Can You Learn Anything Meaningful from a Personality Test? We Asked an Expert

A neuropsychologist shares how personality tests work and how you should interpret them.
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A neuropsychologist shares how personality tests work and how you should interpret them.

Many online personality tests claim to reveal detailed, insightful, and nearly instantaneous answers about our strengths and weaknesses in relationships, in the workplace, and in the world at large. It can be fun to click through a bunch of hypothetical situations, but is there anything of substance to be gained?

To understand how seriously we should be taking these quizzes and how best to use the results, we put our own line of questioning to Dr. Chris Friesen, Ph.D., licensed clinical, forensic, and neuropsychologist and author of Achieve: Find Out Who You Are, What You Really Want, and How to Make It Happen. Here’s what we learned about how personality tests work and how you should interpret them.

Start with the right test.

Most online personality tests should be taken with a grain of salt, according to Dr. Friesen. “Any measure that is attempting to provide you with information on multiple traits should be based on the Big Five”—that is, the 70-year-old dominant and replicated five-factor model of personality. In Friesen’s words, these five distinct dimensions of personality are:

  1. Negative Emotions: susceptibility to negative emotions and stress
  2. Extraversion: tolerance for external stimulation
  3. Openness: degree of openness to change and new experiences
  4. Agreeableness: attitude toward others
  5. Motivation: degree of motivation and self-control

Dr. Sanjay Srivastava, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, says the empirically based Big Five is “a coordinate system that maps which traits go together in people's descriptions or ratings of one another,” the beginnings of which “relied heavily on American and Western European samples” and which is currently being examined across cultures.

Dr. Friesen cautions against online tests that offer to provide strict “types.” “The idea that you neatly fall into one of a number of supposed personality ‘types’ is flawed and not well supported by research. . . . We are much more nuanced than that; people just don’t fall into neat little boxes,” he writes in Achieve. Rather than a this-or-that philosophy, “[any] serious personality researcher measures traits on a continuum or spectrum.” The creators of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, for instance, clarify that one's personality type indicates one's preferences rather than something static and inherent in one's genes. A different way to look at it is through the lens of a trait-based rather than type-based model.

Understand the limitations.

“Personality test results are essentially useless without a comparison to a proper normative sample,” Dr. Friesen says. When you take an online test, you may only be comparing yourself to other people who take tests online, rather than a “representative sample of people in your country or a in a particular group such as men or women, people at different ages, college students, etc.,” which would yield more accurate results.

I took the shorter version of the five-factor model Dr. Friesen recommended (find it here), which compared my responses with those of other women in my age bracket. Before I started, a disclaimer on the page made it clear that the test is not meant to diagnose serious disorders nor to be “pleasing or flattering.” Yikes.

Dr. Friesen’s research suggests our personalities may predict things like adjustment and success in college, political orientation, and the types of psychological problems we develop. He uses his clients’ results to help them achieve their personal and professional potential. You can do the same, but remember that even a good assessment is a tool, not a sentence.

The report I received at the end—which did seem on point—reiterated the message: “A particular level on any trait will probably be neutral or irrelevant for a great many activities, be helpful for accomplishing some things, and detrimental for accomplishing other things.”

Tell me something I don’t know?

My report also stated, “Questions about the accuracy of your results are best resolved by showing your report to people who know you well.” So if the test results don’t ring true, feel free to disregard them.

I took a test combining the Big Five and Myers-Briggs theories, too (this one, if you’re curious), and both surveys gave me similar responses. When I shared the former with my husband, we agreed that most of it seemed relevant. But that’s because it was a measure of what we already know about me.

A complex human being cannot be categorized by means of simple yea or nay questions. There is value, though, in being aware of our strengths and weaknesses, of what we tend to do in a given situation. Dr. Friesen reminds us that “by definition, personality traits are enduring ways of acting, thinking, and behaving,” not moods or thoughts that shift often over time.

Can you change your personality? Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple. Our personalities are formed at an early age and tend to remain stable over time, but the more we understand them, the better we can use them to stretch, challenge, encourage, and ultimately become the very best versions of ourselves.

Photo Credit: Shannon Lee Miller