The Card Test That Supposedly Revealed Homosexual Tendencies

Until recently, many psychologists did everything possible to make closeted gay people admit they were gay so that they could be "cured." One tool these scientists used to figure out who was homosexual was a bizarre card game called the "Picture Arrangement Test."

It was in the early 1950s that Silvan Tomkins, a psychologist, was asked to do a little something about worker absenteeism in various companies. It seems people didn't care for their work, but didn't let their companies know ahead of time that they didn't care for it. They preferred not coming in very much once they were hired. Tomkins tried working on a psychological test that might reliably test a worker's performance before he was hired.

Tomkins considered the idea, and came up with the Picture Arrangement Test. The test comprised twenty-five sets of cards. Each set of three cards featured a cartoon hero in three different situations. Taking the test involved putting the cards in order, and writing, or speaking, a sentence about them. The cards were marked with a triangle, a square, and a circle - so the person administering the test could talk about them without mentioning the pictures - and were drawn from different angles, so no narrative was imposed on them.

The test was meant to give lay people a look into a job applicant's mind. An article about the test asserts that non-experts could divine things like, "work interest, sociability, attitudes toward the opposite sex, anxiety, aggression, phantasy life" from the mere way the test taker arranged the cards. The infinite variety of the Rorschach or word association tests was whittled down to something an employer could use to evaluate employee performance. It was also something that could be used to make sure "the draftee will no longer have to answer the embarrassed, verbal question, 'Do you like girls?'"

It's true, people don't really have to answer that question anymore, although I do wonder what order of cards on the original test gave people an answer of, "Totally gay." History went another direction.

So did Tomkins. Although the test was first conceived of as a way to remove the experts from psychology, it ended making experts an ever-more critical part of personality tests. Tomkins, after giving the test to thousands of people, became fascinated with their body language and expressions as they arranged the cards and gave a one-sentence explanation of the stories. He would video tape the tests, and watch the tapes with the sound off, looking at people's facial expressions.

His work became the precursor to today's "body language experts" and "lie detectors." He would make predictions about people's personality, honesty, and, yes, sexual orientation, by looking at their behavior during their tests. So a test made to forcibly uncover homosexuality and take away the expertise necessary for psychology ended up re-emphasizing the expertise necessary for psychology in a world where fewer and fewer people feel the need to cover up homosexuality.

[Via Princeton Alumni Weekly, The Tomkins Institute, The Naked Face.]