The Gittinger Assessment System

The Search for the Manchurian Candidate

John Marks

10. The Gittinger Assessment System

John Gittinger
John Gittinger

With one exception, the CIA’s behavioral research—whether on LSD or on electroshock—seems to have had more impact on the outside world than on Agency operations. That exception grew out of the work of the MKULTRA program’s resident genius, psychologist John Gittinger. While on the CIA payroll, toiling to find ways to manipulate people, Gittinger created a unique system for assessing personality and predicting future behavior. He called his method—appropriately—the Personality Assessment System (PAS). Top Agency officials have been so impressed that they have given the Gittinger system a place in most agent-connected activities. To be sure, most CIA operators would not go nearly so far as a former Gittinger aide who says, “The PAS was the key to the whole clandestine business.” Still, after most of the touted mind controllers had given up or been sent back home, it was Gittinger, the staff psychologist, who sold his PAS system to cynical, anti-gimmick case officers in the Agency’s Clandestine Services. And during the Cuban missile crisis, it was Gittinger who was summoned to the White House to give his advice on how Khrushchev would react to American pressure.

A heavy-set, goateed native of Oklahoma who in his later years came to resemble actor Walter Slezak, Gittinger looked much more like someone’s kindly grandfather than a calculating theoretician. He had an almost insatiable curiosity about personality, and he spent most of his waking hours tinkering with and trying to perfect his system. So obsessed did he become that he always had the feeling even after other researchers had verified large chunks of the PAS and after the CIA had put it into operational use—that the whole thing was “a kind of paranoid delusion.”

Gittinger started working on his system even before he joined the CIA in 1950. Prior to that, he had been director of psychological services at the state hospital in Norman, Oklahoma. His high-sounding title did not reflect the fact that he was the only psychologist on the staff. A former high school guidance counselor and Naval lieutenant commander during World War II, he was starting out at age 30 with a master’s degree. Every day he saw several hundred patients whose mental problems included virtually everything in the clinical textbooks.

Numerous tramps and other itinerants, heading West in search of the good life in California, got stuck in Oklahoma during the cold winter months and managed to get themselves admitted to Gittinger’s hospital. In warmer seasons of the year, quite a few of them worked, when they had to, as cooks or dishwashers in the short-order hamburger stands that dotted the highways in the days before fast food. They functioned perfectly well in these jobs until freezing nights drove them from their outdoor beds. The hospital staff usually called them “seasonal schizophrenics” and gave them shelter until spring. Gittinger included them in the psychological tests he was so fond of running on his patients.

As he measured the itinerants on the Wechsler intelligence scale, a standard IQ test with 11 parts,[1] Gittinger made a chance observation that became, he says, the “bedrock” of his whole system. He noticed that the short-order cooks tended to do well on the digit-span subtest which rated their ability to remember numbers. The dishwashers, in contrast, had a poor memory for digits. Since the cooks had to keep track of many complex orders—with countless variations of medium rare, onions, and hold-the-mayo—their retentive quality served them well.

Gittinger also noticed that the cooks had different personality traits than the dishwashers. The cooks seemed able to maintain a high degree of efficiency in a distracting environment while customers were constantly barking new orders at them. They kept their composure by falling back on their internal resources and generally shutting themselves off from the commotion around them. Gittinger dubbed this personality type, which was basically inner-directed, an “Internalizer” (abbreviated “I”). The dishwashers, on the other hand, did not have the ability to separate themselves from the external world. In order to perform their jobs, they had to be placed off in some far corner of the kitchen with their dirty pots and pans, or else all the tumult of the place diverted them from their duty. Gittinger called the dishwasher type an “Externalizer” (E). He found that if he measured a high digit span in any person—not just a short-order cook—he could make a basic judgment about personality.

From observation, Gittinger concluded that babies were born with distinct personalities which then were modified by environmental factors. The Internalized—or I—baby was caught up in himself and tended to be seen as a passive child; hence, the world usually called him a “good baby.” The E tot was more interested in outside stimuli and attention, and thus was more likely to cause his parents problems by making demands. Gittinger believed that the way parents and other authority figures reacted to the child helped to shape his personality. Adults often pressured or directed the I child to become more outgoing and the E one to become more self-sufficient. Gittinger found he could measure the compensations, or adjustments, the child made on another Wechsler subtest, the one that rated arithmetic ability. He noticed that in later life, when the person was subject to stress, these compensations tended to disappear, and the person reverted to his original personality type. Gittinger wrote that his system “makes possible the assessment of fundamental discrepancies between the surface personality and the underlying personality structure—discrepancies that produce tension, conflict, and anxiety.”

