Perceiving personality: Psychologists question validity and reliability of  popular personality questionnaires – The Campanile

Have you ever contemplated, or marvelled at, or become annoyed at how different some of your coworkers, classmates, friends, or even family members are from you in many aspects?

If you say yes, then this article is for you.

Now, we humans as a species have numerous aspects in common, such as our capacities for the development of learning, language, memory and emotions. Yet, we differ in the way we perceive the world, express ourselves, interact with others, make decisions, etc.

And, there seem to be all sorts of differences among people in general.

For example, some people seem talented at multiple things, while others do not seem so. Some are dominant and loud, while others are sensitive and quiet.

Also, some people are attracted to, or emotionally connected to all types of people, while others are drawn to a particular type only. Some get addicted quickly to alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc., while others do not.

Thus, moving outside the realm of any mental illness, there just seems to be a lot of variation within people and their brains. And, this question of how and why we are different from one another has always fascinated me. It has nudged me to seek answers from the psychology of human variation.

Now, there are two dimensions that are commonly studied by psychologists for making sense of the differences in people.

Personality and Intelligence.

In this article, I’ll be focusing on the dimension of Personality (I will reserve the dimension of Intelligence for Part 2 of this topic).

What is Personality?

Personality is defined as a person’s style of dealing with the world and other people. It is the way we direct our mental energy, perceive the world and make decisions.

Intuitively, we have a sense of what it’s like to be a certain personality, right?

You acknowledge that you are a certain type of person. Maybe you’re extroverted, moody, funny, emotional, easy-going, etc. You could also characterise the people you know this way. You could even characterise celebrities or fictional people you see in books or movies this way.   

But, how can we scientifically measure and identify personality?

Now, throughout the history of psychology, there have been attempts to have different tests and different measures of personality. Some of them have triumphed over others and have stood the test of time.

So, without further ado let’s take a look at some of the leading personality assessment frameworks practised today.

1. The Big 5 (OCEAN) Model

Scientifically, the most reliable and valid test to measure personality is the Big 5 model. This framework says that we all have 5 basic traits- OpennessConscientiousnessExtroversionAgreeableness and Neuroticism– popularly known by the acronym OCEAN. 

Big Five personality traits - Wikipedia
  • Openness

Openness measures how open-minded and curious one is to new experiences and knowledge. If you score high in openness you are probably inventive or imaginative. You tend to seek new experiences and need creative outlets to be in a state of flow. On the other hand, if you score low in openness you are probably consistent or cautious. You prefer tried-and-tested methods and need regular traditions.

  • Conscientiousness

Conscientiousness measures how organized and dependable one is. If you score high in conscientiousness you are probably efficient or disciplined. You tend to be organized and need a plan for everything. But, if you score low in conscientiousness you are probably easy going, laidback, prefer spontaneity and need free-flowing vibes.

  • Extroversion

Extroversion measures how one interacts with the external environment of people and objects. If you score high in extroversion you are probably outgoing or enthusiastic. You tend to start conservations often and need a high amount of interaction with others to feel energized. On the other hand, if you score low in this trait you are probably introverted or reserved. You tend to feel overwhelmed in loud, open environments and need a high amount of alone time to feel energized.

  • Agreeableness

Agreeableness measures how one feels towards others. If you score high in agreeableness you are probably empathetic or caring. You tend to collaborate or cooperate with others easily. And, you need a harmony of your own as well as others’ feelings while making decisions. However, if you score low in agreeableness you are probably analytical or detached. You prefer challenging or competing with others, and need a lot of research, data or rationality while making decisions.

  • Neuroticism

Neuroticism measures how one deals with emotions. If you score high in neuroticism you are probably sensitive or moody. You tend to get anxious or stressed out easily and need more coping strategies to calm down. On the other hand, if you score low on neuroticism you are probably stable or secure. You tend to stay calm under pressure and do not need much help in intense situations.

Finally, please note that the Big 5 or OCEAN theory presents a personality spectrum and one can score either High, Medium or Low on all the traits.

For example, you could be High Open, High Conscientious, Medium Extrovert, Low Agreeable and Low Neurotic.

Or, High Open, Medium Conscientious, Low Extrovert, High Agreeable and High Neurotic.

It is observed that the traits are fairly consistent over an individual’s lifetime.

Also, being naturally High or Low on any of the traits has both pros and cons. Hence, no trait is superior or inferior to its opposite.

Remember, your personality is unique and you shouldn’t have to force yourself to be someone you’re not!

2. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) Model

Another widely used personality assessment is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) model.

The MBTI is rooted in psychiatrist C. G. Jung’s theory of Psychological Types, which is based on cognitive functions and the way individuals prefer to use their perception (sensing/intuition) and judgement (thinking/feeling), backed by attitudes (extraversion/introversion).

Now, the MBTI simplifies Jung’s theory by presenting a framework of the 3 dichotomies specified in the theory, plus an additional dichotomy implicit in the theory.

Thus, the MBTI has 4 dichotomies:

Extraversion (E) – Introversion (I)

Sensing (S) – Intuition (N)

Thinking (T) – Feeling (F)

Judging (J) – Perceiving (P)

What are MBTI Types and How Can They Affect Your Career Choices?
  • E-I

This dichotomy is about the type of world you focus on.

If you prefer E you tend to focus on the objective outer world of things, people, etc. If you prefer I you tend to focus on your own subjective inner world of thoughts, emotions, etc.

  • S-N

This dichotomy is about your perception or awareness.

If you prefer S you naturally focus on the basic information you perceive with your 5 senses. If you prefer N you naturally focus on interpreting, adding meaning to and finding patterns in what you perceive.

  • T-F

This dichotomy is about your judgement or decision making.

If you prefer T you naturally look at logic and consistency first while making decisions. If you prefer F you naturally look at the people and special circumstances first while making decisions.

  • J-P

This dichotomy is about your structure.

If you prefer J you tend to decide things quickly when dealing with the outside world. If you prefer P you tend to stay open to new information and options when dealing with the outside world.

Finally, according to your preference in each category, and the interaction of these preferences with one other, you have your own personality type. This can be expressed as a code with four letters.

For example, if you prefer Extraversion, Intuition, Feeling and Judging then you are an ENFJ type.

Or, you could prefer Extraversion, Intuition, Feeling and Perceiving- making you an ENFP type.

Thus, there can be 16 personality types this way.

The MBTI being a type-based theory instead of a trait-based one helps translate theories into more specific insights and takeaways- something that a more scientifically reliable but generic statement, such as “You are Medium Extrovert” or “You are High Agreeable/Feeling”, simply cannot do.

Also, Jung’s original theory, which is probably the most influential creation in personality typology, focuses more on 8 cognitive functions in our brain than on mere dichotomies. Every personality type has 4 of these cognitive functions stacked in their conscious mind- the Dominant Function, the Auxiliary Function, the Tertiary Function and the Inferior Function.

To illustrate, if you are an INFJ type your cognitive functions are:

  • Introverted Intuition (Dominant)
  • Extraverted Feeling (Auxiliary)
  • Introverted Thinking (Tertiary)
  • Extraverted Sensing (Inferior)

If you are an INFP type your cognitive functions are:

  • Introverted Feeling (Dominant)
  • Extraverted Intuition (Auxiliary)
  • Introverted Sensing (Tertiary)
  • Extraverted Thinking (Inferior)

Thus, the combination and order of the cognitive functions is different for each of the 16 types.

Also, it is worth noting that Jung observed that our functions develop as we age in life- starting with the dominant function in childhood, the auxiliary in adolescence, the tertiary in midlife and the inferior at an older age. So, this could be one factor that affects the reliability of the MBTI test, basis the age at which one takes the test.

However, it is also observed that- even though the tertiary and inferior functions will eventually develop in your life- the dominant and auxiliary functions will always be the core functions of your conscious personality. In other words, the middle two letters of your 4 letter MBTI code will make up your core personality (i.e. the combination of N and F in the examples of INFJ and INFP stated above).

And, just like the Big 5 does, the MBTI states that all preferences and functions have both pros and cons.

Hence, all types are equal and have their own strengths and weaknesses.

I find Jung’s theory of psychological types fascinating. It is insightful and useful for self-awareness and growth. And, this is why I am slightly inclined to the MBTI over the Big 5 as a personality assessment tool.

Additionally, there is a lot more to write about Jung’s theory that is beyond the scope of this article. That is a topic for another day.

3. A Hybrid Model of the Big 5 and the MBTI

You have seen that the Big 5 is a trait-based theory, while the MBTI is a type-based one.

The Big 5 rates more highly on scientific reliability and validity than the MBTI.

The MBTI- especially when understood through the lens of Jung’s theory- offers more depth, convenient insights and a sense of community than the Big 5 does.

And, have you noticed that there is some correlation between the traits of the Big 5 and the preferences of the MBTI?

