THE PROBLEM WITH PERSONALITY TESTS
What’s wrong with this scene?
You walk into a psychologist’s office and you ask him to help you get your life on track. Almost by habit, he reaches into his top right hand desk drawer and pulls out a folder with some forms and hands you a copy. It’s a questionnaire! Professionally, they are called “Self-Report Tests” (also referred to as “inventories” or “instruments”). There may be anywhere from 25 to a 100 or more responses required, and when the results are summed up and sorted out, your true self will be magically revealed to you. This routine has been going on for around 125 years. Various statistical methods (mostly factor analysis) have been developed to tease out significant relationships between the questions. The goal is to create a more accurate test, employing the words we commonly use to describe people (also called the lexical approach). Don’t bother asking the psychologist to guarantee that the horoscope-like description of you is really you.
Do you see the problem yet? In spite of the disclaimer that these tests are simply guiding you in your self -examination the problem remains that the test is asking YOU the questions. Where do the answers come from? The answers come from, – YOU-, the very person who has been frustrated your whole life because YOU don’t have a clue about what kind of person YOU are. But while taking the test some kind of miraculous transformation is presumed and you are the expert that is supposed to know the precise meanings and implications of the various descriptive words, ideas and behaviors. In addition you are supposed to know exactly, the degree to which these words apply to you. You are supposed to rank the various descriptions, or assign some value on a scale of one to five for each item.
One of the big questions involves how well people understand the descriptive terms used on a test. What’s the difference between “anger” and “frustration?” Or is there a difference between being “careful” and “cautious” or “fearful” and “worried?” We don’t have a dictionary in our heads, let alone a thesaurus.
The derivation of the word “personality” suggests another problem. It is associated with the mask (persona) that ancient actors used to emphasize the role they were playing. Humans are very tricky when asked questions about themselves. Too often, our personality is what we want people to think we are or what we want to imagine we are. So we are deceptive in our social interactions and we tend to lie in varying degrees on psychological tests.
It gets worse. What about the reliability problem? This has to do with the fact that people score differently when given the same test after a several month interval. The publishers of various tests boast about test-retest correlations between 70-90%. This would be considered “good” to “excellent.” But there is no way of knowing just how reliable a particular person’s ratings are without retaking the test. And if you do retake the test which score is the correct one? This means that there is a good chance that your health, attitude, anxiety level, amount of sleep, and/or personal problems will make your results inaccurate.
We haven’t even discussed the validity of what is being measured. Are the various types real? Traits are abstract descriptions. What are we talking about? Are we really explaining personality or are we presenting a model of how words commonly used to describe personality are related. Some tests might even be considered word usage tests more than personality tests. We need to ask ourselves, is this the best we can do after all of these years of research? There is the claim that the problems with self-report tests can be managed and designed to reveal how honest the answers are. That hardly inspires confidence. Management of tests merely adds another layer of things that have to be measured. What is clearly lacking is agreement on a general theory of the basic dimensions of personality.
THE BIG FIVE = THE CURRENT STATE OF PERSONALITY RESEARCH
It’s important to know the direction of the growing edge of a field of study, especially if you want to avail yourself of the best there is to offer. In 1933 (yes that’s over 80 years ago) the psychologist L.L. Thurstone reported the results of a factor analysis he carried out on common language terms describing personality. His conclusion was that just five independent variables could account for the sixty terms he was using to describe personality. Similar results have been popping up ever since then. Today, there is an alleged consensus that the the most significant measurements of personality can be correlated with five factors: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. These five factors are referred to as the BIG FIVE. That is the current state of the field of personality. Basically, the “experts” have presented us with another self-report test.
The problem is obvious. It doesn’t matter how well you design a self-report test since it will have all of the problems that come with self-report tests. The real problem remains unsolved. Statistically there may be certain traits/factors that stand out when dealing with the large numbers. That may be good for building a general model but it doesn’t allow for the fact that the individual subject who takes the test might really be an outlier – one of those who for some unknown reason doesn’t fit the the results of the larger number. We are still talking about a model, and NOT a real theory. We still can’t guarantee the accuracy of the results for an individual taking a test based on the Big Five.
Big Five is an advertising slogan more than a break-through. It’s a way of promoting an idea. It hints that the study of personality has been in trouble and needs something a little more than just another self-report test. It has become like the detergent slogans with their exploding declarations of; STRONGER, BETTER, IMPROVED, EXTRA! After years of this technique, buyers still haven’t figured out that it is the same soap in a different package.
