George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), the Irish-born playwright and novelist, was the only writer to win both the Nobel Prize for Literature and a movie Oscar. Shaw was an ardent socialist who, nonetheless, founded the London School of Economics (LSE)—a hotbed of British capitalist thinking. But most importantly, as an Irishman, Shaw was a gifted and intuitive psychologist, and his most famous play, Pygmalion, contains an important practical lesson for the critics of personality assessment.
The standard criticism of personality assessment is that people can and do “fake” their responses to the items on personality inventories. The concept of faking is deeply problematical in social life. It rests on the assumption that there is a “real” you and that faking involves pretending to be someone other than the real you. In contrast, for social constructionists, there is no “real” you, there is just the you that you have chosen to be; you then use social interaction to tell other people who you are and how you would like to be treated. More specifically, there is the real you, which is the you that you were as a child—an unsocialized horror, then there is the you that, as an adult, you (more or less self-consciously) pretend to be in public—the socialized you. The maturation process involves learning to fake, to hide the real you. In this way, the answers that you provide on a personality questionnaire would reflect the socialized you, not the real you, the unsocialized horror—unless you avoided the maturation process.
In Shaw’s play, the linguist Henry Higgins bets a friend that he can train a cockney flower girl to speak “proper” English and pass her off as English gentility. Higgins selects Eliza Doolittle, and with some effort, trains her to drop her normal way of speaking and, instead, speak “proper” English. Higgins is successful, Eliza Doolittle is transformed, Higgins falls in love with her, and the play ends with her rejecting Higgins and marrying an impoverished English gentleman.
Shaw’s play contains at least three lessons for personality psychology. First, there is no real you, there is just the you that you pretend to be in public. Every social performance is an act. Only people who are na?ve, unsophisticated, or psychologically obtuse insist on being authentically themselves. But as the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre remarked, “Authenticity is the mark of a person who has been taken in by his own act.”
Second, with some concentration and practice, most people can change their social performances; like Eliza Doolittle, they can learn to fake, except that they are not faking, they are just playing a different role from the one they usually play.
And third, some roles lead to greater social acceptance, popularity, and success than others. People who insist on being rude, opinionated, and abrasive aren’t simply being themselves, they are behaving in a self-defeating manner.
Returning finally to personality assessment, people present themselves differently using the items on personality questionnaires—this is the essence of individual differences—and some of these presentations will lead to better outcomes than others. But no one is faking when they respond; how they present themselves is a choice, whether it is conscious or not.