“Personality, Incorporated: A History of Psychological Capital”
Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you rely on facts or feelings to make decisions? What’s your personality type? So asks the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, a popular personality test that permeates our everyday corporate landscape. In team-building exercises and in leadership development seminars, in online blogs and best-selling self-help books, the Myers-Briggs appears as a prominent discourse of contemporary selfhood and of economic value alike. The psychological categories popularized by the Myers-Briggs shape the way we are managed, the way we relate to others, and our very understanding of our selves.
My dissertation, “Personality, Incorporated: A History of Psychological Capital,” narrates a history of how psychological techniques, like the Myers-Briggs, have become a prominent part of corporate management practices and how, in turn, corporate management practices have been a central site for the production of psychological knowledge, the attribution of value, and the constitution of subjectivity. Bridging scholarship on management and economics with scholarship on psychology and science, my dissertation makes two major arguments.The central argument of my dissertation is that these psychological techniques are techniques of human capital management, which presented the psychological capacities of human beings—especially their capacity to motivate themselves, think intuitively, and work in teams—as forms of ‘psychological capital’ that would have economic returns for the individual and corporation alike. The second major contribution of my dissertation is to argue that late twentieth-century corporations were not just sites for the application and circulation of psychological knowledge, but served as important experimental laboratories for investigating human’s interpersonal, emotional, and cognitive capacities.
Personality, Incorporated’s significance lies in offering a historical and analytical account of psychological capital: a subset of human capital, psychological capital is a category that names how non-rational psychological capacities, like our ability to be motivated, think intuitively, and work in teams, became a form of economic value. Like related concepts of human capital and social capital, psychological capital is an unevenly distributed form of value, whose operations are marked by social inequalities and exclusions, including formations of race, class, and gender.Although not a brand-new form of value, psychological capital emerged in particularly intensified forms in the late-20th-century transition to the knowledge economy, marked by new forms of labor, technology, and corporate structure.