Monday, 17 August 2020

Personality testing

A phrenological diagram
(Combes, 1934, p. 20, citing Dolci, 1562)
We often conflate assessments into one pile: those of personality tests. So what are personality tests?

"Personality tests are are self-report questionnaires in which the respondent provides information about [their] feelings or behaviors". Personality plays "a significant role in helping people determine occupations that may or may not be a good match for them", with the matching self-knowledge growing from self-reflection (Greenhaus & Callanan, 2006, p. 633).

This understanding of ourselves brings "a better understanding of which occupations and career paths would better match [our] interests and personality. Being honest with ourselves about who we are and our strengths and weaknesses can help us choose situations that we will be comfortable in, as well as make us aware of situations that we might want to avoid" (Greenhaus & Callanan, 2006, p. 633).

Interestingly, psychologists agree that "the optimal personality test is one that measures the Big Five personality dimensions: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness to experience. [...] Literally hundreds of personality tests have been used for selection; however, tests of the Big Five are among a very small group of such tests that have demonstrated value in selection" (Greenhaus & Callanan, 2006, p. 633).

It is surprising how few tests have been rigorously tested (Cripps, 2017; Osborn & Zunker, 2016). However, there are barriers to personality testing: many tests are proprietary, requiring the permission of the owners before any research can take place; we need a stable population to be able to test and re-test on; we need to be immensely careful about how questions are asked; we need to be very careful of participant bias, of researcher bias, of sample size, of methodological approach; and we need to be careful of vested interest. There are large career and human resource trucks which drive the economic engine of the testing sector (Cripps, 2017).

Like the study of phrenology in the 19th century, I think personality testing will be a hard train to derail. It has usefulness in places, but not in ALL the places we currently use it.
We just need to be careful to use testing appropriately, and not assume that we will get 'answers' from it. With good use, we should get better questions.

Let's be careful out there.


  • Combe, G. (1834). A System of Phrenology (3rd American ed.). Marsh, Capon and Lyon.
  • Cripps, B. (Ed.) (2017). Psychometric Testing: Critical perspectives. Wiley Blackwell.
  • Greenhaus, J. H., & Callanan, G. A. (2006). Encyclopedia of Career Development (Vols. 1 & 2). SAGE Publications Ltd.
  • Osborn, D. S., & Zunker, V. G. (2016). Using Assessment Results for Career Development (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.

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