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Continued: Feud over famed test erupts at U

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: August 12, 2009 - 9:59 AM

It started as the brainchild of two University of Minnesota professors and became a global sensation.

It remains the most widely used personality test in the world, assessing the emotional stability of millions of people.

But now the legendary MMPI -- the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory -- is stirring up some emotional turmoil of its own.

The 70-year-old test has undergone a dramatic makeover recently, sparking a bitter feud among its leading scholars. The debate, which started in professional journals, has boiled over into courtrooms and triggered at least two internal investigations at the university.

The school, which still earns about $1 million a year in MMPI royalties, says it merely put a 21st-century spin on a test created during the Great Depression. Today, the MMPI is routinely used to screen candidates for highly sensitive jobs -- pilots, police, nuclear power plant operators -- and in charged legal situations, such as child custody cases.

But critics say the changes, such as a new scoring system and a form that eliminated 40 percent of the questions, damaged the test's credibility and backfired on some patients.

One complaint is that a newly added feature, called the "Fake Bad Scale," is used to discredit victims in personal injury cases, mistakenly branding some people as faking or exaggerating symptoms.

Both sides say they're trying to protect the legacy of one of the university's greatest single achievements.

"It's being used to make critical decisions about people's lives," said Carolyn Williams, a retired University of Minnesota professor and an MMPI expert. "People are being hurt."

But the university says that the test has been improved, and blames the controversy on a "small vocal" minority. "When you introduce a new version of a test, there are often people who oppose any changes," said Beverly Kaemmer, associate director of the University of Minnesota Press, which oversees the MMPI.

University investigators found nothing inappropriate about the MMPI changes. But they did fault the University of Minnesota Press for relying on an advisory board that consisted entirely of two scientists -- psychologists Auke Tellegen and Yossef Ben-Porath -- who co-wrote the new test and stand to profit from its sales.

Tellegen, a retired U professor, calls critics "the Mult Cult" -- a twist on Multiphasic -- a small group "very dedicated and strongly identified with the old MMPI."

Ben-Porath, a Kent State University professor, agrees: "There's a cohort within the Mult Cult that really believes ... that the test is perfect and any change, by definition, is for the worse."

Williams and her husband, James Butcher, who led the last big revision 20 years ago, dismiss the accusation.

"They have changed the MMPI so drastically it is not the same instrument," said Butcher, a retired psychology professor who has written dozens of books about the test. "I'm not an old gray-haired guy sitting in a cult," he added. "These folks have made a new test and they are using the name MMPI ... with all the 70 years of tradition to market their changed instrument."

The dispute has pitted old friends and colleagues against one another -- Ben-Porath was once Butcher's protege; Tellegen was Butcher's co-writer.

Now, Tellegen says, they avoid each other if they're in the same building.

The MMPI is born

It all began in the 1930s, in the University of Minnesota hospital's psych ward. Psychologist Starke Hathaway was searching for a better way to diagnose schizophrenia.

With psychiatrist J.C. McKinley, he developed a questionnaire of hundreds of true/false items about everything from moods, aches and pains to religious beliefs. They gave it to patients in the mental wards, and, for comparison, to hospital workers and visitors -- the "Minnesota normals," as they came to be known.

By comparing the two groups, the scientists concluded that the mentally ill had distinctive patterns of answers that could distinguish who was emotionally impaired.

In 1942, the test made its official debut with 550 true/false questions. Initially, it was something of a letdown. The inventors quickly discovered it wasn't very effective at diagnosing mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Tellegen says. But he said it was extremely useful at detecting certain personality traits and emotional strengths and weaknesses. Soon it was translated into multiple languages and became a staple in personnel offices, courtrooms and countless other settings.

As the test neared the half-century mark in the 1980s, the university decided it needed a face-lift. Many questions seemed outdated or sexist. Butcher was asked to lead the revisions. His team, including Tellegen, spent seven years researching the changes before unveiling the new test, known as MMPI-2, in 1989.

Butcher also designed a computerized system for interpreting the results, called the Minnesota Reports, which earns the university more than $600,000 in royalties a year (as inventor, he gets 30 percent).

A slimmed-down MMPI

But some felt that the test was still too rooted in the past and hard to use.

Tellegen began work on a new scoring system that got rid of old labels such as "paranoia" and "hysteria." Then he and Ben-Porath teamed up to redesign the test, with research grants from the University of Minnesota Press.

"What Hathaway and McKinley did was state-of-the-art in the 1930s," Ben-Porath said. "But we've learned a lot about how to best construct psychological tests."

The result: a slimmed-down version with just 338 questions debuted last year as the MMPI-2-RF (restructured form). The authors say it takes about 45 minutes to fill out instead of the original 90 minutes, and is easier to use and interpret.

Butcher opposed the changes and questioned the research, criticizing them at public meetings and in journals. At one point, Ben-Porath sent an e-mail pleading with him to tone it down. "I also don't think that this type of public airing of dirty laundry is good for the test," he wrote.

Then the two sides butted heads over the 2007 addition of the "Fake Bad Scale" (FBS). It's essentially a scorecard, based on 43 MMPI questions, that purports to identify people who may be faking symptoms. Butcher says research shows that it discriminates against women and is prone to "false positives." Admitting that you have headaches or hot flashes, for example, gets counted against you.

But Ben-Porath says single questions won't brand anyone a malingerer; the FBS looks for unusual patterns that suggest exaggeration.

No sign of a truce

Two years ago, Ben-Porath and Butcher testified on opposite sides of a personal injury case in Florida, about whether the FBS should be admitted as evidence. The judge threw it out after Butcher's testimony.

But the MMPI debate was only heating up.

In 2007, Oregon psychologist David Nichols and five colleagues wrote to university President Robert Bruininks, saying that the release of the proposed changes "risks both harm to the status of the MMPI-2 and, by extension, embarrassment to the University of Minnesota."

They asked Bruininks to appoint an independent advisory committee into potential conflicts of interest at the University Press. Bruininks replied in March 2007 that the evidence showed no sign of a conflict of interest.

But four months later, a formal university audit uncovered numerous problems in the University Press test division, particularly the way it awarded $300,000 a year in MMPI research grants. The audit disclosed that 83 percent of the money went to projects involving the two members of its advisory board and that one of them had reviewed three of his own grant proposals.

Ben-Porath said that a couple of researchers mistakenly listed him as a co-investigator on their proposals, but he removed his name and did not receive the funds himself. "We have never been involved in reviewing or approving our own research," he said.

Since then, though, the University Press has formed a new advisory board, and Tellegen and Ben-Porath have stepped down to become consultants.

A year ago, the university launched a separate inquiry, led by Vice President Tim Mulcahy. His panel concluded that "professional differences of opinion" were at the heart of the MMPI controversy, that there was no evidence of anything amiss in the revision.

But the panel said past processes at the University Press were inadequate and open to criticisms of potential conflicts of interest. It cautioned that "considering the worldwide impacts of the MMPI ... the University can ill afford to ignore the warning signs raised by the current controversy."

Butcher and Williams say it isn't over. The school, Williams says, needs "to do a scientific evaluation of the claims of both sides."

University officials say they're willing to let the marketplace decide. The new test -- which is sold along with the 1989 version -- is "eagerly being adopted," said Douglas Armato, director of the University Press. "It's bringing new customers. It's bringing back old customers."

Ben-Porath says that feedback shows that "we've basically revived and revitalized it. ... Not doing anything to the test is certainly going to doom it."

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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