Besides the E-I dimensions, Gittinger identified two other fundamental sets of personality characteristics that he could measure with still other Wechsler subtests. Depending on how a subject did on the block design subtest, Gittinger could tell if he were Regulated (R) or Flexible (F). The Regulated person had no trouble learning by rote but usually did not understand what he learned. The Flexible individual, on the other hand, had to understand something before he learned it. Gittinger noted that R children could learn to play the piano moderately well with comparatively little effort. The F child most often hated the drudgery of piano lessons, but Gittinger observed that the great concert pianists tended to be Fs who had persevered and mastered the instrument.

Other psychologists had thought up personality dimensions similar to Gittinger’s E and I, R and F. even if they defined them somewhat differently. Gittinger’s most original contribution came in a third personality dimension, which revealed how well people were able to adapt their social behavior to the demands of the culture they lived in. Gittinger found he could measure this dimension with the picture arrangement Wechsler subtest, and he called it the Role Adaptive (A) or Role Uniform (U). It corresponded to “charisma,” since other people were naturally attracted to the A person while they tended to ignore the U.

All this became immensely more complicated as Gittinger measured compensations and modifications with other Wechsler subtests. This complexity alone worked against the acceptance of his system by the outside world, as did the fact that he based much of it on ideas that ran contrary to accepted psychological doctrine—such as his heretical notion that genetic differences existed. It did not help, either, that Gittinger was a non-Ph.D. whose theory sprang from the kitchen habits of vagrants in Oklahoma.

Any one of these drawbacks might have stifled Gittinger in the academic world, but to the pragmatists in the CIA, they were irrelevant. Gittinger’s strange ideas seemed to work. With uncanny accuracy, he could look at nothing more than a subject’s Wechsler numbers, pinpoint his weaknesses, and show how to turn him into an Agency spy. Once Gittinger’s boss, Sid Gottlieb, and other high CIA officials realized how Gittinger’s PAS could be used to help case officers handle agents, they gave the psychologist both the time and money to improve his system under the auspices of the Human Ecology Society.

Although he was a full-time CIA employee, Gittinger worked under Human Ecology cover through the 1950s. Agency officials considered the PAS to be one of the Society’s greatest triumphs, definitely worth continuing after the Society was phased out. In 1962 Gittinger and his co-workers moved their base of operations from the Human Ecology headquarters in New York to a CIA proprietary company, set up especially for them in Washington and called Psychological Assessment Associates. Gittinger served as president of the company, whose cover was to provide psychological services to American firms overseas. He personally opened a branch office in Tokyo (later moved to Hong Kong) to service CIA stations in the Far East. The Washington staff, which grew to about 15 professionals during the 1960s, handled the rest of the world by sending assessment specialists off for temporary visits.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in Human Ecology grants and then even more money in Psychological Assessment contracts—all CIA funds—flowed out to verify and expand the PAS. For example, the Society gave about $140,000 to David Saunders of the Educational Testing Service, the company that prepares the College Board exams. Saunders, who knew about the Agency’s involvement, found a correlation between brain (EEG) patterns and results on the digit-span test, and he helped Gittinger apply the system to other countries. In this regard, Gittinger and his colleagues understood that the Wechsler battery of subtests had a cultural bias and that a Japanese E had a very different personality from, say, a Russian E. To compensate, they worked out localized versions of the PAS for various nations around the world.

While at the Human Ecology group, Gittinger supervised much of the Society’s other research in the behavioral sciences, and he always tried to interest Society grantees in his system. He looked for ways to mesh their research with his theories—and vice versa. Some, like Carl Rogers and Charles Osgood, listened politely and did not follow up. Yet Gittinger would always learn something from their work that he could apply to the PAS. A charming man and a skillful raconteur, Gittinger convinced quite a few of the other grantees of the validity of his theories and the importance of his ideas. Careful not to threaten the egos of his fellow professionals, he never projected an air of superiority. Often he would leave people even the skeptical—openmouthed in awe as he painted unnervingly accurate personality portraits of people he had never met. Indeed, people frequently accused him of somehow having cheated by knowing the subject in advance or peeking at his file.

Gittinger patiently and carefully taught his system to his colleagues, who all seem to have views of him that range from great respect to pure idolatry. For all his willingness to share the PAS, Gittinger was never able to show anyone how to use the system as skillfully as he did. Not that he did not try; he simply was a more talented natural assessor than any of the others. Moreover, his system was full of interrelations and variables that he instinctively understood but had not bothered to articulate. As a result, he could look at Wechsler scores and pick out behavior patterns which would be valid and which no one else had seen. Even after Agency officials spent a small fortune trying to computerize the PAS, they found, as one psychologist puts it, the machine “couldn’t tie down all the variables” that Gittinger was carrying around in his head.

