Lileks: You can try to cheat death, but don't mess with the MMPI

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 12, 2012 - 7:49 PM

Have you been following the story of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory? How do you feel about it? Does it make you want to yell at hot dogs? Have you ever had disturbing dreams about hot dogs?

If that made no sense, you never took the test.

As reported by the Strib's intrepid Jenna Ross, the MMPI is embroiled in controversy. The University of Minnesota has sued a website that posted a cheat sheet for the test, which would supposedly enable people to fool the cunningly crafted psychological evaluation.

It's no small thing -- the test brings the U a million bucks a year in royalties, even though it's 70 years old. At least that explains questions like, "Do you dream of God with FDR's face and your father's clothes?" That one threw me. Because, like, wow, HOW DID YOU KNOW?

What's that? Sure, I took it, in college. Wandered into the office for Students Lost in the Vast Impersonal Machine of the U and said, I'm sad, adrift, unsure of the future, romantically thwarted, and generally life feels like a Rubik's cube I'm supposed to figure out while skiing down a snowless hill. The safe diagnosis: Well, yeah, you're in college, kid. Just wait until middle age. Same thing with the Rubik's cube, but now you're colorblind.

In an earlier era the doctor might have lit a Lucky Strike and said, "Do you drink? No? Ever considered starting? Takes the edge off for me." But things had changed, and so I had to take the psychological equivalent of the Iowa Basic Skills Test.

You're put in a room. The nice assistant says there's no right or wrong answer, even though you suspect that answering "always" to the questions regarding blood and Satan ensure the cops are waiting outside with a white jacket.

You're left alone. You read: "Sometimes I feel sad." Well, that's easy. I'm gonna ace this thing. Next question: Something like, "On cloudy days I feel like sawing badgers in half: never / sometimes / often " and you're alarmed. This has nothing to do with my problems at all. Now, sawing raccoons, that's a whole different story, but badgers? That's sick.

You read on:

• I am physically attracted to barley

• I am never angry at the periodic table

• Sometimes I worry that sloughed-off skin cells and hair are forming a separate self, and he will get dates instead of me

• I frequently have thoughts about fondling bannisters

• Sometimes I have trouble figuring out the meaning of a sentence that toothpick syrup boffin-droppings

If you're not paranoid when you start the test, you are after 50 questions.

A few of them concerned germs, as I recall, just to see if you're the sort who washes his hands 50 times a day. Today we call that "someone who saw the TV news report on preventing a cold," but then it was a sign of compulsive behavior. They match it up with your answer to question No. 395 -- "I cannot leave the house until I have counted the toothpicks twice and ironed the morning newspaper" -- and they have a hint. But if you live in a house at college with other guys, everything is filthy and crawling with germs.

The next question is, "Sometimes I want to harm people," and you think of the roommate who never does the dishes; heck, yeah. Ten questions later: Sometimes I do things that harm myself. Me? Never. Hey, can I smoke in here?

It would seem that the truly devious individual could figure out how to answer the questions to craft a completely normal profile, but that probably just yields the result "Sociopath and/or politician," and you're either sent for counseling or advised of an open seat in an easy district.

What's odd is how Minnesota's name got stuck on the test. People in other states must read the questions and wonder what is wrong with Minnesotans?

A true Minnesota psychological test would have questions like this:

• Sometimes I get tired of the lutefisk jokes but don't say anything

• When people make fun of something important to me I want to give them such a look

• Ya sure, you betcha (never/ sometimes / often)

No one ever gave me the results. Pulled out of the slump once I got a girlfriend. We hit it off right away. You're mad at the periodic table, too? We have so much in common.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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