How Personality Testing Is Used in Psychology

multiple choice test sheet with marked answers

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Personality testing and assessment refer to techniques that are used to accurately and consistently measure personality. Personality tests can be used to help furthur clarify a clinical diagnosis, to guide therapeutic interventions, and to 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.

Psychologists do much the same thing when they assess personality but on a much more systematic and scientific level.

How Are Personality Tests Used?

Personality tests are administered for a number of different purposes, including:

  • For assessing theories
  • To look at changes in personality
  • To evaluate the effectiveness of therapy
  • Diagnosing psychological problems
  • Screening job candidates

Personality tests are also sometimes used in forensic settings to conduct risk assessments, establish competence and in child custody disputes.

Types of Personality Assessment

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

What Can a Personality Test Tell You?

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. 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.

Potential Problems With Personality Testing

Each of these approaches has its own unique set of strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. 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.

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.

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.

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.

Projective tests 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 the client's response to a particular test item; they can also take into account other qualitative information such as the client's tone of voice and body language. All of this can be explored in greater depth as the client progresses through therapy sessions.

However, 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.

These tests also tend to lack both reliability and validity. Remember, reliability refers to the consistency of a test while validity involves whether the test is really measuring what it claims to measure.

Is Personality Testing Scientific or Entertaining?

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.

Let's make one thing clear—the vast majority of these 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. 

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