What Is a Personality Test?

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A personality test is a tool used to assess human personality. Personality testing and assessment refer to techniques designed to measure the characteristic patterns of traits that people exhibit across various situations.

Personality tests can be used to help clarify a clinical diagnosis, guide therapeutic interventions, and help predict how people may respond in different situations.

Personality is something that we informally assess and describe every day. When we talk about ourselves and others, we frequently refer to different characteristics of an individual's personality. For example, we might refer to someone as adventurous, kind, or moody. Psychologists do much the same thing when they assess personality but on a more systematic and scientific level.

History of Personality Tests

One of the earliest forms of personality testing, known as phrenology, emerged during the late 18th century and was popularized during the 19th century. This approach involved the measurement of bumps on the human skull, which were then attributed to specific personality characteristics.

Later, psychologists began attempting to determine how many different personality traits there were. Gordon Allport, for example, proposed that there were more than 4,000. Psychologist Raymond Cattell used a statistical technique known as factor analysis to whittle this list down to 16 different personality factors, while Hans Eysenck narrowed the list down to just three.

One of the most popular approaches to personality today is known as the Big Five theory of personality. This theory suggests that personality is composed of five broad dimensions: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.

Today, a wide variety of personality tests have become popular and are often based upon specific theories of systems of personality. Commonly used personality tests include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), the HEXACO Personality Inventory, and the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire.

Types of Personality Tests

How do personality tests work? Personality testing is designed to elicit responses from participants about their behaviors, preferences, emotional responses, interactions, and motivations in order to evaluate personality characteristics and patterns.

There are two basic types of personality tests: self-report inventories and projective tests:

The greatest benefit of self-report inventories is that they can be standardized and use established norms. Self-inventories are also relatively easy to administer and have much higher reliability and validity than projective tests. Projective tests, on the other hand, are most often used in psychotherapy settings and allow therapists to quickly gather a great deal of information about a client.

For example, a therapist can look not only at a person's response to a particular test item, but they can also take into account other qualitative information such as tone of voice and body language. All of this can be explored in greater depth as people progress through therapy sessions.

Uses of Personality Tests

There are a number of reasons why a person might take a personality test. Personality tests are administered for a number of different purposes, including:

  • Assessing theories
  • Evaluating the effectiveness of therapy
  • Diagnosing psychological problems
  • Looking at changes in personality
  • Screening job candidates

Personality tests are also sometimes used in forensic settings to conduct risk assessments, establish competence, and in child custody disputes. Other settings where personality testing may be used are school psychology, career and occupational counseling, relationship counseling, clinical psychology, and employment testing.

Impact of Personality Tests

Personality tests can be useful for a number of reasons. These tests can help you learn more about yourself and better understand both your strengths and weaknesses. And while all personality tests are different, learning that you might be high on a specific trait can help you gain greater insight into your own behavioral patterns.

For example, your results on a personality test might indicate that you rate high on the personality trait of introversion. This result suggests that you have to expend energy in social situations, so you need to find time alone to recharge your energy. Knowing that you have this tendency can help you recognize when you are getting drained from socializing and set aside quiet moments to regain your equilibrium.

Tips for Taking a Personality Test

There is no way to prepare for a personality test, but there are some things that you can do to make sure that your results are the best reflection of your personality:

  • Be honest. Don't try to present an "ideal" version of yourself. Instead, try to just answer in a way that reflects who you are and how you feel.
  • Read the instructions. Your results might not be an accurate reflection of you if you don't understand the guidelines or questions.
  • Don't try to "beat the test." Avoid trying to guess what you think might be seen as the "ideal" answer. Just respond honestly.

As you start looking at all of the different personality assessments that are available, you will probably notice one thing quite quickly: There are a lot of "informal" tests out there! Just a simple online search will turn up an enormous range of quizzes and tests designed to tell you something about your personality.

The vast majority of quizzes that you'll encounter online are just for fun. They can be entertaining and they might even give you a little insight into your personality, but they are in no way formal, scientific assessments of personality. 

Potential Pitfalls

While personality tests may be useful at times, this does not mean that they are not without drawbacks and possible pitfalls.

Deception Is Possible

One of the biggest disadvantages of self-report inventories is that it is possible for people to engage in deception when answering questions. Even though techniques can be used to detect deception, people can still successfully provide false answers often in an effort to "fake good" or appear more socially acceptable and desirable.

Introspection Is Needed

Another potential problem is that people are not always good at accurately describing their own behavior. People tend to overestimate certain tendencies (especially ones that are viewed as socially desirable) while underestimating other characteristics. This can have a serious impact on the accuracy of a personality test.

Tests Can Be Long

Self-report personality tests can also be quite long, in some cases taking several hours to complete. Not surprisingly, respondents can quickly become bored and frustrated. When this happens, test-takers will often answer questions as quickly as possible, often without even reading the test items.

Scoring Can Be Subjective

Projective tests also have a number of disadvantages and limitations. The first problem lies in the interpretation of the responses. Scoring test items are highly subjective and different raters might provide entirely different viewpoints of the responses.

Results May Be Inconsistent

Not all personality tests are reliable or valid. Reliability refers to the consistency of a test while validity involves whether the test is really measuring what it claims to measure.

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."