Published in BuzzFeed News, 2018
You've probably taken a personality test before – either during a job application or because you were bored on the Internet – but what do we really know about these measures?
And what can psychology tell us about the human personality in general?
Researchers from North Carolina this week published a study describing new method of testing personalities using rapid response measurements to try and get a more accurate reading of character traits.
The measurement method still tests across the "Big Five". These are traits that have been accepted in psychology as the universal model for understanding human personality: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
The new method, developed by researchers from North Carolina State University (NCU) and the Center for Creative Leadership, measures participants across the Big Five traits by seeking a binary response to a statement about their personality — either "like me" or "not like me".
The critical point is that participants are only given 2.5 seconds before they get a warning and have to answer the question, which means they have little time to think about how their answer will be perceived.
The faster a person responds to a question, the more heavily that answer is weighted in their final score to get a more accurate reading of their personality.
Dr Adam Meade, a co-author of the study, told BuzzFeed News that traditional personality tests aren't taking advantage of modern technology, and most of the tests we use have been in circulation since the 1960s and just stuck online.
"People are surveyed to death," said Meade. "When is the last time you bought anything online and didn't get a survey? I used to joke that you couldn't use the bathroom without getting asked to complete a survey, then in the Orlando, Florida airport there was a kiosk to take a survey."
"A full personality assessment will usually take 20 to 40 minutes, which is a long time for almost all of us. Job applicants get bored and quit long assessments. We get a response approximately every second so we can get a full measure of personality in six to eight minutes."
The Big Five Rapid Response Measurement (or B5-RRM – personality tests do not have sexy names) was compared to the International Personality Item Pool (IPIP), which is the long questionnaire that most people have taken at some point in their lives, where users have to rate statements about their traits from "very inaccurate" to "very accurate".
The different measuring tactic is useful largely for one reason — it makes it very difficult to lie.
The researchers found that the B5-RRM is just as reliable as traditional tests and could come to replace the 40-minute IPIP survey because it shows more resistance to faking, which is apparently a rampant problem with job applications.
One meta analysis found that prospective employees will lie to increase their apparent openness, extraversion, emotional stability, and conscientiousness when they're given tests during applications.
"Existing personality tests are typically easy to fake...everyone wants to say that they are organised and meet deadlines, that they are kind to strangers etc. It's very easy for people to present themselves as they would like to be seen rather than how they truly are," said Meade.
Meade notes that data mining and artificial intelligence techniques are not adequate enough to wholly understand what somebody is like yet, and personality tests such as the B5-RRM are the best tools we have.
So, where did the idea of personality tests come from?
Throughout the '60s and '70s the concept of personality was fiercely debated by academics and Meade says there were multiple models created in an attempt to pinpoint universal traits that didn't quite fit together.