Testing times: Does the world need yet another personality quiz?

As the latest psychological self-assessment is launched, we ask do they serve any real purpose?

Personality quizzes can increase self-awareness. Getty Images
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Another year, another personality test, albeit this new one has better credentials than many others floating around the world wide web. This time around, the assessment is from researchers at the University of California at Davis. The emergence of the test comes as no surprise. With all the advances being made in the field of psychology, considering the information and resources available, we still continue to struggle with three of modern life's most ­burning questions: who are we, really? Why is it that we act the way we do? And, are we normal? These questions are particularly relevant mere weeks into 2019, when New Year's resolutions – for some, at least – are in the earliest stages of tatters.

HXT13W Development Personality Improvement Graphic Word Symbol. Rawpixel Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
Personality tests can be unnecessarily complicated. Alamy Stock Photo

In an ongoing effort to try and make sense of themselves, people often turn to personality tests – whether for fun or more serious inquiry. These run the gamut from quizzes in a recent issue of Cosmopolitan to comprehensive psychometric assessments, developed by the likes of organisational ­management and human resources specialists such as Korn Ferry and The Corporate Executive Board Company, or indeed universities such as UC Davis.

Somewhere in the middle is that old standby, the controversial ­Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). Although it is often referred to as debunked, it never really goes away. Who wouldn't want to know, for example, whether they focus on the outer world or on their own inner world?

Which ones should we trust?

"As a psychologist, I'm afraid I would only recommend tests that have been researched, validated and have a good reliability rate," says Dr Sheetal Kini, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Centre for Wellbeing in Dubai. "Nonetheless, with regard to tests that are not meant for diagnostic purposes, the MBTI can be helpful in understanding yourself." Let's just say that since the infamous test was developed by a mother-daughter team with little to list on their academic resumes, a grain of salt is handy.

"Philosophers and psychologists have speculated on healthy personality functioning for generations," the UC Davis study's lead author, Wiebke Bleidorn, told Healthline. "We married these ideas with one of the most common evidence-based models of personality traits in contemporary ­research: the five-­factor model."

The 'big 5'

The university's "big 5" approach breaks a healthy personality down into categories of extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness, and then splits those into further sub-categories. The test comprises 30 questions, which aim to measure self-assessment of contentment levels, feeling competent and in control, and the need to help others. It takes just minutes to complete, is free and leaves participants with an assessment and suggestions for areas to improve. Mine, for example, gave me a score of 71, saying I was open to feelings, positive and straightforward. It also warned that I might want to work on anger hostility and anxiety. Noted.

Justin Thomas, a professor at Zayed University's College of Natural and Health Sciences, and a columnist for The National, says these sorts of tests are enduring for a reason. "We humans are fascinating – complex, but also, to some extent, predictable," he says. "I think we like the idea of personality tests because they can enrich our self-awareness and also help us make predictions about how other people might behave."

Thomas, who prefers tests based on the "big 5" personality traits, calls them "very blunt and inaccurate" but "still useful". He points out that not only do people change over the years, but these tests also measure preference, not ­ability. They don't take into account when we act in opposition to our nature, perhaps for our own good: for example, when introverts force themselves to go to a party, and end up having a great time."

'The Transparent Self'

"They do allow us to make predictions about behaviours that serve most of us better than raw intuition," adds Thomas. As noted by humanistic psychologist Sidney Jourard, who is quoted at the outset of the UC Davis study, this is tricky business, particularly when we are taught how to see and process the world by others when we are young.

"The task is to break the hypnotic spell," he writes in his book The ­Transparent Self. "So that we can become undeaf, unblind, and multilingual, thereby letting the world speak to us in new voices and write all its possible meaning in the new book of our existence." Is it any wonder, then, that we are so obsessed with measuring our progress?

Sidney Jourard’s seminal work is quoted in the University of California at Davis’s new personality test.
Sidney Jourard’s seminal work is quoted in the University of California at Davis’s new personality test.

'It's a bit like horoscopes'

Most often, personality tests are a bit of harmless fun, says Inga Pioro, an occupational psychologist from the United Kingdom, living in Abu Dhabi. “But the problem is, people do take it quite seriously; it’s a bit like horoscopes or fortune tellers or psychics,” she says. “Some of these reports are written in such a way that you go: ‘That’s me. That’s definitely me.’” Feeling that a general finding pertains to you specifically, she explains, is actually a powerful and common psychological phenomenon called the Barnum effect.

Pioro has worked for one of the ­largest personality test publishers in the UK, both designing the tests and ensuring their validity, as well as ­advising clients on how to use them ­properly as part of the hiring ­process. Such tests need to be absolutely clear on what they are measuring and have their "predictive validity" properly quantified, she says. "We need to get a number of people to take that questionnaire and we need to track their progress, say, in an organisation, and get ratings and performance data,"Pioro explains.

Any test used by an employer in the UK has to be endorsed by the British ­Psychological Society, which has developed a set of qualification standards. The risk is that employers resort to personality tests that haven’t been properly drawn up, assessed or endorsed, to make hiring decisions – weeding out candidates and opening themselves up to potential lawsuits, adds Pioro.  

The power of self-assessment

But back to self-assessment. Heidi Elmaarouf, a life coach and reiki ­practitioner in Abu Dhabi, started using a “fun” personality test about a year ago to get her coaching clients to think about and evaluate themselves. “It kind of breaks the ice in the beginning of coaching,” she says. “Because if they’re not sure, they’re stuck, they don’t know what they are looking for.”

Elmaarouf uses the Six Human Needs Test, which ranks an individual's requirements for growth, contribution, uncertainty, love, significance and ­certainty. It was created by Cloe Madanes, a psychotherapist who works closely with influential American motivational speaker and coach Tony Robbins. When she first started using the test, she gave it to her entire family to kill time while they were waiting for her mother to get out of surgery. She and her husband of 25 years scored the same on all six principles, with contribution ranking first and growth second. Her 89-year-old father's slightly surprising main need? Growth. "I had my son also do it and also his girlfriend," says Elmaarouf. "It was spot on."

So, if nothing else, a personality test can lead to some self-reflection, and allow you to stop and see who you are. That’s one of those three burning questions answered, if only momentarily.