Personality Testing

Learning Objectives

  • Describe personality testing, including self-report inventories and projective personality tests

Personality tests are techniques designed to measure one’s personality. They are used to diagnose psychological problems as well as to screen candidates for college and employment. There are two types of personality tests: self-report inventories and projective tests. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the most common self-report inventories. It asks a series of true/false questions that are designed to provide a clinical profile of an individual. Projective tests use ambiguous images or other ambiguous stimuli to assess an individual’s unconscious fears, desires, and challenges. The Rorschach Inkblot Test, the TAT, the RISB, and the C-TCB are all forms of projective tests.

Self-Report Inventories

Self-report inventories are a kind of objective test used to assess personality. They are standardized questions with fixed response categories that the test-taker completes independently. They typically use multiple-choice items or numbered scales, which represent a range from one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree). They often are called Likert scales after their developer, Rensis Likert (1932). Self-report inventories are generally easy to administer and cost-effective. There is also an increased likelihood of test-takers being inclined to answer in ways that are intentionally or unintentionally more socially desirable, exaggerated, biased, or misleading.

A Likert-type scale survey is shown. The surveyed items include “I am easygoing; I have high standards; I enjoy time alone; I work well with others; I dislike confrontation; and I prefer crowds over intimacy.” To the right of each of these items are five empty circles. The circles are labeled “strongly disagree; somewhat disagree; no opinion; somewhat agree; and strongly agree.”

Figure 1. If you’ve ever taken a survey, you are probably familiar with Likert-type scale questions. Most personality inventories employ these types of response scales.

One of the most widely used personality inventories is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), first published in 1943, with 504 true/false questions, and updated to the MMPI-II in 1989, with 567 questions. The original Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) was based on a small, limited sample, comprised mostly of Minnesota farmers and psychiatric patients; the revised inventory was based on a more representative, national sample to allow for better standardization. The MMPI-II takes one to two hours to complete. Responses are scored to produce a clinical profile composed of 10 scales: hypochondriasis, depression, hysteria, psychopathic deviance (social deviance), masculinity versus femininity, paranoia, psychasthenia (obsessive/compulsive qualities), schizophrenia, hypomania, and social introversion. Considering that some of the characteristics of the MMPI may include tendencies of mental illness, such as depression, hysteria, social deviance, paranoia, obsessive/compulsive behaviors, schizophrenia, and some risk for alcohol abuse, the inventory test may help clinicians in assessment and diagnosis. In 2008, the test was again revised, using more advanced methods, to the MMPI-II-RF.  Despite the new test’s advantages, the MMPI-II is more established and is still more widely used. Typically, the tests are administered by computer. Although the MMPI was originally developed to assist in the clinical diagnosis of psychological disorders, it is now also used for occupational screening, such as in law enforcement, and in college, career, and marital counseling (Ben-Porath & Tellegen, 2008).

Five questions are stacked vertically with two empty bubbles to the right of each question. Above the bubbles are the labels “True” and “False.” The questions are as follows: “1. I like gardening magazines.” “2. I am unhappy with my sex life.” “3. I feel like no one understands me.” “4. I think I would enjoy the work of a teacher.” “5. I am not easily awakened by noise.”

Figure 2. These true/false questions resemble the kinds of questions you would find on the MMPI.

Big Five Personality Traits

In psychological trait theory, the Big Five personality traits, also know as the OCEAN model, is a suggested taxonomy, or grouping, for personality traits, developed from the 1980s onwards. When factor analysis (a statistical technique) is applied to personality survey data, it reveals semantic associations: some words used to describe aspects of personality are often applied to the same person. For example, someone described as conscientious is more likely to be described as “always prepared” rather than “messy.” These associations suggest five broad dimensions used in common language to describe the human personality and psyche.

The theory identifies these five factors:

  • openness to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
  • conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
  • extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
  • agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. challenging/callous)
  • neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)

