Personality testing: how and why it is done

Did you know that your birth order can determine your personality? This is surprising yet completely true. Researchers have found quite a lot of evidence on this topic. More on that later. For now, let’s talk about what personality is and why personality testing is useful. To put it simply, personality is a combination of thoughts, feelings, and behaviour that makes each one of us special. There have been a lot of theories on what personality truly is. These stretch anywhere from genetic explanations to influences of environment and experience. More on these later as well.

Personality testing has become quite popular now, decades after its first invention during world war 1. For instance, they have now become popular recruitment and career development tools for organizations. In fact, some estimates suggest that around 60% of employees have to take assessments such as personality tests. Furthermore, according to a 2014 survey about 22% of major companies use personality tests to assess job applicants. This means there is a chance you may have already come across them when applying for a job or will come across one in the future. However, this article will only focus on personality testing done by health professionals in clinical settings. Let’s explore deeper into the world of clinical personality testing to find out why they are done, how they are done, and the types of tests.


A run-through on personality

Let’s break the concept of personality down to its building blocks. There are many ways to define personality but none of them is complete answers. In a way, personality is a complicated concept. However, most theoretical explanations have two things in common. They focus on motivation and a person’s psychological connections with their environment. In addition, some theories define it as a set of traits that predict behaviour whereas others claim that it is a result of learning. On the whole, most of these theories consider personality as a stable thing that really doesn’t change much over time.


Famous theorists and their theories

personality testing Infographic

Gordon Allport’s trait theory

Gordon Willard Allport was a 20th century American Psychologist who is famously known as one of the founders of personality psychology. After going through an English dictionary, he found that there were more than 4000 words in it that explained personality traits. Subsequently, Allport picked these traits out and grouped them into three large groups, creating a whole new personality theory.

  • Cardinal traits: These traits are dominant, rare, and develop later in life. In fact, they are so dominant that they tend to decide a person’s personality almost fully. For instance, mother Theresa’s altruism and Adolph Hitler’s ruthlessness. This is exactly what makes them so rare. Very few people have personalities defined by just one trait. Instead, it is usually a mixture of traits.
  • Central traits: Somewhat dominant traits. They aren’t nearly as dominant as cardinal traits, however, they form the foundation or most descriptive trait of a person’s personality. Simply, these are what you would use to describe a person. Eg: Intelligent, shy, honest, and loving.
  • Secondary traits: are often attitudes or preferences. They are not present all the time and are dependent on the environment and situations. For example, fear of public speaking or getting angry when standing in long queues.


Psychodynamic theory

Psychodynamic theory isn’t just one theory of personality. Instead, it is a combination of the theories of many theorists. However, there is one thing in common. They are all influenced by and based on the work of Sigmund Freud, who is perhaps the most popular man in the field of psychology and psychiatry. He was an Austrian neurologist who rose to fame in the early 20th century.

Freuds brought quite a lot of new ideas to the table throughout his lifetime. Nonetheless, most present-day experts claim that some of these are controversial and unscientific. Some critics even go as far as to say they are completely shocking and wrong. For instance, one of these is his theory of the Oedipus complex. It suggests that children have repressed feelings of desire towards the parent of the opposite sex and feelings of anger and jealousy towards the parent of the same sex.

Despite having a “controversial” label on him, Freud has a lot of fresh new ideas. He completely changed the way we looked at mental illness by suggesting that psychological problems can be a result of early childhood trauma. We now know this is in fact true. The psychodynamic perspective to personality was one of these revolutionary ideas.

According to Freud and other theorists of the psychodynamic perspective. Personality is a result of childhood experience and internal conflicts of the unconscious mind. Simply put, when we grow up we go through a range of developmental stages and each of these stages comes with specific conflicts that we must overcome to successfully move on to the next stage. Failure to do so will lead to something called “fixation” or a developmental problem.


The big five model

The big five Model or the big five is what we call a “trait theory of personality”. Most modern experts agree with the idea behind the theory which claims that personality has 5 dimensions, making it very popular. It was first developed by two American psychologists, Robert McCrae and Paul Costa in the late 20th century. Each trait in this model has a spectrum. For instance, if you were to measure your level of extroversion, you will not be classified as extroverted on introverted. Instead, you will have a score on the extroversion scale. The higher you rank the more extroverted you are and the lower you rank the more introverted.

