August 23, 2009

MMPI feud hits prime time

MMPI-2-RF version and Fake Bad Test at issue

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is the most widely used and best known personality test in the world. Daily, it is introduced in court in everything from child custody cases to civil lawsuits to criminal proceedings. Despite the fact that public tax monies sponsored its original development, it's become a major cash cow for the University of Minnesota, raking in about $1 million a year in royalties. But now, media focus on a bitter professional dispute is causing some in the field to wonder whether the legendary test has seen its day.

"Feud over famed test erupts at U," blared the headline on an in-depth investigation by Maura Lerner of the Minneapolis/St. Paul Star-Tribune.

At issue is last year's "dramatic makeover" of the highly profitable septuagenarian. The slimmed-down MMPI-2-RF (restructured form) has just 338 questions rather than the old test's 567.

Leading the critics is James Butcher, a retired psychologist whose career centered around the old MMPI-2. He claims the MMPI-2-RF is so radically altered that it amounts to a new instrument. "These folks have made a new test and they are using the name MMPI ... with all the 70 years of tradition to market [it]." If he's right, of course, then all of the myriad studies and normative data on the old test are irrelevant to interpreting scores on the MMPI-2-RF.

Of even more direct relevance to us forensic folks is the controversy surrounding the new "Fake Bad Scale." As I've blogged about previously (links below), the "FBS" is being used to brand personal injury claimants as malingerers. Critics say the 43-item scale "discriminates against women and is prone to 'false positives.' "

Defenders of the new test deride critics as "the Mult Cult" (a twist on Multiphasic). And, to be fair, some do have a vested interest in the previous edition: Butcher earns a 30 percent cut of the $600,000 annual royalties on the MMPI-2's computerized interpretation system.

All of the hoopla has led to a series of formal investigations. In one, a university audit revealed that most of the MMPI research grant money was going to projects involving advisory board members of University Press's test division, who in some cases had even reviewed their own grant proposals.

The Press's solution to the controversy, according to the Star Tribune, is to "let the marketplace decide."

Hmmm. Is the marketplace really the best judge of good science?

The hoopla is likely to benefit the MMPI's competitors. In forensic circles, the test's former monopoly hold is giving way as the Personality Assessment Inventory and other newer instruments gain ground.

Whatever side we practicing psychologists choose, the major test distributors won't care. They distribute them all, and they will continue to rake in enormous sums of money. Don't you just love those over-the-top shipping and handling fees charged by you-know-who?

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