Personality Tests (Use Only As Directed)

16 09 2008

What do you see?

A little while ago I was talking with some friends and somehow we started talking about personality tests and one test in particular, the Color Code test.  I guess it evaluates various aspects of your personality and assigns you one of four colors depending on where your personality fits.  Apparently lots of my friends have heard of the test and have taken it and know what “color” they are.  So as we talked, friends began to explain what color they were and why the test was correct about them and/or their family members.  Then friends began challenging the “color” of the other: “you’re not red, you’re yellow!”  It was at this point that I began to question the validity of this particular personality test and it caused me to reflect on the usefulness of personality tests in general.  

I have a love/hate relationship with personality tests.  On the one hand they can provide invaluable information for clinicians and other professionals.  They are very fascinating tools that may offer a glimpse at some of what makes a person tick.  On the other hand they create a host of amateur psychologists intent on diagnosing anyone and everyone, and that can have some dire implications.

So let me start by extolling the virtues of personality tests.  Properly administered, scored and applied, a personality test can be very useful in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals with a variety of mental issues or they can even be useful in the search for a career or a mate.  For decades, such testing (and also, perhaps more importantly, the DSM) has been used as a simple and convenient way for clinicians and other professionals to communicate important information about the people in their care.  The MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory) is probably the most commonly used personality test by professionals and still sees widespread use today.  So the point is, personality testing can be a very valuable tool when performed for the right reasons by the right people.

Now the not-so-desirable characteristics of personality testing.  First, any self-scored personality test (like the ones that are so common on the internet) is likely to return biased results.  And that bias will probably be what’s called a desirability bias, which means that one’s responses will tend towards measuring the person you would like to be rather than the person you really are at the moment.  Even when taking a test in the presence of a clinician, for example, the results may be affected by the desirability bias.  A person may choose responses that seem to reflect the way they would like to be seen by the tester.  Thus, any conclusions reached based on biased responses can definitely be troublesome.  This underlines the importance that a personality test be created and scored by a trained professional in order to try to eliminate these biases or at least work around them.

Now let’s look at personality tests in another way.  At its heart, personality testing is based on the assumption that there are different “types” of people and that everyone fits into one of those “types” in one way or another.  This is appealing to humankind for the same reason that it is appealing to clinicians – it is a convenient way to understand oneself and others.  Now, how might this be bad?  It is one thing for a clinician to use testing results to devise a treatment program for someone who is ill, it is another thing for a member of the lay public to use results as a guide to how to treat others and themselves (in a way it is a “treatment plan” of their own).  Yet this is what often happens.  

To help you understand what I mean, consider this: how many times have you heard someone excuse their behaviour or someone else’s behaviour because they’re a “type A” personality.  Or how about when people say things like, “I succeeded because I’m an ambitious person” or “I failed because I always put other people’s needs before my own.”  In these cases people are saying, in effect, that certain of their personality traits caused something else to occur, either some behavior or event.  Harmless?  Maybe.  Here’s where it gets tricky, at least as I see it.

You might have heard of the concept of “locus of control” before.  There are “internal” and “external” loci of control.  An internal locus of control suggests that a person behaves based on internal characteristics and feelings that belong to them and they take responsibility, essentially, for whatever behavior results from that internal system.  An external locus of control suggests that a person behaves as a result of things external to them, like the opinions and actions of others, the state of the economy, etc.  An external locus of control excuses a person from having to take full responsibility for their actions.  People may exhibit different loci of control at different times and in different situations but I think nearly everybody would agree that the preferable state is an internal locus of control.  It certainly is in my opinion.

And here’s how personality tests fit in.  For me, a lot of it has to do with the idea of a locus of control.  When we view ourselves, we are too quick to blame our behavior on things outside ourselves.  And when we view others we are too quick to attribute their behavior to some stable personality trait.  This phenomenon, which comprises the “fundamental attribution error” and the “actor-observer bias,” is quite robust.  So, what personality tests do when we look at ourselves is provide us with something to blame our behavior on.  And when we look at others, the idea of constant personality traits simplifies our understanding of a person by allowing us to categorize them according to the behavior we observe, without consideration for other forces external to that person.  But it’s never that simple.  For us, a personality test can be a scapegoat.  Either to justify our own behavior or the behavior of others.

We need to be certain that we are in control of ourselves.  We need to be sure that our actions are guided by our own will, an internal locus of control, and not by the results of a test.  We need to be sure that we see others as more than just a personality trait.  A personality test provides a description of you at the moment you take the test.  It does not measure causality of behavior in any direction.  It does suggest certain things about a person, but those suggestions are meant to be interpreted by professionals.  

I readily admit that most of the time there’s absolutely nothing wrong with personality tests or taking them and sharing the results with others.  It can be a lot of fun and it can be enlightening.  This post is just meant as a reminder, I suppose, of what personality tests are and what they’re intended for and of what they’re not intended for.  Hopefully, you’ve been able to make some sense of it.

Now, the moral, though I’ve meandered quite a bit in getting here.  Since a personality test is a measure of a person in a given moment and since others often view us differently than we view ourselves there is no reason why we shouldn’t see ourselves in one way, or as a particular “color,” and someone else will see us in another way.  There is nothing wrong with this difference, because it should not have any bearing at all on your day-to-day behavior.  You should continue behaving the way you feel is right, no matter whether a test tells you you’re a yellow, or your friend tells you you’re a red.  We shouldn’t be afraid to be wrong about ourselves either.  Personality tests give us words to go along with our actions, but we need to maintain the distinction between the two.  Ultimately, we are in control.  No test will ever change that.


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4 responses

17 09 2008
Fred

My wife is definitely the life of the party, she squeezes the toothpaste in the middle. Drives me nuts.

17 09 2008
randaltheresa

But when you attribute your actions to your personality (ie. that you are ‘yellow’), isn’t that using an internal locus, since our personality originate within ourselves? I guess you would have to analyze people’s opinions of their own personalities, like whether they feel they are able to control it. This is an area where genetic determinism has done us a disservice.

Theresa and I did and interesting exercise with the color personality test. First, we each took the test ourselves, and then we took the test for each other (i.e. – I answered the questions based on my knowledge of Theresa and vice versa). The tests turned out fairly consistent, but there were definitely some distinctive differences.

PS – why haven’t you linked to my blog?

17 09 2008
Peter Leavitt

Like I said, it’s tricky. I don’t know how well I was able to articulate my thoughts. I think it’s a very subtle difference. The difference between internal and external locus of control is, basically, the difference between being self-determined and being determined by something else. The way I see it, although personality seems like it should be nothing but internal, our labels for it are external. As soon as our personality becomes a concept or a name in our external world it becomes something on which to blame our behavior. It might be an insignificant difference and maybe nobody else sees it. At any rate, it probably makes no difference most of the time. I just think that the labels we give ourselves can cause us to be something other than 100% self-determined. But I would love to talk about it more. Blog, email, facebook, whatever, for further discussion.

17 09 2008
Peter Leavitt

Oh and I just forgot to link to your blog. Nothing personal. I will do it right away.

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