The 5 big traits

  • Openness: people who rank high on an openness scale tend to be more creative, adventurous, and intelligent. They enjoy playing with new ideas and experiencing new things. In contrast, people who rank low on the scale tend to be more practical, traditional, and less adventurous.
  • Conscientiousness: those who are high in conscientiousness are persistent, organized, and determined. They are able to move past immediate gratification to achieve long-term goals. People who are lower on this scale are impulsive and easily distracted.
  • Extroversion: Extroverts are people who seek high levels of stimulation from the outside world. They enjoy being the centre of attention and engage actively with others to form exciting relationships. Introverts on the other hand are complete opposites. They are more laid-back, thoughtful, and tend to keep their emotions private. Furthermore, they like to spend time in small groups and one-on-one relationships or just be alone. However, if you rank in the middle of the scale, you probably show characteristics of both introversion and extraversion. We call this state “ambiversion”.
  • Agreeableness: refers to a person’s tendency to prioritize other’s needs over their own. People with a high agreeableness score are very empathic and get pleasure in caring for others. In contrast, people who are on the other end of the scale are less empathetic and put their own needs over others.
  • Neuroticism: neurotic people respond to stressors and situations with negative emotions, including fear, sadness, anxiety, guilt, and shame. On the other hand, less neurotic people emotionally stable handles stress well, relaxed, and do not worry a lot.  


Factors that influence personality

Aside from the theories mentioned, there are a lot of others theories on personality out there. Most of them are really interesting and we recommend that you do read up on them. Nonetheless, a repeating theme in them is factors that influence personality. These include genes, environment, and situations.

When you are born you already have genes that influence your personality that comes from your parents. This is the reason why a lot of children can grow up to be like their parents. Furthermore, personality is not decided by one single gene or gene sequence, instead, it is a result of many genes working together. Some genes work to increase given characteristics and others work to decrease them. Complex relationships between them and the environment and situation create the final product.

We mentioned in the introduction that birth order can influence personality. You probably have heard the statement “First-born children are bossy and responsible while last-born children are irresponsible and reckless”. But is there any truth to it? Turns out there may be. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found out that first-born children from a large sample of participants scored high on intelligence tests. They also indicated that birth order has an influence over personality traits such as extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness.


History of personality testing

“Phrenology” was the earliest form of personality testing. It started in the late 18th century and was done by measuring bumps on the skull to predict mental traits. Experts today think that it is nothing more than a form of pseudoscience. However, personality tests only rose to popularity in the 20th century, with Robert S. Woodsworth’s 1919 Woodworth Personal Data Sheet. Its aim was to screen out soldiers who were vulnerable to shell shock during the first world war.

Following closely, many other personality tests started to come out for use in the industry. Their primary focus was to detect employee maladjustment and screen out employees who might create workplace disturbances.


Why take a personality test?

Moving on from history, let’s talk about the reasons behind personality testing. Simply put, personality tests are tools that access human personality. How they do this is by measuring the characteristic patterns of traits that people display in various situations. Mental health professionals often use personality tests for diagnostic purposes, as a guide to therapeutic interventions, and to make behavioural predictions in different situations. They are also useful in creating a good treatment plan. On the other hand, personality tests can help patients get a better understanding of themselves.

A personality test is not just one test. Instead, they are various types of tests including interviews, rating scales, and projective tests.


Clinical interviews

Clinical interviews are mostly used by mental health professionals to accurately diagnose mental disorders such as personality disorders. These interviews are very action-based and the roots are clearly identified. Most of the questions asked will be about your life history, your family, and your relationships. The questions may be structured, unstructured, or semistructured. It depends on the setting, your medical health professional’s preference, and how they want to gather information.

Structured interview questions are pre-planned and listed down, hence the same questions will be asked from every patient in the same way. The questions asked in a structured interview have been researched to decide if they are reliable and whether they obtain useful and valid information. An unstructured interview allows the clinician to go with the flow and ask questions that they think are necessary. Semi-structured interviews combine both types of questions. For instance, The Diagnostic Interview for Personality Disorders (DIPD) is a semi-structured interview of 252 questions that is often very useful in screening for personality disorders.


Types of clinical interviews

Mental health professionals use different types of interviews, depending on the situation. The two most common of these are the intake interview and the mental status exam.

The intake interview happens when you first go to see a mental health professional. This is where you will be asked questions about your life history and medical history along with more questions about your childhood and development, relational patterns, and friendships. Information gathered here helps the health professional get an overview of what your problems are, understand your personality, and decide on a treatment path.