Some Human Ecology grantees, like psychiatrist Robert Hyde, were so impressed with Gittinger’s system that they made the PAS a major part of their own research. Hyde routinely gave Wechslers to his subjects before plying them with liquor, as part of the Agency’s efforts to find out how people react to alcohol. In 1957 Hyde moved his research team from Boston Psychopathic Hospital, where he had been America’s first LSD tripper, to Butler Health Center in Providence. There, with Agency funds, Hyde built an experimental party room in the hospital, complete with pinball machine, dartboard, and bamboo bar stools. From behind a two-way mirror, psychologists watched the subjects get tipsy and made careful notes on their reaction to alcohol. Not surprisingly, the observers found that pure Internalizers became more withdrawn after several drinks, and that uncompensated Es were more likely to become garrulous—in essence, sloppy drunks. Thus Gittinger was able to make generalizations about the different ways an I or an E responded to alcohol.[2] Simply by knowing how people scored on the Wechsler digit-span test, he could predict how they would react to liquor. Hyde and Harold Abramson at Mount Sinai Hospital made the same kind of observations for LSD finding, among other things, that an E was more likely than an I to have a bad trip. (Apparently, an I is more accustomed than an E to “being into his own head” and losing touch with external reality.)

At Gittinger’s urging, other Human Ecology grantees gave the Wechsler battery to their experimental subjects and sent him the scores. He was building a unique data base on all phases of human behavior, and he needed samples of as many distinct groups as possible. By getting the scores of actors, he could make generalizations about what sort of people made good role-players. Martin Orne at Harvard sent in scores of hypnosis subjects, so Gittinger could separate the personality patterns of those who easily went into a trance from those who could not be hypnotized. Gittinger collected Wechslers of businessmen, students, high-priced fashion models, doctors, and just about any other discrete group he could find a way to have tested. In huge numbers, the Wechslers came flowing in—29,000 sets in all by the early 1970s—each one accompanied by biographic data. With the 10 subtests he used and at least 10 possible scores on each of those, no two Wechsler results in the whole sample ever looked exactly the same. Gittinger kept a computer printout of all 29,000 on his desk, and he would fiddle with them almost every day—looking constantly for new truths that could be drawn out of them.

John Gittinger was interested in all facets of personality, but because he worked for the CIA, he emphasized deviant forms. He particularly sought out Wechslers of people who had rejected the values of their society or who had some vice—hidden or otherwise—that caused others to reject them. By studying the scores of the defectors who had come over to the West, Gittinger hoped to identify common characteristics of men who had become traitors to their governments. If there were identifiable traits, Agency operators could look for them in prospective spies. Harris Isbell, who ran the MKULTRA drug-testing program at the Lexington, Kentucky detention hospital, sent in the scores of heroin addicts. Gittinger wanted to know what to look for in people susceptible to drugs. The Human Ecology project at Ionia State Hospital in Michigan furnished Wechslers of sexual psychopaths. These scores showed that people with uncontrollable urges have different personality patterns than so-called normals. Gittinger himself journeyed to the West Coast to test homosexuals, lesbians, and the prostitutes he interviewed under George White’s auspices in the San Francisco safehouse. With each group, he separated out the telltale signs that might be a future indicator of their sexual preference in others. Gittinger understood that simply by looking at the Wechsler scores of someone newly tested, he could pick out patterns that corresponded to behavior of people in the data base.

The Gittinger system worked best when the TSS staff had a subject’s Wechsler scores to analyze, but Agency officials could not very well ask a Russian diplomat or any other foreign target to sit down and take the tests. During World War II, OSS chief William Donovan had faced a similar problem in trying to find out about Adolf Hitler’s personality, and Donovan had commissioned psychoanalyst Walter Langer to make a long-distance psychiatric profile of the German leader. Langer had sifted through all the available data on the Führer, and that was exactly what Gittinger’s TSS assessments staff did when they lacked direct contact (and when they had it, too). They pored over all the intelligence gathered by operators, agents, bugs, and taps and looked at samples of a man’s handwriting.[3] The CIA men took the process of “indirect assessment” one step further than Langer had, however. They observed the target’s behavior and looked for revealing patterns that corresponded with traits already recorded among the subjects of the 29,000 Wechsler samples.

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