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?

From the Corner

Today I ate lunch in the student food court at my college. It’s not often I eat there (I usually wind up bringing leftovers and eating at my desk), but when I do, this is my favorite place to sit. I park at that corner chair with my back to the wall. What you can’t see in the picture is the arrangement of half-walls and seating areas that make this corner almost impossible to find if you aren’t looking for it. But I look for it.

Why do I hid in the corner when I eat lunch? It’s not that I don’t want to talk to people or specifically to students. I’m famous for keeping my door open all day. I once had a student who was SHOCKED to come by at 3:45 on a Friday and find I wasn’t in! Still, I need a few times each day when I can just be by myself. You see, I’m an introvert. I have a job I love that brings me into contact with dozens and dozens of people each day, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it’s hard.

Here’s some technical theory on this. When I teach about the introversion/extraversion dimension in my class, I describe it in terms of where people get their batteries charged. When you’re tired or sick or stressed, what do you do? An introvert will push everyone away, no matter how much they love them, because for an introvert it’s being alone that charges the batteries. At the end of a hard week, an extravert will want nothing more than to be surrounded by people, the louder and more social the better. An introvert will curl up with a book, or a cat, and just breathe. Being in class or working with students on their projects is deeply rewarding, but also drains my energy in a way that I can only restore when I’m by myself.

The introversion/extraversion dimension was first defined by psychologist Carl Jung (who also spelled extraversion with an A — extrAversion — because intro- means within and extra- means without). It later became one of the five fundamental personality dimensions in the Big Five model of human personality. Most psychologists agree that this dimension is one of the most important ways that people differ from each other. For a while it was one of those things “everybody knows” that it’s better to be an extravert, and that quiet, introverted types should take steps to fix their “problem.” There’s been some popular psychology press lately, some of it actually backed by good science, on why this idea is wrong-headed. I particularly recommend Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.

Books are the lifeline for introverts. They can be connected to the world and to other people while still being alone. This is one of the things I love about being a writer. It works for my introverted personality, and works for all the other introverts out there.

Fellow introverts – I see you! I’m waving to you and I’m glad to connect with you…

….from my corner chair, to yours.

Posted in response to the WordPress photo challenge: Favorite Place

The Zombie Hand: Fact and Fiction Intersect


I just read a scientific text that straddles the boundary between neurology and philosophy, and found fascinating resonances with my favorite zombie story. Both books explore the nature of the self. How do I know what is me and what is not-me? It’s not as simple as it seems. Continue reading

What the Creepy Faucet Face Tells Us About Ourselves #photochallenge

FaucetFaceDo you see the creepy face here? With its malevolent slanting eyebrows and its ominous pursed mouth? I’ll bet you do. And that’s something called pareidolia: the tendency to see patterns, especially faces, where the stimulus is random or accidental.

This tendency is behind all kinds of things, from the imaginary face on Mars to the toasted-cheese Virgin Mary. As a cognitive scientist, I’ve been fascinated by pareidolia for years, and have a personal collection of over 200 images with accidental faces in them, including this faucet photo I took last weekend in a public restroom. Why do we see images so easily, and why are faces the most common? How does this tendency help and hinder us in our daily lives?

Humans are great pattern detectors. It’s one of the things we do best: we notice patterns in what we see, hear, feel, or experience in any way. You could say that our pattern detectors are cranked up to 11. We are especially good at spotting faces, starting from the first few days of life. As soon as babies get any control over their eyes, they seek out faces, and, according to this Stanford research, by the age of four months their brains are processing faces at nearly adult levels while they still have a hard time telling other basic shapes apart. It’s kind of like that Facebook photo process that outlines faces and asks you to tag them. It’s always scanning images for faces, just like we do, which can lead to some pretty hilarious examples of artificial pareidolia. There’s good evidence that there’s a specific part of the brain in the temporal lobe that’s specialized for recognizing faces, called the fusiform face area. So, yeah, when we say we’re wired to see faces, it’s really true.

How does this tendency help or hurt us? One theory is that it is an evolutionary advantage to note that the play of the light, the movement of the grasses, and the sounds in the dark are similar to what I noticed when a tiger took out my buddy last week, so let’s get out of here. If the similarity detector is cranked up too high I might think there’s a tiger when there isn’t one, but that’s the safe mistake to make, much better than not recognizing tiger signs when it’s really there. If we see archers and bears in the random arrangement of stars in the night sky, what harm does that do? It’s the same talent that allows us to see the nearly-invisible tracks that lead us to our prey. The problems happen when we become too invested in the reality of imaginary patterns. No, the Martians did not carve a mountain into the semblance of a human face, and no, the three people on my street who all had different forms of cancer doesn’t prove that there’s a serious environmental disaster here. Children get lots of (extremely valuable) vaccinations in their first few years, and sometimes they get sick. We see a pattern there, and people may cling to belief in that pattern even when it’s not real. (No, people, vaccinations do not cause autism.) It’s just a case of seeing a pattern that’s not there, a creepy face in a bathroom faucet. Pareidolia

I didn’t think this post had anything to do with writing, but of course it does. Readers will find any pattern that’s even hinted at (pareidolia!) and then feel cheated if the pattern isn’t fulfilled. The main character just paid for his latte with exact change? Hmmm, wonder what that’s about. Oh, look, he also had the right change for the parking meter. Maybe it’s a sign that he’s an overly-compulsive planner who made sure before he left the house he had exactly the change he would need. Or perhaps he has a magic purse that provides just the money he reaches for. The reader is now investing energy in tracking that pattern to fruition. This can be considered a corollary to the law of Chekhov’s gun; nothing should ever be inserted in fiction that isn’t needed. Unnecessary bits and pieces just spark patterns that leave readers frustrated when they don’t pan out.

