“You are a unique individual with your own personality traits,” the leaflet for the Oxford Capacity Analysis (OCA) told me. And it was good to be reminded of that, as I haven’t felt like myself of late. Maybe Scientology – for this 200-question test is a recruitment tool for the “Church” – could help me “achieve great things in life”? I went to the official website and saw a picture of some happy dude called Shawn who had gone through the analysis process. “Now my interaction with people is tremendously better… Day-to-day life is a joy,” he testified. “There’s nothing we don’t seem to be able to handle now.” Shawn seemed pretty happy with the results.
But then the crazy thought passed. I didn’t ever want to go what Scientologists call “clear”. I had no intention of sending back the completed form, as I was all too aware of the rumours about the Scientologists’ strategies: the OCA evaluators would probably just say the results showed that I was in a terrible state and suggest that joining their religion was the only way to turn things around. But I thought I’d fill in the form anyway, to see what it could tell me about myself. The OCA – which has nothing to do with Oxford University, despite its name – has been around since the 1950s and was quite firmly dismissed as bogus by the British Psychological Society in 1970 (it’s “not a genuine personality test”, apparently). But look at Shawn and his big, toothy grin. And listen to Daniella, another advocate of the analysis, who said on the website: “It has really helped me to achieve my dreams, and achieve them in the best way possible.” I wanted some of what they had, if not all of it.
So I picked up the OCA leaflet that a friend had had placed in her hand near St Pauls Tube station not so long ago. It was an innocent-looking thing, designed like a flyer for a posh optician or orthodontist. “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” it asked on the front. Let’s find out, I thought, and opened it up. The questions were printed in small text, and each was accompanied by three boxes, indicating whether you agreed, were uncertain, or disagreed with it. I had a glance at the four dense-looking pages and considered not bothering, but… what the hell.
Question one: “Do you make thoughtless remarks or accusations which you later regret?”
That was easy. Yes. Who doesn’t? A person who never makes a thoughtless remark should be avoided. Who wants to be so controlled? Only weirdos are so robotic. Accusations, though, are no good. When I’d lose something in my room as a teenager, I used to assume that my mum had “tidied it up” – ie, put it in the bin – and regularly accused her of having done so. Sometimes, I was wrong; sometimes I was right. But I regretted the times I was wrong, so I ticked the “agree” box.
Question two: “When others are getting rattled, do you remain fairly composed?”
It depends what “fairly” means. At work I remain quite composed, come print-deadline hour. But then there have been times when I’ve been in a mood for no good reason: the other night, I was “rattled” while talking about “free will” with some friends at a boozy club. It was a stupidly lofty thing to get rattled about but rattled I was. I ticked “uncertain”.
Question three: “Do you browse through railway timetables, directories, or dictionaries just for pleasure?”
An odd one. Perhaps this was introduced to appeal to British trainspotters when the test was first devised: Ian Allan’s ABC booklets started to emerge in the early 1940s and precipitated a craze that peaked around that time. I do visit Transport for London’s “Plan a Journey” page quite often but only when I need to plan a journey. “Directories” could mean phone directories, I suppose, and those are pretty much extinct in the Google age. I use dictionaries when sub-editing for work, but I wouldn’t say that it was for pleasure… So: “disagree”.
Question four: “When asked to make a decision, would you be swayed by your like or dislike of the personality involved?”
“Agree”. Some people you’d do anything for, or at least try. With people I dislike, I try to be fair and do the right thing. But I guess it’s hard to keep that going for ever.
Question five: “Do you intend two or less children in your family even though your health and income permit more?”
A bit personal, all of a sudden, and poorly phrased in terms of grammar. Besides, with the ongoing housing crisis and wage stagnation, how many people of my generation can say that their income permits more? I ticked “agree”, though, because that’s the truth.
And so it continued, probing whether “the idea of inflicting pain on… small animals” would prevent me from hunting and whether my voice was “monotonous, rather than varied in pitch”. Sometimes it was political (“Do you consider more money should be spent on social security?”), and sometimes it was banal in a Seinfeld-stand-up-routine sort of way (“Are you a slow eater?”). One question reminded me of the empathy test in Blade Runner (“Would you take the necessary actions to kill an animal in order to put it out of pain?”); another made me admit to my irrational fear of ghosts at the age of 35 (“Do you ever get disturbed by the noise of the wind or a house settling down?”).
The overall experience, though, was depressing. Too many of the questions seemed loaded in a way that would kill anybody’s buzz. “Would it take a definite effort on your part to consider the subject of suicide?” “Do you sometimes wonder if anyone really cares about you?” “Do you often make tactless blunders?” “Do you often ponder on previous misfortunes?” “Do you often ‘sit and think’ about death, sickness, pain and sorrow?” “Are you normally considered ‘cold’?” “Do people enjoy being in your company?” “Do you often feel depressed?” “Does life seem rather vague and unreal to you?” “Do others push you around?” “Do you consider you have many warm friends?” “Do you tend to put off doing things and then discover it is too late?”
I suppose Shawn had his “audits”, went clear and became the happy dude he is today. But he had to go through this horrible test first to get there. Having done it myself, now all I can think about is death, sickness, pain and sorrow, previous misfortunes, the friends I’ve lost, and all the things I should have done but left until it was too late. Scientologists would say that they could fix me. But I don’t really believe them, because they evidently need to make people sad before they can convert them. Other religions only have to inspire.
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Emotion compares the OCA to a newspaper horoscope, in that aspects of it are designed to “appeal to generalised emotional states that everyone is likely to experience at one time or another”. It’s apparently a façade of pseudoscience that “functions as part of an overall ‘thought control’ strategy”. For me, it was just a downer. So the next time a friendly stranger offers you one of these innocuous-looking things, just say no!