The overlap of the traits/preferences of Extroversion in both frameworks is quite obvious. But, remember the Agreeableness trait of Big 5 and the Feeling preference of MBTI? There is an overlap there too, right? Also, there seems to be an intersection of Conscientiousness and Judging. And, of Openness and Intuition. So, the only facet that seems to be missing from the MBTI is some variant of Neuroticism.

So, considering all the similarities and usefulness of both theories, is there a way to combine the Big 5 and the MBTI to get the best of both worlds?

It turns out there is, and this is what the website 16Personalities seems to have done!

16 Personalities - THE LOFT

The NERIS model of 16Personalities (https://www.16personalities.com/) has its roots in both MBTI and Big 5. It uses the letter code format of MBTI (example: ENFJ), with an extra letter to accommodate 5 scales (example: ENFJ-T), thus leveraging the convenience and type community of the MBTI. And, these 5 scales are based on the traits of the Big 5 (example: 60% extraverted, 74% feeling, etc.), thus leveraging the reliability and validity of the Big 5.

In short, this model presents the characteristics as ‘named’ by the MBTI (Extraversion, Intuition, Feeling and Judging), and as ‘defined’ by the Big 5 (Extroversion, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness).

Also, the fifth letter after the hyphen has been named Turbulence (-T), and as you might have already guessed, this is defined similarly to the Big 5’s Neuroticism trait. Its opposite characteristic has been named Assertiveness (-A).

Thus, you could be ENFJ-T or ENFJ-A depending on whether you are High Neurotic or Low Neurotic respectively (16Personaities has also given nicknames to each of the 16 types, like “Protagonist” for ENFJ, “Mediator” for INFP, “Commander” for ENTJ, “Logistician” for ISTJ, “Adventurer” for ISFP, etc).

Hence, according to the website, “their approach has allowed them to achieve high test accuracy while also retaining the ability to define and describe distinct personality types”.

You can take a free test on 16Personalities.com to know your personality type or traits. I took the test, and the result I got was consistent with that of my MBTI and Big 5 personality tests, which I had taken a few years ago as part of a class for my MBA degree.

And, in case your test results end up on borderline between two traits or personality types, I’d suggest reading up more on the types to see which one you relate to the most.

Also, in case you’re curious about my personality traits and type, I have tested and I relate to the following:

  • High Open, Medium Conscientious, Low Extrovert, High Agreeable and Medium Neurotic on the Big 5.
  • INFP (Dominant Introverted Feeling and Auxiliary Extraverted Intuition) on the MBTI.
  • INFP-T or “Turbulent Mediator” on the 16Personalities framework (INFP-T or “Turbulent Mediator” on the 16Personalities framework (I have been tested as both INFP and INFJ here but I relate more to the INFP type).

Why do we have different personalities?

Now, as I mentioned in the introduction of this article it is interesting to know not just how we are different from one another but also why we are different.

And, the answer to why we are different usually has 2 different possibilities.

Genes (or Heredity) and Environment (also known as Nature and Nurture sometimes).

In other words, the question we are trying to answer is, “Did you inherit your personality from your parents? Or, did you create them in your childhood shaped by your environment?”

The answer is that it is a mix of the two possibilities. Both genes and the environment play a role in shaping our personality.

Based on studies, researchers have found that the proportion of variation in personality between two individuals is partly genetic and partly environmental. One study found that- rather surprisingly- identical twins raised apart had similar traits, thus indicating a high influence of genes.

Conclusion

Now, I would like to conclude this article with the following quote by Jung.

Individuation is a natural necessity… its prevention by a levelling down to collective standards is injurious to the vital activity of the individual.

C. J. Jung

As Jung suggested, when an individual’s core personality is not allowed to be expressed by his or her environment or circumstances, it can lead to stress and frustration.

Now, stressed and frustrated individuals are helpful to neither themselves nor their communities.

Hence, knowing about the psychology of personality is beneficial for understanding yourself as well as others around you. Even though the dimension of personality does not explain all the human variation, it is still a key component of self-awareness, growth, compassion and harmony.

And, the next time you get annoyed at someone, or you connect deeply with someone, please consider that it may be due to differences or similarities in your core personalities. Of course, this may not always be the case and definitely shouldn’t be used as an excuse or reason for someone’s bad or good behaviour, understanding personality does play a role in our dealings with others.

So, how do you feel about human variation now? Do you know your personality type or traits? Have you come across better frameworks or models than the ones I have mentioned? I would love to know your thoughts in the comments section.

You may also watch my YouTube video on this topic: