“Describe your mother.”

Meet Question #31 on a friend’s take-home written exam a few decades back: part of a daunting job application process.

A job requiring knowledge of the techniques of descriptive writing, presumably?


Oh. A job requiring skills in observation?


Oh. Then at least a job requiring the successful applicant to recognize said mother, from time to time?


What, then?

A job in technical management.


Fascinated by this use of psychological screening ““ for such it seemed to be ““ I asked what, was, really, a psychological screening question of my own.

“What will you say?”

“Warm and caring bleached blonde.”

I was stumped for a comeback. Having met said mother, I couldn’t argue with the accuracy of the description, but something about the proposed approach seemed, in context, to be sub-optimal.

I didn’t know what this test was testing for – not in its entirety and not this one question ““ and yet there was something seductively intuitive about it. After all, a well-balanced adult should be able to describe their mother dispassionately, shouldn’t they?

But as I thought about it, I realized that seeing “dispassionate” as the target revealed something about how I was designed, but not necessarily how the test was. After all, maybe they were looking for a description that was warm. Or coherent. Or fair. Or thoughtful. Or non-judgmental. Or accurate. Or humorous. Or all of the above.

The more I thought, the confuser I got.

How would the evaluators even know whether the description was dispassionate or warm or coherent or fair or thoughtful or non-judgmental or accurate or humorous? Unless, of course, they also knew said mother, which seemed unlikely. Yikes. This was more complicated than it looked.

When in doubt, simplify. In this case, reframing the question might dial down the complications and potential pitfalls of the high emotional investment on both sides of the whole mother thing. I finally had my comeback.

“Maybe you’d do better to describe my mother.”


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6 Responses to Psych!

  1. Tom Watson says:

    Looked like one of those “slippery slope questions” to me…the answer peppered with landmines.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Yeah, it’s hard to see a safe path through it. It puts the standard “What are your weaknesses?” into perspective.

  2. A job in technical management includes your capacity for describing your own mother? I think the person screening for applicants has no idea what the job entails and probably has some false Freudian notions floating in his subconscious to impair his judgement. Replace the personnel director and start over.
    I have in a file somewhere the pretentious assessment of my intelligence and personality by a professional psychologist I went to see in the midst of job-hunting in my youth. When I occasionally run across it I am comforted to know how uselessly limiting most of these enterprises are.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    On such a question, the desire to ingratiate myself with the corporate officer, and my intuitive desire to puncture balloons, would have been in conflict. I would probably have said something about a mother who was warm, gracious, polite, taught good behaviour, etc., expecting that might earn me some Brownie points. But something inside would have suspected that no one paid attention to the answers anyway, which would have made me want to answer, “I didn’t have one,” just to see what happened.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, it doesn’t bring out the best in me either. Or maybe that tendency to poke fun is my best . . .

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