A new day dawns and another quiz pops up on your newsfeed claiming it can reveal your personality type. In your quest for self-knowledge, your interest is peaked and you quickly tick the boxes to discover whether you are an introvert or an extravert, or whether you’re right– or left-brained? Kate Barford explores whether it’s possible to truly uncover your personality type.
You’ve probably even come across the popularised Myers-Briggs Type Indictor, which labels personality types with four letters and a title. For example, you might be an ISTJ (Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, Judging) or an ENFP (Extraverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving) – which are often translated into designations such as ‘the inspector’ or ‘the campaigner’. These tests are seductive, promising self-awareness and flattering results, but if you’re looking for real insight into your personality, don’t be fooled. Many scientific-sounding personality tests rest on flimsy evidence.
Unlike pop-science questionnaires, which are ubiquitous on the Internet, the Big Five is a personality measure with robust scientific backing. Although there are a vast number of individual personality traits—stable patterns of emotions, behaviours, cognitions and/or motivations—most personality psychologists agree that related traits can be clustered into five core personality domains:
• Extraversion: the tendency to be outgoing, enthusiastic, and assertive
• Neuroticism: the tendency to experience negative and volatile emotions
• Conscientiousness: the tendency to be reliable and orderly
• Agreeableness: the tendency to be empathic and avoid interpersonal conflict
• Openness/Intellect: the tendency to be creative, curious, and imaginative
So what makes scientifically developed measures like the Big Five better than others you’ve taken online?
Traits are dimensional, not categorical. One issue with many online tests is that they claim to have measured your personality type. But psychologists know that personality traits tend to vary by degree rather than by kind. That is, personality traits are graded dimensions, not simple categories..
Take one of the most interest-generating personality traits, extraversion. Whereas some online tests will tell you if you are an extravert or an introvert, a test of the Big Five will tell you where you fall along the continuous dimension of extraversion. The world is not simply made up of introverts and extraverts (apples and oranges), everyone expresses the trait of extraversion, but in varying degrees (we’re all apples, but some are sweeter than others!). In fact, like many traits, individual differences in extraversion fall on an approximate bell curve, such that few people are very high or very low on the trait, and most people fall somewhere in the middle. If you want to gain true insight into your personality, it may be more informative to know where you fall on dimension of extraversion in relation to others (did you score higher than most people, about average, or lower than average?), rather than whether you are categorically an extravert or an introvert. Several valid online resources can assess where you fall on the Big Five traits relative to other people. The International Personality Item Pool website (ipip.ori.org) is one such resource.
Distinct traits should be measured separately. Another issue with personality scales that were not developed through scientific research is that they may combine or mix up distinct personality traits. For example, the Myers-Briggs seems to combine the low end of the extraversion dimension (commonly known as introversion) with the high end of the openness/intellect dimension. This is where the idea comes from that the quietest people are often the most thoughtful and creative. In stark contrast to this, openness/intellect and extraversion are typically positively associated with one another. So while it’s true that sometimes more introverted people can be more imaginative than some more extraverted people, in general this is not the case.
Your results should be consistent. You may also find that when you take personality tests on social media more than once, you get different results. Personality traits are meant to be stable overtime, so a good measure of your personality will give you similar results if you take it now, or six months from now. Your Big Five traits are most likely stable, whereas you may find that you are an ‘idealist’ type today and a ‘realist’ type tomorrow.
The scale should be useful. Receiving feedback from a personality questionnaire based on research can be like looking into a mirror, whereas feedback from a personality questionnaire that is not research based can be little more helpful than looking up your horoscope. In fact, while some people think zodiac signs can predict the course of a relationship, several studies, including a 2004 study published in European Journal of Personality, have demonstrated that openness/intellect can predict relationship satisfaction. And while some questionnaires can tell you little more about your lifeline than a palm reader, several studies summarised in a 2016 review in the Journal of Personality Assessment show that measures of the Big Five trait ‘conscientiousness’ can predict life expectancy.
If you’re interested in clinical implications of personality testing, a lot of the same rules apply. Whereas in the past, clinicians used diagnostic categories of personality disorders (you either had the disorder or you didn’t) they are moving towards the use of dimensional measures of personality. These clinical measures, such as the Personality Inventory for DSM-5 (PID-5) differ from the Big Five in that they are created to pick up on more extreme expressions of certain traits. Clinical measures of personality traits are then paired with indicators of impairment in self or interpersonal functioning in order to determine whether the extreme expression of personality traits is maladaptive and needs clinical intervention.
Find out whether your personality test has a scientific basis before trusting the results to reveal anything about your true nature.
Rather than thinking about yourself as having a certain personality type, it can be more informative to think about where you fall along certain trait dimensions.
Most personality researchers agree that personality traits can be organised into five broad domains that predict important outcomes: extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness and openness/intellect.
Personality disorders can be thought of as extreme expressions of normal personality traits, paired with experiences of life impairments.
Kate Barford is a personality researcher at the University of Melbourne’s Personality Processes Lab.