Matthew Hoffarth

Ph.D., Department of History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Consortium for History of Science, Technology and Medicine

2021 to 2022
Fellow in Residence

The Californian Personality: Testing and Techno-Utopianism in Silicon Valley, 1949-2019

This project explores the centrality of the San Francisco Bay Area to the growth of the personality testing industry in postwar America. I argue that the psychological research that occurred in academic research institutes and corporate assessment centers in and around Silicon Valley created the reigning ideal of the American worker and citizen: a person who is both a 'self-motivated, self-starter' and only ever truly comfortable as part of a team. My project investigates this paradox by following the ways that paper personality tests—and later, their computer-based successors—melded two ideologies together: a countercultural dedication to self-knowledge and introspection, and a corporate imperative for flexible, group-oriented workers. I track the flow of these technologies from the research laboratories of Silicon Valley to small-scale publishing houses and, later, mom-and-pop software companies that bundled and sold personality tests to corporate America throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I conclude by showing how Silicon Valley's love affair with personality and team dynamics testing led to the creation of programs such as Gmail, Skype, Slack, and Zoom, and is implicated in the recurrent job burnout epidemics of the past 40 years.