Personality Testing: What exactly are we measuring here?

Personality testing is done by many professionals in the field of psychology. Individual counseling, job placement, mental health screening, dating and more are all forms of personality testing.

What is personality testing?

Personality testing is an attempt to measure or assess the psychological makeup of an individual. With dozens of theories and approaches to personality, the content, structure and results of a personality test will be varied. This multi-billion dollar industry aims to understand the elements of personality, attempt to predict future behavior, and better grasp the character of a person.

What elements of personality are measured by personality testing?

The specific components that are measured in tests will fluctuate with the theory that the test is founded on. Theories of personality have great variability in explaining the causes, elements, and manifestation of personality. Some theories are biological, social, learned, behavioral, and more. What each theory claims as personality will dictate what is being measured.

History of Personality Testing

At one time, phrenology, a now discarded practice aimed to understand personality through the shape of someone’s skull was used. Then, personality was actually assessed and explained based on a person’s outer appearance and the subsequent traits that would accompany those physical traits. Today, with a better understanding of personality tests are generally based off traits and actual personality factors. While there are many approaches, the physical assessments in personality are no longer any sort of a factor in personality. Overtime, the factors have evolved, and will continue to.

Types of Personality Tests

  • Grouping Tests Often, personality tests will attempt to assign people to a group, like the Myers Briggs (INTJ, ESFP, etc.) or Type A/B. People will be “assigned” to a group or type that best explains the personality traits of people in those groups, based off responses. Generally, people within those groups will share common personality traits and the labels and names of the groups will vary.
  • Trait Tests Other personality tests measure a level of traits, like Big 5 or The 16 Personality Factors.  This assumes that all people have some level of that trait and it is a matter of how much. The traits measured also will have significant variability from test to test, but all people have some measure of the traits.
  • Mental Health Screening These personality tests are designed to screen for mental health issues and disorders. The Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) has a variety of uses, including screening for mental health disorders. In this instance a test will help determine if a person meets the criteria for a mental health diagnosis based of the DSM-5 (The diagnosing Bible of mental health disorders).

Positive Elements to Personality Testing

  • Self Awareness Personality testing allows people to better understand themselves. It gives an idea of traits that they may have, or a group that shares commonalities.  This can allow people that are having issues in some area of life, like being overly neurotic, to measure, analyze, quantify, and improve. Sometimes people have little self-awareness, and these tests can help.
  • Employment and Hiring Assessments of personality have long been used in personnel and employment decisions. This can help be useful for human resources to get the best people into the appropriate positions and help the building of teams. Getting a blend of personalities is important, and finding the best job for each unique personality will also be useful.
  • Career Development and Planning Many people take personality tests in school at some point. This is often done to help guide people on certain careers that may be congruent with their personality. Aligning personality type and employment is best for not only employers and productivity, but also for the employees overall happiness and functioning.
  • Relationships and Dating The interaction between people is important, and personalities can often harmonize or clash. Dating is an area where personality testing has become more popular. Online dating websites, like e-harmony, use a variety of personality tests to pair people with compatible partners. Understanding your personality can help you to find healthy relationships.

Negative Elements to Personality Testing

  • Overly Simplistic While there are many positive elements to personality testing, there are also many drawbacks as well. Many personality tests are overly simplistic. People are extremely elaborate and more than just an A or B. There is much more that goes into the construct of a personality, many tests attempt to simplify a person to a category or trait, and this is short sided, ignores many factors, and is often just too simple.
  • Debate about what is personality, traits, and assessments There are dozens of theories of personality, hundreds of traits that are analyzed, and an array of measurements for personality. Finding universal agreement between people and experts is difficult, and probably a combination paints the most accurate picture.
  • Test Format and structure Some personality tests include several hundred questions (the MMPI has 567 yes or no questions). This is not likely the best way to measure personality as it forces people to choose yes or no, when for many people the answer is sometimes or maybe. These tests are generally very boring and long-winded and there can be issues within the test that are leading a person in a certain direction.
  • Mood Tests Some assessments are actually measuring more of a mood or emotion, which is more short-term and fluid than personality. People will often think back to an immediate situation or circumstance and answer based on that as opposed to how they generally would respond, which is more personality.
  • The Self Fulfilling Prophecy Essentially, if people are told that they are a certain way (like kind or intelligent) it is likely to impact the way they act in the future. By assigning labels, people will often feel that is how they are suppose to act. This can be done subconsciously or intentionally. By identifying a person as being neurotic can enable more neurotic behavior to continue.
  • The Misuse of Personality Tests Most assessments are created have specific settings, populations, goals, and applicability. Often, tests will be used in a manner other than as intended, which can be harmful and lead to inaccurate results and have major drawbacks.
  • Labeling When identifying people as being in a certain group, or having high levels of a specific trait that may be negative it can be hurtful. The can be negative consequences like worsening of the trait, mental health issues, withdrawal, or even suicide in extreme cases.

Regardless, of your view of personality testing, it is here to stay. With many negatives, it is important to understand the responsibility of personality testing. Understand that if you take one personality test it is not the end-all-be-all of explaining your personality. Just merely one assessment.

Take Personality Test Results with a Grain of Salt

If you took a personality test, you were issued some sort of results. Remember, not necessarily better or worse, but more a categorization or measure of some level or trait. It is one opinion. Take the positive you can, learn about yourself and how can you grow. Don’t get hung up on it and obsess, focus on the positive and how you can be the best version of yourself that you can.