Drawing Profiles: Understanding Personality Tests

The silhouette of a woman's face on a background of greenery. Text: Something for Sunday; August 18, 2019; Drawing ProfilesI saw a suggestion recently about creating personality profiles for our characters, and this launched me into the world of personality tests. Here’s a quick sketch of the history and science behind those tests, and some suggestions for useful tests to take (and how to use them).

We humans are always trying to understand the world and our place in it. One of the most important parts of our world is other people, so it’s no surprise that we’re interested in understanding people. This is likely to be one important reason we developed self-awareness (a topic for another blog post someday), and it’s surely part of why we developed personality tests.

Hippocrates was a physician and philosopher in ancient Greece, probably best known today as the author of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, including the famous injunction, “First, do no harm.” Hippocrates identified four basic personality types, each linked with one of the four classical elements: melancholic (earth), sanguine (air), choleric (fire), and phlegmatic (water). We still use these terms today to describe someone’s reactions to events. A couple of thousand years later, Carl Jung divided humanity into eight personality types, leading eventually to the most popular personality system today, the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory, with 16 different types.

The problem with type theories of personality is that they focus on putting people into a fairly small number of boxes. No matter how complex and well-developed your system is, you can’t describe human variation very well with just a handful of different types. That’s like trying to render an image with just a dozen or so different colors:

A version of the famous Mona Lisa image rendered with just a dozen or so different colorsIf you want to capture the full range of human personality, you need a different approach. To continue the color analogy, with a JPG image one can capture the entire range of colors displayed on a computer screen with just three color scales (red-green-blue), where each scale has 256 possible values, giving many million color possibilities:

The famous Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo da VinciThis is the approach used by trait theories of personality. Such systems identify a small number of traits, and each person gets a score indicating where they fall along a continuum for each trait. This allows for a much broader range of personality possibilities. It also gave rise to the term “personality profile.” The idea is that you can plot where each person is on each trait and connect the dots to produce a profile that describes that person.

There are a number of personality trait systems. Researchers develop them using a mathematical technique called factor analysis, and the specific traits this technique turns up vary depending on the exact questions asked and the sample of people who respond. However, there are five personality traits that turn up again and again, no matter who does the measuring or how. This has led to the current personality trait analysis that has the best scientific support, often known as the Big Five personality system. The five traits are sometimes listed using the acronym OCEAN:

  • O is for Openness to Experience. This is related to intellectual curiosity and creativity. People high on this trait love to learn new things and have new ideas. People lower on this trait are more comfortable when things are predictable and routine.
  • C is for Conscientiousness. This has to do with being detail oriented and reliable. People high on this trait complete tasks on time, paying attention and getting them right. People lower on this trait may tend to procrastinate or do a slapdash job, or just forget about tasks all together.
  • E is for Extroversion. This has to do with how much energy one gets from or pays for interacting with others. People high on this trait often have lots of friends and draw energy from social interactions, becoming restless with too much time alone. People lower on this trait find that social interactions demand energy from them, and need time alone to recharge their mental batteries.
  • A is for Agreeableness. This is basically niceness and friendliness. People high on this trait tend to trust others, assuming that people are good unless proven otherwise. People lower on this trait are generally suspicious and sometimes hostile, and withhold trust until someone has earned it.
  • N is for Negative Emotionality (sometimes called Neuroticism). This is how unstable and volatile someone’s emotions are. People high on this trait tend to overreact to situations, take things personally, and jump rapidly from one emotion to another. People lower on this trait are likely to be emotionally stable, taking problems in stride and letting go of things that otherwise might trouble them.

There are lots of tests online you can take to see where you fall on these five personality dimensions. Here’s a longer version, and here’s a shorter, quicker one. There is a fairly substantial body of scientific research that supports the validity of this personality measure, but it is not without its problems. One concern is that it seems to apply best to people from Western cultures. Another is that, because of the way the results can be normalized, it can perpetuate stereotypes such as the tendency for women to be more agreeable than men. Overall, you need to remember one very important fact: No 10-minute test can possibly know you better than you know yourself. If when you see your results you nod your head and think, “You know, that makes sense,” then that’s great. If your reaction is a resounding “NO!” then you are probably right. Use these tests for fun and possibly a prompt to your own thinking, nothing more.

A diagram showing the personality traits ascribed to the character KaySo, back to the idea I started with: What happens when I apply the Big Five analysis to my main character, Kay? She’s a drifter, bouncing from job to job and avoiding any long-term commitments, mostly because she doesn’t see herself as someone worthy of anyone’s trust. Here’s the profile I got when I took the test as Kay:

  • Openness to experience: Moderately low (she is wary of unfamiliar situations and has little intellectual curiosity)
  • Conscientiousness: Moderately high (she tends to complete tasks and is productive, but doesn’t think of herself as reliable)
  • Extraversion: Very low (she has few friends and tends to avoid social situations)
  • Agreeableness: Moderately low (she is respectful for others but has a hard time trusting people)
  • Negative emotionality: High (she is subject to anxiety and her moods can be volatile)

Did this help me understand my character? In a way. I don’t think the results themselves give me much useful insight. However, thinking things through as I answered the questions probably did help me understand her at a deeper level than before. All told, I could see the exercise of completing one of these tests being useful if I’m having trouble getting a handle on a character. Besides, they’re fun to do, and it’s good to know that there’s at least one personality system that is backed by some science.

Have you ever used a personality test to understand yourself or a character? What other techniques have you used to get to know a character better?

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