As related to mental illness, the Big Five personality traits focus on the trait of neuroticism. Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions, such as anger, anxiety, or depression. It is sometimes called emotional instability, or is reversed and referred to as emotional stability. According to Hans Eysenck’s (1967) theory of personality, neuroticism is interlinked with low tolerance for stress or aversive stimuli. Neuroticism is a classic temperament trait that has been studied in temperament research for decades, before it was adapted by the FFM. Those who score high in neuroticism are emotionally reactive and vulnerable to stress. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening. They can perceive minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They also tend to be flippant in the way they express emotions. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. For instance, neuroticism is connected to a pessimistic approach toward work, to the certainty that work impedes personal relationships, and to higher levels of anxiety from the pressures at work. Furthermore, those who score high on neuroticism may display more skin-conductance reactivity than those who score low on neuroticism. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish the ability of a person scoring high on neuroticism to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress. Lacking contentment in one’s life achievements can correlate with high neuroticism scores and increase one’s likelihood of falling into clinical depression. Moreover, individuals high in neuroticism tend to experience more negative life events, but neuroticism also changes in response to positive and negative life experiences. Also, individuals with higher levels of neuroticism tend to have worse psychological well-being.

At the other end of the scale, individuals who score low in neuroticism are less easily upset and are less emotionally reactive. They tend to be calm, emotionally stable, and free from persistent negative feelings. Freedom from negative feelings does not mean that low-scorers experience a lot of positive feelings, however.

Neuroticism is similar but not identical to being neurotic in the Freudian sense (i.e., neurosis.) Some psychologists prefer to call neuroticism by the term emotional instability to differentiate it from the term neurotic in a career test.


Below are sample self-assessment statements designed to measure neuroticism.

  • I get irritated easily.
  • I get stressed out easily.
  • I get upset easily.
  • I have frequent mood swings.
  • I worry about things.
  • I am much more anxious than most people.
  • I am relaxed most of the time. (reversed)
  • I seldom feel blue. (reversed)

Hans Eysenck’s Theory of Personality

The two personality dimensions extraversion and neuroticism were described in his 1947 book Dimensions of Personality. It is common practice in personality psychology to refer to the dimension extraversion as E and to the dimension neuroticism as N. The combination of extraversion and neuroticism may help explain maladaptive behavior and tie into early Greek theories.

E and N provided a two-dimensional space to describe individual differences in behavior. Eysenck noted how these two dimensions were similar to the four personality types first proposed by the Greek physician Galen.

  • High N and high E = Choleric type
  • High N and low E = Melancholic type
  • Low N and high E = Sanguine type
  • Low N and low E = Phlegmatic type

The third dimension, psychoticism, was added to the model in the late 1970s, based upon collaborations between Eysenck and his wife, Sybil B. G. Eysenck.

Psychoticism may be divided into narrower traits such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking; these may, in turn, be further subdivided into even more specific traits—for example, impulsivity may be divided into narrow impulsivity (unthinking responsivity), risk-taking, non-planning, and liveliness. Sensation seeking has also been analyzed into a number of separate facets. Psychoticism ties into mental illness as well as neuroticism to aid in understanding specific characteristics of diagnosis. For example, impulsivity could be consistent with Bipolar I and II diagnosis, as well as borderline personality disorder.

Projective Tests

Another method for assessment of personality is projective testing, sometimes called performance-based testing. This kind of test relies on one of the defense mechanisms proposed by Freud—projection—as a way to assess unconscious processes. During this type of testing, a series of ambiguous cards is shown to the person being tested, who then is encouraged to project his feelings, impulses, and desires onto the cards—by telling a story, interpreting an image, or completing a sentence. Some examples of projective tests are the Rorschach Inkblot Test, the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), the Contemporized-Themes Concerning Blacks test, the TEMAS (Tell-Me-A-Story), and the Rotter Incomplete Sentence Blank (RISB). If an evaluator scores the Rorschach using the Exner scoring system, the test is considered a valid and reliable measure. However, the validity of the other projective tests is questionable, and the results are often not usable for court cases (Goldstein, n.d.).

Black, symmetrical inkblot

Figure 3. An example of the images shown to those taking the Rorschach Inkblot Test.

The Rorschach Inkblot Test was developed in 1921 by a Swiss psychologist named Hermann Rorschach (pronounced “ROAR-shock”). It is a series of symmetrical inkblot cards that are presented to a client by a psychologist. Upon presentation of each card, the psychologist asks the client, “What might this be?” What the test-taker sees reveals unconscious feelings and struggles (Piotrowski, 1987; Weiner, 2003). The Rorschach has been standardized using the Exner system and is effective in measuring depression, psychosis, and anxiety.

Illustration of two people sitting on a bench. One winds thread around her hands; the other holds the loose end and the ball of thread.

Figure 4. This image from the (TAT) can be used in counseling settings.

