The World of Work Project

Personality Tests

Personality tests are predominantly questionnaire based assessments of an individual’s behaviors, motivations, needs, work preferences and communication styles. They are used for personal and team development and, in some instances, some job selection. There are some doubts over the evidence behind many of them.

Summary by The World of Work Project

Introducing Personality Tests

There’s a lot of money in personality testing.

Personality tests are big business. They are now used throughout the world by many different organizations. In some instances they are used for performance assessment, in some they are used for recruitment and many organizations use them as part of their internal leadership and employee development programs.

Though the approaches that they take are all different, they all work in broadly the same way. An individual usually completes a multiple choice questionnaire in which they must make behavioral choices from a selection of options. Once they have completed the questionnaire, their answers are reviewed and based on them the individual is allocated into a “personality type”.

Each personality type has a predefined set of traits and behavioral criteria which are supposed to apply to them. After a period of time, the individual who completed the test, or the organization that sponsored it, will receive a summary of the individuals personality type.

Personality tests are usually on-line and multiple choice.

Though these tests are very popular among both individuals and organizations, there is increasing comment in relation to the lack of underlying evidence to support many them. Some tests are considered more evidence based than others. Despite these challenges, many people find personality testing helpful.

Individuals often find the personality testing process quite intimate and when they receive their results they may feel that they are finally understood. Some people consider personality testing to be quite transformational and personality testing has many strong advocates.

Types of Personality Test

Personality tests fall loosely into three types: Jungian models (based on the work of Carl Jung), behavioral continuum models and other models.

Some of the most popular models today include the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), Discovery Insights, the Big Five Personality Traits and the Birkman Method. There are of course many, many more, we’ve only selected a handful.

A Brief History of personality tests

People have been trying to group each other into personality categories for a very long time. However, it wasn’t really until the early 20th century when psychology started to take off as a recognized profession that personality testing became more formalized and considered from an academic perspective.

People have been interested in personalities for a long time.

One of the earliest and most influential contributors to personality test work was Carl Jung, who published the book “Psychological Types” in German in 1921. In this seminal book he introduced a set of three “functional dichotomies” that he proposed belonged to everyone.

He believed that people perceived things either using their senses or their intuition, that they judged things using either their thoughts or their feelings and that their attitudes were either introverted or extroverted. People could only be one side of each dichotomy. Through these three dichotomies Carl proposed there were a total of eight different personality types (being 2^3).

I’m sure that copy of New Republic is in here somewhere.

In the early 1920’s, Katherine Briggs read a translation of Jung’s “Psychological Types” and started to become interested in the subject. In 1926 she published her first article on the subject in the magazine “New Republic” in which she explained Jung’s theories. She went on to add a fourth dichotomy (judging vs perceiving) before publishing the first MBTI manual in 1944 with her daughter, Isabel Myer. The MBTI manual has been reprinted several times and delivering MBTI assessments is now big business.

In 1981 Merrill and Reid published “personal styles and effective performance”, which included a Jungian based model that started to introduce colors aligned to the different personality quadrants. This route of Jungian personality testing was further progressed by Discovery Insights, who were founded in 1993 in Dundee, Scotland, and who have become a leading provider of personality testing in the UK and increasingly globally.

At the same time, the 1980’s saw the rise of the “five factor” or “big five” behavioral continuum personality test, which was actually based on initial work done in the late 1800’s. This model considers individuals personalities across five scalar characteristics: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. The Big Five personality test is also sometimes known as the OCEAN or CANOE model.

Here’s someone in a canoe. The boat kind, not the personality test.

Though the history of personality tests is rather varied, they are all currently enjoying huge popularity at a global level.

As a side comment, we were kind of interested to note that the work “ambivert”, which means a little bit of both an introvert and extrovert, has now entered the lexicon. Perhaps the coining of words like this is a sign of something in itself.

Learning More

We’re very conscious that we are not experts in this area at all. We have, though, briefly covered a range of personalty tests in our website. These include Myers Briggs, Discovery Insights, Merrill-Reid and the Big Five, as well as some other things like Type A and Type B personalities. Please consider our posts on these topics just a starting point from which to further your reading and understanding.

Personality tests can help people improve their self awareness. This is one of the reasons people do them. You can listen to our podcast on self-awareness via the player below, if you wish.

Personality tests also give people the sense that they are truly understood by others. Feeling understood is a powerful emotion that makes people feel validated and seen by the world. This is rewarding and people really value it. The tests can also be fun.

As a starting point to explore models like this, we recommend looking at The Open Source Psychometrics Project.

The World of Work Project View

Personality tests are a huge industry. In our view, they are at the same time excellent, and totally flawed and detrimental to the world.

They are excellent in that many people really like them and they can help people to develop self awareness and to learn about others. They give people time to reflect on themselves and learn about their behaviors in different situations, and the help people learn the language necessary to effectively communicate about their own behaviors. They also help people understand diversity and potentially the needs of others.

However, many tests are flawed in that it’s difficult to measure personality or behavior at the moment, and regardless, these factors are generally less important at predicting performance (and even team fit) than other indicators.

Some still waters run shallow.

In addition, many of the tests assume relationships and correlations that are simply not proven. For example, some personalty tests say that all introverted types are deep thinkers. The truth though, is that not all still waters run deep, some are still and shallow.

Despite these flaws, one of the main problems with personality tests, in our opinion, is that people place too much importance in them. If they’re used in the right way, they’re OK. If they’re used in the wrong way, then they can lead to poor decisions.

The other concern we have about personality tests is that some people defer to them to the extent that the do not take accountability for their actions, strengths or weaknesses. Instead, some people say, for example, “Well, I’m an IABC personality type, so I could never do that”. When personality types stop individuals from taking ownership, achieving things or changing their behaviors, then we think they are detrimental.

That said, if people find them helpful, then who are we to argue.

Sources and further reading

Where possible we always recommend that people read up on the original sources of information and ideas.

This post has been influenced by many different sources. A lot of the history came from a nice article from Lapham’s Quarterly which you can read by following the link. Information on the different tests came from their respective sites and the wider internet. There is a host of literature about the effectiveness and evidence behind personality tests, and this article from Scientific America introduces the discussion.


If you see any errors on this page or have any feedback, please contact us.

Most popular

Most discussed

click to book a call

Booking a call button
Our newsletter, the WoW Mail, covers all things related to the World of Work and the World of Work Podcast. You can sign up HERE.