A mental status exam is a clinical interview that looks at more than just the answers to questions. The clinician will look at behaviours, appearance, attitude, and movements, as well as answers to questions. Consequently, it helps them understand what your mental health is like.

In special cases, your clinician may request to interview your family members or people with you who have a close relationship. This is only done after getting the written consent from both groups. The purpose behind this is to decrease bias and compare the differences in perspectives.


Rating scales

Rating scales are most likely the oldest personality testing tools. Each question on a rating scale has multiple answers for the test taker to choose from, making its structure similar to a multiple-choice question paper. These scales can either be used by an observer or by yourself for self-reporting. They normally assess problems in behaviour, social skills, and emotional functioning; are greatly useful in assessing personality development, adaptive behaviour, and emotional functioning in social settings. Most ratings are easy to administer, score, and understand which makes them a flexible tool for assessment.

Rating scales come in many different types. The most common of them are Observer/Informant Scales and Self-Report Scales.


Observer/Informant scales

The purpose of observer/Informant scales is to collect data that may not be available to your mental health professional. For example, what you are like at home or your behaviour in normal social settings. Consequently, a family member, a teacher, a friend, or someone close to you must fill them for you.

Mental health professionals use them to access the frequency of certain behaviour and skills based on what the respondents record. Depending on the possibility and situations, they sometimes ask multiple people to act as assessors/respondents to reduce bias in answers.

Spouse-Report Personality Measures are an example for observer/informant scales. As its name suggests, one of the two people in a marital relationship has to fill it. They are a useful tool in the field of couple therapy.


Self-report scales

Self-report scales are for the test taker (you) to fill. It involves reading a question and rating it based on how well it applies to you. For instance “I work well with others”. Often, your clinician will use these scales alongside observer/informant scales, so that they can compare how you think about yourself in contrast to how others think about you. Furthermore, these scales are readily available on the internet. You may have already come across these. However, it is important to keep in mind that their reliability or validity may below. We recommend that you see a health expert if you are serious about getting a personality test.

A few examples for Self-report scales are The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), The 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire, California Personality Inventory, and Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ).

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI)

One of the most popular self-report scales of personality out there. It is used by mental health professionals and consists of 567 true-false questions which take approximately 60 to 90 minutes to complete. The MMPI-2-RF, an updated version of the MMPI with higher accuracy and validity has 338 true-false questions, taking 35 to 50 minutes to finish.

The 16 Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF)

Another popular personality test used by mental health professionals. It was first released in 1993 and was developed by Raymond B. Cattell to access people based on his trait theory of personality. The theory was based on Gordon Allport’s trait theory, however, instead of three trait groups, Callell suggested that there are 16 personality dimensions. Everyone has all the traits in these dimensions to a certain degree.

California Psychological Inventory (CPI)

CPI is used to access a patient’s social communication and interpersonal behaviour. Specifically, it can predict their reactions or what they will do under certain conditions. The test scale has 434 true-false questions, out of which 171 are from the original version of the MMPI. Furthermore, it is usually used with people who are over the age of 13 and takes around 45-60 minutes to complete.

Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ) 

Much like the 16PF test, the EPQ also measures people’s personalities in terms of their personality traits. Its creators, Hans Jürgen Eysenck and Sybil B. G. Eysenck put it together in 1964 based on Han’s theory of personality. His theory was mainly based on two large concepts: genetics and physiology. To illustrate, he believed that differences in our personality are mainly decided by the genes that are passed down from our parents.

The original questionnaire had 90 questions. However, the test was changed again a few years later to make it shorter (EPQ-R). This version only had around 36 questions. Both of the tests measure 3 dimensions of personality including extraversion, neuroticism, psychoticism.


Projective tests

During a projective personality test, you will be presented with a vague scene, object, or scenario and asked to give your interpretation of it. There are no right or wrong answers. Your answers will provide an overview of your personality to the accessor. The origin of projective tests has its roots in psychoanalysis. A field that originally founded by Sigmund Freud. Psychoanalysts believe that all people have unconscious throughs and urge that determine their personality. We already covered this under the topic: “psychodynamic theory”. Subsequently, projective tests can reveal feelings, desires, and conflicts that are otherwise hidden from conscious awareness.

The most popular projective test in history was most probably The Rorschach Inkblot Test. In addition, tests such as Holtzman Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), Draw-A-Person test are also in the same league.


