Personality Theories and Tests

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Personality Theories and Tests

A man’s personality reflects others’ image and recognition of him. (Kimball Young, Social Psychology, 1945)

I divide the world into two classes: those who divide the world into two classes and those who do not. (Anon)

The choleric drinks, the melancholic eats, the phlegmatic sleeps. (Proverb)

There are over 100,000 personality tests published worldwide. In one study over 300 HR specialists who use a lot of tests in selection and training were asked various questions about some of the best-known personality tests. These were the results:

There are various criteria to use when selecting a particular personality test:

Single or multiple traits are measured. A single trait (measuring just one dimension) might be considered, or alternatively a trait system. Most personality theorists have tried to discover the basic, fundamental traits (such as the basic elements in the fundamental table) and then measure all of them.

Cognitive or biological based traits are measured. For instance, some ’traits’ or personality dimensions are quite clearly conceived of in cognitive terms These cognitive traits refer to the way people perceive the world, or attribute the cause of their own or others’ behaviour. On the other hand, some traits, e.g. extraversion or sensation-seeking are conceived of in biological terms, such that the person’s behaviour is a function of physiological, genetic or biochemical differences.

’Normal’ and ’abnormal’ traits can be measured. For instance, some traits are clearly conceived of in terms of abnormal behaviour, such as depression, psychopathy or hypochondriasis. These measure aspects of ’abnormal’ behaviour which, although valid and, indeed, at times quite relevant to work-related behaviours, are less useful than ’normal’ traits, because many working people do not exhibit these traits to any degree. However, this is not true of neuroticism, which is very common.

Dynamic versus stylistic traits. This is the distinction made between Freudian and neo-Freudian ideas (such as the oral or anal personality, which supposedly measures deep-seated, possibly unconscious, needs and fears) and stylistic traits which do not presume the same aetiology (in childhood) or processes.


1 All tests are biased, particularly with regard to sex and race. Some tests do show sex and race differences. This does not mean they are invalid but rather that they need to be used in a very particular way, checking against population norms. Any bias occurs in how they are used, not in what they measure.

2 All candidates fake and lie, making answers worthless. If everyone faked the good/ideal answer, they would all be the same and tests would have no validity. You can’t fake ability tests (only to do worse). There are a number of techniques that test constructors have for catching those who fake, including lie scales.

3 Testing is simply too costly in terms of time and money. If the cost of testing is taken into consideration compared to a candidate’s annual salary or the cost of failure and derailment, it is clearly very little. Some tests can be too expensive for what they provide, but the majority are very good value.

4 Tests are too unreliable: mood, health and the setting influence the results. In fact the opposite is true. Tests are surprisingly robust, yielding very similar results, on different occasions, a long time apart. They are just as reliable as most medical tests and much more so than some (blood pressure measures).

5 Tests do not predict work performance well enough. This is perhaps the most important issue. The question refers, however, to a very simple but very important point: what is the relationship between test scores and reliable and representative measures of work performance? Good tests have all the data in their manuals about this.

6 Most tests don’t or can’t measure really important things like integrity and motivation. This is simply not true as there are many tests of both integrity and motivation. In fact, there are over 50,000 tests of psychological factors in print.

7 People change a lot over time anyway. The data show the opposite. After the mid-twenties there is surprisingly little change in personality to the mid-seventies.

8 All tests are pretty much the same: none out-performs the other. Tests trying to measure the same thing, like intelligence or personality, can be radically different. The question is not what the test looks like but rather evidence of their validity or reliability.

9 You can teach/train/coach anybody to be a great performer. The idea that anyone can become a brain surgeon or an airplane pilot with enough practice and training is still very popular. You need a set of certain characteristics (like intelligence level, body shape, certain gifts) to succeed at certain jobs.

10 Tests don’t spot ’problem people’ well enough. There are numerous ’clinical’ tests that set out to do just this. There must be 20—30 very well-established tests that measure ’dark side’ variables.

11 Attitude, knowledge and skill are more important than intelligence and personality at work. No matter how bright an individual or how well fitted they are to a job, if they are not sufficiently intrinsically motivated very little can be done. Knowledge and skill can be taught: but this is affected by personality and intelligence. Brighter people learn faster.

12 The ’old trio’ (application form, interviews and references) work well enough in selection. Again, this is partly true if: the application form collects biodata that is important and relevant to the job; the interview is planned and structured; the references are collected from people who know the candidate and are prepared to tell the truth.


Furnham, A. (2008). Psychometric correlates of FIRO-B scores. International Journal of Selection and Assessment, 16, 30—45.

Furnham, A. (2010). Personality and Intelligence at Work. London: Routledge.

Furnham, A., & Jackson, C. (2011). Practitioner reaction to work related psychological tests. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 26, 549—65.