A second projective test is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), created in the 1930s by Henry Murray, an American psychologist, and a psychoanalyst named Christiana Morgan. A person taking the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) is shown eight to 12 ambiguous pictures and is asked to tell a story about each picture. The stories give insight into their social world, revealing hopes, fears, interests, and goals. The storytelling format helps to lower a person’s resistance divulging unconscious personal details (Cramer, 2004). The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) has been used in clinical settings to evaluate psychological disorders; more recently, it has been used in counseling settings to help clients gain a better understanding of themselves and achieve personal growth. Standardization of test administration is virtually nonexistent among clinicians, and the test tends to be modest to low on validity and reliability (Aronow, Weiss, & Rezinkoff, 2001; Lilienfeld, Wood, & Garb, 2000).

A third projective test is the Rotter Incomplete Sentence Blank (RISB) developed by Julian Rotter in 1950. There are three forms of this test for use with different age groups: the school form, the college form, and the adult form. The tests include 40 incomplete sentences that people are asked to complete as quickly as possible. The average time for completing the test is approximately 20 minutes, as responses are only one or two words in length. This test is similar to a word association test, and like other types of projective tests, it is presumed that responses will reveal desires, fears, and struggles. The Rotter Incomplete Sentence Blank (RISB) is used in screening college students for adjustment problems and in career counseling (Holaday, Smith, & Sherry, 2010; Rotter & Rafferty 1950).

Five incomplete sentences are stacked vertically with empty space to the right of each sentence in which to complete it. The sentence starters are : “1. I feel,” “2. I regret,” “3. At home,” “4. My mother,” and “5. My greatest worry.”

Figure 4. These incomplete sentences resemble the types of questions on the RISB. How would you complete these sentences?

For many decades, these traditional projective tests have been used in cross-cultural personality assessments. However, it was found that test bias limited their usefulness (Hoy-Watkins & Jenkins-Moore, 2008). It is difficult to assess the personalities and lifestyles of members of widely divergent ethnic/cultural groups using personality instruments based on data from a single culture or race (Hoy-Watkins & Jenkins-Moore, 2008).  To address this need, Robert Williams developed the first culturally specific projective test designed to reflect the everyday life experiences of African Americans (Hoy-Watkins & Jenkins-Moore, 2008). The updated version of the instrument is the Contemporized-Themes Concerning Blacks Test (C-TCB) (Williams, 1972). The Contemporized-Themes Concerning Blacks Test (C-TCB) contains 20 color images that show scenes of African-American lifestyles. When the C-TCB was compared with the TAT for African Americans, it was found that use of the Contemporized-Themes Concerning Blacks Test (C-TCB) led to increased story length, higher degrees of positive feelings, and stronger identification with the C-TCB (Hoy, 1997; Hoy-Watkins & Jenkins-Moore, 2008).

The TEMAS Multicultural Thematic Apperception Test (TEMAS) is another tool designed to be culturally relevant to marginalized groups, especially Hispanic youths. TEMAS—standing for “Tell Me a Story” but also a play on the Spanish word temas (themes)—uses images and storytelling cues that relate to their culture (Constantino, 1982).


Watch this CrashCourse video to better understand how personality is measured:

You can view the transcript for “Measuring Personality: Crash Course Psychology #22” here (opens in new window).


THink It Over

  • How objective do you think you can be about yourself in answering questions on self-report personality assessment measures? What implications might this have for the validity of the personality test?


Contemporized-Themes Concerning Blacks Test (C-TCB): projective test designed to be culturally relevant to African Americans, using images that relate to African-American culture

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI): personality test comprising a series of true/false questions in order to establish a clinical profile of an individual

projective test: personality assessment in which a person responds to ambiguous stimuli, revealing hidden feelings, impulses, and desires

Rorschach Inkblot Test: projective test that employs a series of symmetrical inkblot cards that are presented to a client by a psychologist in an effort to reveal the person’s unconscious desires, fears, and struggles

Rotter Incomplete Sentence Blank (RISB): projective test that is similar to a word association test in which a person completes sentences in order to reveal their unconscious desires, fears, and struggles

self-report inventory: standardized questions with fixed response categories that the test-taker completes independently.

TEMAS Multicultural Thematic Apperception Test: projective test designed to be culturally relevant to marginalized groups, especially Hispanic youths, using images and storytelling that relate to their culture

Thematic Apperception Test (TAT): projective test in which people are presented with ambiguous images, and they then make up stories to go with the images in an effort to uncover their unconscious desires, fears, and struggles