The Rorschach Inkblot Test

The Rorschach Test was one of the first projective psychological tests. Hermann Rorschach developed the test in 1921 as a tool to measure thought disorders and identify mental illnesses. More specifically, to identify patients suffering from schizophrenia. Rorschach got the idea to create the test after making an observation that most patients with schizophrenia often interpret or see normal things in unusual ways. Today, the Rorschach test is mainly used in the fields of counselling and psychotherapy to obtain information such as personality, emotional functioning, and thinking patterns, of patients.

Now on to the testing process. A series of 10 inkblot cards are presented to the participant. After each card, the participant is given some time to memorize it. Subsequently, they are asked to describe the image in the way they see it. There is no specific time frame for the description process. Participants can take any amount of time they want or even provide a lot of descriptions about one image. The examiner (usually a trained mental health professional) will take a record of everything the participant says and does during the test including responses, emotional reactions, and non-verbal gestures.

Finally, they will run the participant through the test again to see if there are any changes in the answers and to try and step into their shoes. To do this the examiner will ask questions such as: “what did you originally see?”, “What features of the image make it look like that?”.


Holtzman Inkblot Test

This test is a variation of The Rorschach Inkblot Test and uses the same technique to measure personality. However, it has a much larger collection of images (45 inkblot images). Wayne H. Holtzman and his colleagues developed the Holtzman Inkblot Test in 1961 as an attempt to address some problems surrounding the Rorschach Inkblot Test. Its main differences are in the objective scoring criteria as well as limiting subjects to one response per card to avoid getting a lot of different answers.


The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

TAT is generally called the “picture interpretation technique,”. It was created by American psychologists Henry A. Murray and Christina D. Morgan at Harvard University in the 1930s. Just like the Rorschach Inkblot Test, it is also widely used in both research and clinical fields.

The test involves showing participants a series of picture cards that contain a lot of vague figures including men, women, and/or children, scenes, and situations. The examiner then asks them to create and tell a story for each of the figures in the images, along 4 topics:

  • What has led up to the event shown
  • What is happening at the moment
  • Thoughts and feelings of the characters
  • The outcome of the story

The complete version of the test has 32 cards. However, most practitioners who use the test now only use around 5 to 12 cards based on the participant’s needs and situation. The same goes for the scenes on the cards. Examiners often only use the ones that they think will get the most information out of the client.


Draw-A-Person test

Just like the name suggests, the draw-a-person test is about drawing a person. Examiners then use psychoanalysis (explained above) to interpret the details of the drawing including size, shape, and complexity of the facial features, clothing, and background of the figure. The test is very useful in accessing children and takes only about 15 minutes to complete.


Tips for personality testing

Now that we have discussed quite a few personality tests that you could take, here are three tips on how to go through with them.

1. Answer honestly

It is really important that you are honest when answering a personality test if you want the score to be correct. After all, personality tests are all about determining your character traits. However, it is best if you could change your point of view depending on the environment of the test. For example, if you are taking the test as a job applicant, it is best if you could answer the questions from the point of view of your working behaviour rather than personal or social behaviour. This is because employers usually only want to access your work performance.

2. Read the instructions carefully

Rating scales, which are probably the most common type of personality tests, often come with instructions on how to fill them. These tests don’t all have the same format, structure, or questions. Therefore, you need to read all the instructions mentioned on the top of the page fully before you start, even if you have filled a personality test before.

3. Don’t try to choose the “ideal answer”

This is something to keep in mind, especially for a job applicant. Most tests that employers give you in the recruitment process are designed to pick out people who are trying to fill in every question with the ideal answer. Even in a clinical test, doing this would make it difficult for your clinician to gather the information that they want. A situation like that would make the process of treatment much more difficult than it needs to be.


A word of farewell

We hope that this article gave you a clear overview of personality testing and the complicated concept of human personality. Nonetheless, there is still so much about personality that we are unable to put into a single article. Its domain is massive and it is a major part of the research in many fields including psychology, medicine, and evolutionary science. Therefore, if you want to truly dive deep into the concept, we recommend that you don’t stop here.

Conclusively, personality tests are pretty common in the present day and age. It is likely that you may have to complete one for your next job offer or you may have already had to complete one. In clinical settings, personality tests are very useful in patient diagnosis, guiding therapeutic interventions, and predicting how patients react to different situations. Basically, they are standard practice in the treatment/diagnosis of most mental health problems.

If you are going through a mental health crisis and want to get a personality test we recommend that you steer away from the tests on the internet and meet a professional. Here at Epsychiatry, we have well-trained and experienced psychologists and psychiatrists who can help you with every part of the testing process. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us and book an appointment with one of them. You are not alone.