve toyed with in my Walter Mitty moments, but in reality I’m too ! cowardly for that. I decided that I would first run to find an alarm box, knowing that by the time I returned the house would be burning good.

Back to the Gas Meters

The next two papers were called "Recognition Vocabulary” and "Verbal Facility,” and I approached them with the egotism of the expert. After all, you can’t have made a living as a writer for years without knowing something about words. 1 did great when it came to matching up "incredulous” with "scepticism,” "trophy” with "citation” and "prudence” with "discretion,” but when it came to listing antonyms for "digress,” fearsome,” "luxury” and "misunderstand” 1 was lost. It was about this time that I began to realize I might flunk the tests, and I got a little panicky.

The next test was called the "Number Facility Test,” and I gave myself a big X on this one, even before I started. Staring at me were series of figures, into which I had to insert those that were missing. Other questions consisted of long rows of figures, which had to be copied correctly. Still others had to be copied backwards. I looked across at the automobile salesman, and noticed with alarm that he was not only half way down page one, but had managed to light a cigarette, something 1 had been unsuccessful in doing since the examination began. The finance company manager, who had probably been trained for years by subtracting

wenty bucks a month from my nonliminishing account, was racing ahead ike an I.B.M. machine. I took my .ongue between my teeth and set out to lecipher that almost incomprehensible, or me, list of figures. I was doing fine jy the time the gong went, and 1 just iad time to sneak in the last two figures >f question 14.

We broke off then for lunch. I leaned jack in my chair and said, "Well, I (uess it’s back to reading gas meters for

me!” ending with a careless little laugh. The automobile salesman gave me a friendly, though distant grin, but the finance company guy looked down at me with a look that showed me he thought that was where I belonged.

During lunch I plotted my campaign against the remaining papers. I decided that this type of examination required speed and native cunning.

My two fellow testees were already in their chairs when I returned, and they had been joined by a third, a middle-aged man who looked like the field representative for a string of pinball machines. The two original examinees glanced significantly at their watches, but the pinball representative gave me a beery conspiratorial wink from across the table. I was drawn to him as one obvious failure to another.

Miss Todd told us that the next test was on "Sales Judgment” and that there was no time limit. Question No. 1 dealt with the selling points that a salesman would give to a prospective customer for a mattress. I breezed through this one, setting them down as cheapness, wearability, springiness and color, leaving out such obvious tripe as its guarantee, foam-rubber cushioning, light weight, and "contour construction,” whatever that is. The next question dealt with placating a customer who ordered you from his office. Apparently the salesman in a contretemps such as this has a choice: he can apologize for bothering the man, can drop him a friendly note, can beg him for an appointment at another time, can leave his card with the man’s secretary, or can telephone him later.

None of those things seemed to fit the hypothetical case as I saw it, and I crossed them all out and wrote in, "I’d invite him to fight it out on the sidewalk.” I realized that I was still suspicious of the tricks behind the questions, but after proving my honesty all morning I couldn’t let myself down in the afternoon. Up to then I had always figured that if this writing caper ever petered out I could always find a job selling something, even if it was only scratch sheets outside the local race tracks. I changed my mind, even before the result of the test changed it for me. (Needless to say, I received the lowest marks for this paper in the history of the Aptitude Testing Service. The only correct thing on the paper was my name, and I believe the examiners were even suspicious of that.)

The next test was an anti-climax called "Arithmetic Reasoning.” There they were, the same old bugaboos that haunted my schooldays. There was the one about John having 26 apples and Jim having four fifths more than John; and those two old enemies of mine, one of whom bought 500 shares of stock at cents and the other who bought 350 shares at 12 cents, and how many more shares than the first one could the second have bought with another $1,250. -

I skipped the algebra questions, those

dealing with the division of fractions, and every one containing a decimal point. This left me free to concentrate on the one question involving long division, because long division is the way I do it. I managed to get that question right, but only by filling the back of the test paper with columns of figures that marched clockwise up and down the sheet like the stock quotations in a Chinese newspaper. Miss Todd gave a double take when she glanced at the front page of the test, but I said, "It’s all on the back.” She twittered nervously then, just as her namesake had done when I questioned the laws of gravity.

The next paper was called "Inductive Reasoning,” and it consisted of groups of drawings, four or five of them to a panel. The object was to cross out the drawings that didn’t belong with the others. I was going along swimmingly until I came to a panel holding drawings of an apple, strawberry, a banana, and what looked like an orange. Obviously they were all fruit, so what could you cross out? I first decided that the orange was not an orange at all hut a tomato, before I remembered cagily that a tomato is a fruit too. This was another of those trick questions, but they weren’t going to catch me! To show my superiority to such trickery I crossed out every one of them. In fact, as I got towards the end of the test I crossed out nearly everything in sight. Later on, too late to do me any good, I realized that apples, oranges, and bananas grow on trees, but strawberries grow on the ground.

The last test of all consisted of tracing lines with both hands, while blindfolded. By this time I was a mental and emotional wreck, no more capable of tracing lines than of tracing the plot in a comic strip. From behind me I could hear the superior chuckles of the finance company manager and the car salesman. When it came the finance manager’s turn, I guffawed in his ear, making his pencil veer from the line at an angle of ninety degrees. This was my only real victory of the day.

About a week later I had a heart-toheart talk with my boss, and he convinced me that my talents lay in directions almost diametrically opposed to those of the firm. He let me read the "Psychological Audit” which he had received from the testing bureau. If I had not known it was mine I would have thought it belonged to Rudolph Hess or King Kong. We parted amiably enough, but as I was leaving his office I heard him breathe a long sigh of relief.

Since leaving the firm I have been looking for employment where my unorthodox talents can best be put to use. My post - employment observations have led me to believe that I can serve beer in a tavern, rack up balls in a poolroom, or wave cars in and out of a parking lot. There may be other jobs I could do, but the aptitude tests failed to show them. iy