How to Objectively Measure your Personality
I’m always turned off by the advice to “be yourself”. While it’s comforting to tell yourself there’s a true you underneath all the angst and worry (and that façade we carry every day), I think holding on to this idea dismisses important elements about you. First off, when are you ever not “yourself”? You are you, 24/7. If you behave in an unintended way, such as being anxious during an interview, that is who you are in that moment. The vast majority of us may have positive views of ourselves, believing we are doing things with good intent or that we are confident individuals, but I’m also of the mindset that what you do defines who you are. If you behave a certain way towards others, you are defined by those actions, not by your inner judgement that you did it for “just” reasons. In the end, the real “you”, if it does exist, could be defined by who you are when you are confident and free from any adversity taking hold.
But for this post, I want to talk about another way to define ourselves. One that is widely accepted in the world of personality psychology.
THE BIG FIVE
The simplest way to describe this is through personality. Many different theories on personality have been developed, but the accepted theory today is known as the Big 5, or the Five Factor Model (1). McCrae and Costa found a number of characteristics that we use to describe ourselves (warm, outgoing, curious, self-conscious, etc.) could be grouped together into five main Traits. Those characteristics, when grouped into traits have shown to be closely correlated. Meaning, if one person was considered kind, for instance, it’s been found that they were also the same level of sympathetic (2).
These five traits can be remembered by the acronym OCEAN: Openness (how open you are to new experiences, i.e. curious, original, positive orientation towards learning), Conscientiousness (how courteous you are of others, i.e. efficient, planful, reliable, organized), Extraversion (how outgoing you are, i.e. energetic, assertive, talkative, enthusiastic), Agreeableness (How agreeable you are, i.e. warm, forgiving, kind, compliant), and Neuroticism (how unstable your emotions are, i.e. touchy, self-pitying, anxious, self-conscious).
On first look, it seems that an average person would want to be high in the first four (Open, Conscientious, Extraverted, and Agreeable), and low in the last (Neurotic). This is considered the most ideal trait standard, something called The Big One (3). But just because you are high in Neuroticism doesn’t necessarily mean you are a “bad” person, or that it’s a bad trait. It’s simply a quality of who you are.
Because these are identified as traits, they are thought of to be consistent and non-changing. Meaning, they are supposed to represent who you “are” as a person, and not who you are at a given moment in life. However, we are learning more and more that life is affected on multiple levels by a multitude of influences. Developmental psychology currently employs multidimensional theories, a thought process that asserts many levels of causes that change our behaviors, such as physical, biological, psychological, social, and cultural (4) As such, we adapt to our circumstances. When this happens, our personality evolves overtime as well, and studies have shown that where you lie on each continuum can change.
Social maturity occurs, and there is evidence to show that as we age, we tend to become more agreeable, conscientious, and less neurotic (5; 6). This could be due to the fact that we learn to adult, taking on responsibilities for our lives (7). There’s also a finding that we are more apt to change our personality traits earlier in life rather than later. But here’s the catch: At around 30, our traits tend to stabilize, and we are less likely to fluctuate along each continuum relative to other people (8). Essentially, we could grow to become more agreeable, but within a person’s cohort, their ranking stays the same. In other words, while you might grow more agreeable as you age (even beyond 30), your level of agreeableness compared to your friends will stay the same.
Could you take action to change your traits? Evidence shows that yes, you can. A meta-analysis conducted in 2017 showed that particularly for extraversion and neuroticism, taking action, such as going to therapy, can positively affect traits (9). Even better, these changes have been shown in as little as 2-4 weeks with active interventions (that is, taking an active role in your therapy and not passively abiding by it).
A NOTE ON THE MYERS-BRIGGS TYPE INDICATOR (MBTI)
16personalities.com has popularized the MBTI by applying these findings to everyday life for others. However, the reason it’s not the best test is because it doesn’t come from a scientific foundation. The Big 5 is grounded in research and built from other theories before it, having the most scientifically-produced evidence to validate its findings. There’s actually a wonderful explanation posted by someone on Quora you can read through here.
TAKING THE TEST
If you’re interested in taking the Five Factor Model, there are a couple of options:
1) You can take the actual test, called the NEO-PI-R (an acronym made up from revisions and the original assessment of three traits: Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness. This revised version does assess for all five traits). The advantage for taking the actual test created by the authors is the validity and internal consistency. While anyone can create a personality test (as we witness on social media), you want to make sure the test is accurately measuring what it says it will measure. This test gives the most accuracy and assurance of this. The downside: It does cost money, and technically can only be ordered and used by professionals. Regardless, nothing says you can’t speak to your therapist about this test. You can read more about it here.
2) My favorite instrument is provided by Penn State created by Dr. Johnson, found here. He gives a great overview of what this test is and does, acknowledging that this test is not equivalent to the real thing. In other words, take these answers with a grain of salt. How you score one day doesn’t mean you will score the same another day. There is a phenomenon called Testing where, if you take the same test a second time or more often, you will learn what the “expected” responses are, and adjust accordingly. Meaning, the test is now not measuring for its intended variable.
Nevertheless, this test does break down your big five traits into their sub-traits, giving you an idea for how you compare with your other traits and the general population.
1 – McCrae, R. R., & Costa, P. T. (2008). The five-factor theory of personality. In O. P. John, R. W. Robins, & L. A. Pervin (Eds.), Handbook of personality: Theory and research (3rd ed., pp. 159-181). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
2 – McCrae, R. R., & John, O. T. (1992). An introduction to the five-factor model and its applications. Journal of Personality, 60, 175-215.
3 - Perry, J. (2016). Sport psychology: A complete introduction. London: Carmelite House.
4 – Broderick, P., & Blewitt, P. (2020). The life span: Human development for helping professionals (5th ed., pp. 16). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.
5 – Bleidorn, W. (2015). What accounts for personality maturation in early adulthood? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 25, 245-252.
6 – Roberts, B. W., Walton, K. E., & Viechtbauer, W. (2006). Patterns of mean-level change in personality traits across the life course: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Psychological Bulletin, 143, 117-141.
7 – Bleidorn, W., Klimstra, T. A., Denissen, J. J. A., Rentfrow, P. J., Potter, J., & Gosling, S. D. (2013). Personality maturation around the world: A cross-cultural examination of social-investment theory. Psychological Science, 24, 2530-2540.
8 – Briley, D. A., & Tucker-Drob, E. M. (2014). Genetic and environmental continuity in personality development: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 140, 1303-1331.
9 - Roberts, B. W., Luo, J., Briley, D. A., Chow, P. I., Su, R., & Hill, P. L. (2017). A systematic review of personality trait change through intervention. Psychological bulletin, 132, 1-25.