Pareidolia. Love it. Respect it. Use it. Beware of it. Learn from it. And when you see a face in the clouds, just enjoy what it’s telling you about your amazing pattern-recognizing brain.

In response to The Daily Post’s weekly photo challenge: “Creepy.”

Those Were the Days

EavesdroppingIn response to today’s Daily Prompt: Head Turners.

My children are both grown up and moved out. They live nearby and we see them once a week, which is just about perfect – they come for dinner, we tell stories and make awful puns and play games. Then they go home.

I don’t often think about when they were little, but today’s prompt reminded me of a time when I did. I was walking to the parking lot from a store and passed a family coming in. The mother held the hand of her little girl, and the father carried his toddler son. As they went by, the father was rubbing at his son’s head and said, in complete seriousness, “Did Mommy get all the snot out of your hair?” I managed go hold in my giggles until they were out of earshot.

This one line brought it all back to me. Children are a delight and a joy, of course. We had some trouble getting our two children to come along, and gave heartfelt thanks for both of them. But nobody who has ever raised a child can say that it was all like the Pampers commercials. Have you noticed in those commercials nobody is ever cleaning up a really messy baby? We don’t want to think about those moments, but they are at the core of parenting. One of my very favorite comic strips is Baby Blues by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott, where they tell it like it is, and I remember the one where the mom was chasing after her little one to try to wipe her nose, change her diaper, clean her spit-up, and commented: only as a mother do you have to beg to be allowed to do something you don’t want to do.

Before I had children, I cringed away from the thoughts of changing diapers and getting spit-up out of the carpet. Now that my children are civilized adults (well, except for the puns) I cringe from those same thoughts. But when they are little, and they need you, it becomes a Nike moment – you just do it. It seems right and normal to keep the diaper over the shoulder and just swipe with it at whatever needs swiping, without a cringe in sight. And the same is true for bigger things than diapers. The most poignant interview I ever saw was with a mother whose son had severe disabilities, demanding intrusive and constant care. The interviewer asked her how she could do it, and she shrugged. “You just do,” she said. “It’s not even a question.”

From the toddler with snot in his hair to the severely disabled son, our children demand a lot from us. When we look at these demands from the outside they can seem unpleasant, unreasonable, even intolerable. From the inside, though, they are just life. As I think back on what I had to do for and with my little children, I’m reminded that we are all capable of doing things we thought we couldn’t do. When the moment comes, you do. You just do.


Thoughts About Thoughts

Thoughts  What are thoughts, anyway?

Synchronicity, again: two different things came together in the last few days that had me thinking about thoughts. What do they actually mean?

I just finished reading Freda Warrington’s breathtaking Elfland. In this book Aetherials, people born of a fantastical Otherworld, live in our world, indistinguishable from humans except to each other. I loved the intensely magical atmosphere in this novel, and was caught up in the wondering what has become of the Gateway between our world and the magical Spiral, and what the future holds for both worlds. I recommend this to anyone who is interested in contemporary fantasy. There was one thing, though, that rankled a bit. Almost every character was caught up in deeply destructive behavior because of persistent, uncontrollable thoughts that amounted to obsessions. Some of these were thoughts of love, particularly for the main character, Rosie, who spent decades pining for love of a boy she hardly spoke to and who never expressed the slightest interest in her. Others were thoughts of revenge, or of terrible guilt. These characters saw themselves as helpless before the strength of these thoughts, and it seems the author saw them that way as well.

I’m not a fan of this way of thinking about thought. Thoughts are important, of course. As a cognitive psychologist I know that we don’t actually respond to reality, but to how we think about or interpret reality. Still, we don’t have to be slaves to thoughts and ideas; we can change how we think about or interpret our experiences. I especially resist the romantic notion of love at first sight or the idea that we are helpless in the face of some mystic force of love. We are not destined to love one and only one person in the world for life. (The smart and outrageous Tim Minchin  expresses this view in his own way in the song If I didn’t Have You – go listen. Now.)  I can have sympathy for characters whose unhelpful thoughts overwhelm them, but only not when all the characters do so, and none of them seem to think there is any possible resistance. Even when Rosie tells herself she shouldn’t love the one who spurns her, she does it with a sense of helplessness: “I shouldn’t love him, but there’s nothing I can do.” Too much of this, and I want to slap people.

This is one half the the synchronicity I experienced. As I was reading Elfland and thinking of how much these folks were being driven by their thoughts, I finally discovered Invisibilia, a National Public Radio show that ran just 6 episodes before shutting down (temporarily, I hope). It “explores the intangible forces that shape human behavior – things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions.” Through the miracle of podcasts I’ve started listening to the show from the beginning, and it is right up my alley. That first episode focuses on just the topic I’ve been thinking about: “The Secret History of Thoughts.” In this episode they investigate how psychology’s understanding of thoughts has changed in the last hundred years. We have gone from seeing thoughts as important reflections of our deepest reality, expressing who we really are, to seeing them as surface phenomena we can ignore or discount if we don’t like them. As I listened, I realized that this is what bothered me about Elfland. The story comes at thoughts from an older, Freudian perspective, while I take a more modern, cognitive or mindful view of thoughts.

Which of us is right? Well, naturally, I think I am. *smile* Whether that’s true or not, it helps me to understand why I wasn’t able to love Elfland as much as I otherwise would. Looking at the story with this better understanding, I can set aside my discomfort and become more open to the magic of the story.

See? We can change how we think about something. I just did.