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The History of Personality Testing

The History of Personality Testing

Updated 1 June 2021

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Many of the tests and much of the terminology developed in the last century is still in widespread use today and forms the basis of current personality theory and personality tests.

To understand more about where modern personality theory comes from, we need to examine the work of Gordon Allport, Raymond Cattell, Hans Eysenck, Paul Costa & Robert McCrae.

Gordon Allport (1897–1967)

Allport was one of the first psychologists to focus on the study of personality.

He rejected both the psychoanalytic approach, which he thought often went too deep, and the behavioral approach, which he thought often did not go deep enough.

He emphasized the uniqueness of each individual and the importance of the present context, as opposed to past history, for understanding personality.

He identified thousands of personality traits and grouped these into three categories:

The History of Personality Testing
The History of Personality Testing
  1. Cardinal traits – A cardinal trait dominates the personality across time and situations. A cardinal trait is the most important component of your personality; for example, ambition, self-sacrifice, etc. Very few people develop a cardinal trait and, if they do, it tends to be late in life.

  2. Central traits – These are five to ten traits that are stable across time and situations. These are the building blocks of personality. For example, friendliness, meanness, happiness, etc. Most personality theories focus on describing or explaining central traits.

  3. Secondary traits – These characteristics are only evident in some situations and are of less importance to personality theorists. They are aspects of the personality that aren’t quite so obvious or so consistent.

Allport was also one of the first researchers to distinguish between motive and drive.

He suggested that a drive formed as a reaction to a motive may outgrow the motive as a reason. The drive then is autonomous and distinct from the motive.

For example, the drive associated with making money to buy goods and services often becomes an end in itself.

Raymond Cattell (1905–1998)

Cattell took the thousands of traits described by Allport and condensed them down to 16 primary traits using the statistical method of factor analysis.

He was an early proponent of using factor analytical methods instead of what he called ‘verbal theorizing’ to explore the basic dimensions of personality, motivation and cognitive abilities.

The 16 PF (Personality Factors) test which resulted from this work is still in use today.

He called these factors ‘source traits’ because he believed they provide the underlying source for the surface behaviors we think of as personality.

This theory of personality factors and the instrument used to measure them are known respectively as the 16 personality factor model and the 16PF Questionnaire.

The History of Personality Testing
The History of Personality Testing

Hans Eysenck (1916–1997)

Eysenck proposed that only two factors were necessary to explain individual differences in personality.

He argued that Cattell's model contained too many factors which were similar to each other and that a simple two-factor model could encompass the 16 traits proposed by Cattell.

This model had the following dimensions:

The History of Personality Testing
The History of Personality Testing

Eysenck argued that these traits were associated with innate biological differences.

For example, extraverts need more stimulation than introverts do because they have lower resting levels of nervous system arousal than introverts.

Eysenck developed a third factor, psychoticism, which dealt with a predisposition to be psychotic (not grounded in reality) or sociopathic (psychologically unattached).

The History of Personality Testing
The History of Personality Testing

The result was the so-called PEN personality model.

P scale:

Psychoticism -------------------------------------- High Impulse Control

Aggressive, cold, egocentric, Nonagressive, warm, concerned for others
impersonal, impulsive, antisocial, personally involved, considerate, social,
unempathetic, creative, tough-minded empathetic, uncreative, persuadable

E scale:

Extraversion -------------------------------------- Introversion

Sociable, lively, active, assertive, Hermetic, taciturn, passive, unassertive,
sensation-seeking, carefree, stoical, reserved, dependent,
dominant, surgent, venturesome, even-tempered, risk-averse

N scale:

Neuroticism --------------------------------------- Emotional Stability

Anxious, depressed, guilt-feelings, unconcerned, happy, without regret,
low self-esteem, tense, irrational, high self-esteem, relaxed, rational,
shy, moody, emotional, confident, content, controlled

Paul Costa (1942–) & Robert McCrae (1949–)

In the final decades of the twentieth century, an increasing number of psychologists concluded that the three-factor model was too simple and that 16 factors were too many.

In 1990, Paul Costa and Robert McCrae presented their ‘Five-Factor Theory’ and introduced the associated NEO Personality Inventory.

The History of Personality Testing
The History of Personality Testing

This Costa & McCrae model has received significant support from other research and is now widely accepted among psychologists.

There is some minor disagreement regarding the exact definition and naming of these five factors but this is largely an academic debate.

These five aspects of personality are referred to as the five-factors or sometimes just the ‘big five’.

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