I am not for throwing out research like the BIG FIVE. There are at least two valuable things to come out of the Big Five. Because the research is focused on data collection it is free of old theoretical ideas. In other words, the complaint that it is NOT a real theory of personality may actually make it a more useful tool. It is possible that it could eventually be used to discover or confirm a new theoretical perspective. The most important result of the Big Five is that it clears the way for researchers to accept the possibility that only a few factors might account for a large variety of personalities. They have at least consolidated their list of traits to a number that can be managed at a practical level. The perspective that human behavior emerges from various combinations of a few basic elements has been maintained by observers of human behavior for thousands of years. The real number of factors, whether it is five, four, three or some other number is still to be determined and is still debated by various theorists. If you merely rank the scores for the various factors without taking into consideration the actual value of the scores, you get an idea of how quickly things become unmanageable.
2 factors generate 2 possibilities (1×2=2)
3 factors generate 6 possibilities (1x2x3=6)
4 factors generate 24 possibilities (1x2x3x4=24)
5 factors generate 120 possibilities (1x2x3x4x5=120)
6 factors generate 720 possibilities (1x2x3x4x5x6=720)
There are probably more than two factors, and six factors would produce subtleties that would surpass anyone’s need to know let alone describe.
So much for the present state of psychological research. The one thing you should get out of this brief introduction is that there are NO paper and pencil tests that can tell you who YOU are. You should also be slightly angry that so many personnel departments rely on these tests to decide who they should hire or promote. It should make you even angrier that dating services offer these tests as a way of choosing a life partner. It should make you furious that counselors suggest occupations based on these faulty “instruments”. Finally, if a counselor hands you a self report test, hand it back and say “I didn’t come here to play word games.”
So what do you do to “know yourself”? Fortunately, we don’t have to start from scratch. In ancient Greece people were classified into four types each associated with a body fluid; melancholic-black bile, choleric-yellow bile, phlegmatic-mucus, and sanguine-blood. If you look up each of these temperaments in a dictionary you will find that they are tied in with a dominant emotion; melancholic=fearful, choleric=anger, phlegmatic=passive, sanguine=cheerful. As you study the history of psychology you keep bumping into this dominant pattern. It really isn’t known who came up with this idea. It has been attributed to the physicians Galen and Hippocrates, but it surely goes back even further in time. It doesn’t really matter because it is for the most part an ancient hunch. It seems to have been viewed as an adequate description but there may in fact be something “real” lurking under this classification schema.
At least the system of four classic temperaments was scientific enough that it attempted to use natural causes (body fluids) to explain temperament and not some kind of spirit possession. They were trying to both describe AND explain. Science seems to be slower at “explaining” than at “describing”. Today, the four descriptive categories of temperament remain even though the old explanation proved false. It is interesting that finally the Big Five has narrowed down the number of significant factors very close to four and it is surprising how close those factors are to the four temperaments popular in the ancient world. Apparently the usefulness of these categories has persisted as seen in the following list of some popular models of human personality.
What does this list of patterns of four prove? It doesn’t prove anything. Instead it points out the terrain where something valuable might be discovered. It’s similar to geologists looking for structures associated with oil deposits. They may not be completely sure at first, but then as more tests are carried out and the exploration is continued, the probability of finding something increases. For the sake of this explanation just keep these patterns in mind. You will reconnect with some of these ideas later.
The vertical columns in the table suggest possible similarities between the different theories. Depending on how much time you have it is easy to research the terms in connection with each description. It must be conceded that there are other patterns with factors numbering 3,5,6 etc. Almost any system of categorizing can be expanded or contracted to fit your purpose.
Whatever the number of super factors that are finally settled upon, we need to realize that there must be something “Super” or “Big” that structures these factors. What might we be looking for and where should we look? If there are such “Big” structures they shouldn’t be hard to find. So, why isn’t there a consensus about the causes of the Big factors? This is a classic example of the idiomatic expression “not being able to see the forest for the trees”. Researchers have a tendency to focus on the brain to discover the “Big” factors. They dig deeply into the chemistry of the brain hoping to find the “Big” connections. In the end they completely miss the “Big” picture. The brain is part of a bigger system – the nervous system. And the nervous system is only one of the systems that make up an organism. (See Psychology is failing…miserably) If we’re going to find the “Big” structures, we must look at the mix of ALL of an organism’s major systems. By doing this, we can avoid getting tangled up in a level of observation that is dependent on a complex technology that would only yield bits and pieces of information. It is the macro-structures that should be the starting point, not the micro-structures. It is the “Big” things of the organism that have the potency to create the problems that emerge from the clash of temperaments in marriages, families, work teams, within nations and between nations.