Personality Assessment Research Paper

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To assess personality is to characterize the enduring psychological qualities that contribute to the coherence and uniqueness of the individual person and to the differences among individuals. The task of personality assessment commonly is construed in terms of the measurement of quantifiable personality variables. However, personality assessment may include both quantitative and qualitative techniques.

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The set of methods that psychologists have employed to assess personality is highly diverse. There are two main reasons for this. One is that assessors have held varying beliefs about the nature of personality itself. The twentieth century witnessed a variety of formal theories of personality. These theoretical positions have guided assessors’ decisions about the aspects of personality to assess and the procedures to use to assess them. Diversity in personality theory thus has fostered a corresponding diversity in assessment techniques. The second reason is that investigators may assess personality with different goals in mind. One may aim, for example, to describe normal variations in personality in the population at large; to diagnose psychopathology suffered by a small subset of the population; or to obtain a detailed portrait of the psychological structures and dynamics that characterize a particular individual. Different goals commonly require different assessment methods. The methods that contemporary investigators employ are reviewed below, following a history of the field.

1. History

In a general sense, to assess personality is to evaluate the individual in a formal manner. Personality assessment, then, is as old as is the development of formal schemes for characterizing persons. Two early schemes are found in ancient Greece. The Corpus Hippocraticum introduced the notion that variations in four bodily humors (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile) determine one’s predominant psychological temperament (sanguine, melancholic, choleric, and phlegmatic). Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, provided a series of character sketches of common personality types, each defined according to a moral attribute (the liar, the adulterer, etc.). The differences between these approaches—one examining biological constitution and providing a simple system for characterizing individual differences, and the other focusing on social behavior in the moral domain and providing a more differentiated set of descriptors—interestingly foreshadows variations within the contemporary field.

The more recent centuries witnessed attempts to link personality to biological anatomy. Investigators measured anatomical features in an effort to identify underlying causes of overt psychological qualities. These efforts included the eighteenth to nineteenth century work of Lavater, who interpreted facial features; the ‘organology’ of Gall and ‘phrenology’ of Spurzheim, both of whom assessed variations in the anatomy of the skull; and the work of Lombroso, who assessed physical features that purportedly were markers of criminality. These efforts, of course, proved to be of little lasting value.

A more sophisticated conception of assessment was found in the efforts of Charcot, Janet, Freud, and Jung to diagnose the causes of psychopathology. Freud’s free association technique, for example, was not only a therapeutic treatment but an assessment tool. What-ever the merits of these efforts, however, they failed to meet applied psychologists’ need for efficient assessments that could be administered easily to relatively large populations.

Modern approaches to personality assessment can be traced to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century efforts of Galton and Binet to assess intelligence. Their standardized, paper-and-pencil assessments of individual differences in intellectual abilities provided a model for the standardized assessment of individual differences in personal styles, preferences, and behavioral tendencies. The first paper-and-pencil standardized personality inventory was the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet, which was developed during World War I to screen from the US armed forces individuals suffering from psychological disorders. Thanks heavily to their ease of administration, standarized self-report tests proved to be the most commonly employed personality assessment method throughout the remainder of the twentieth century.

A noteworthy alternative to paper-and-pencil assessment was developed during World War II by psychologists at the US Office of Strategic Services, working under the direction of Harvard psychologist Henry Murray. To screen candidates for participation in risky missions, this group assessed candidates’ behavior in artificially constructed situations that contained the same types of challenges (e.g., solving practical engineering problems, displaying leadership in a group) that one might face on an actual mission. Such in vivo behavioral assessments can be of much predictive value. However, they are much more cumbersome and costly than paper-and-pencil self-reports, and thus are used much less frequently.

Finally, two theoretical developments in the 1950s and 1960s proved to be of historical importance to the field. One was the development of the concept of construct validity (Cronbach and Meehl 1955). Construct validity is concerned with the degree to which an assessment tool adequately measures a hypothesized psychological construct, as that construct is understood within a given theoretical framework. Determining the validity of a test generally involves gauging the degree to which that test predicts external criteria to which the associated construct should be related. A valid self-report test of conscientiousness, for example, would be one that adequately samples the domain of conscientious behaviors and predicts external criteria involving conscientious actions such as adhering to social norms and controlling impulses.

The second development was a paradigm crisis in the field of personality assessment in the late 1960s. Although the crisis had many sources, a critique by Mischel (1968) was particularly influential. Mischel questioned whether assessments of decontextualized or ‘global’ personality constructs predict specific behaviors to which they are conceptually related. His review indicated that global personality measures commonly either fail to predict behavioral criteria or predict so little of the variance that they are of little practical use. His critique prompted divergent reactions. Some tried to improve the measurement of global psychological characteristics. Others developed personality theories and associated assessment tools that were not based on global trait variables. These theoretical alternatives were, instead, grounded in the analysis of basic cognitive and affective processes, and the social contexts that activate these psychological mechanisms. These ‘social–cognitive’ theories aimed to account for both trait-like consistency and situation-to-situation variability in behavior.

2. Distinctions Among Contemporary Approaches To Personality Assessment

The diversity of contemporary assessment tools can be organized according to a set of distinctions that differentiate alternative assessment efforts.

2.1 Targets Of Assessment

One distinction concerns the target of personality assessment; that is, what it is that one is trying to assess. The most basic differentiation separates (a) the assessment of overt, surface-level tendencies in experience and action from (b) the assessment of internal personality structures and dynamics. Phrased simply, one may assess either phenotypic tendencies or genotypic psychological systems that causally contribute to those tendencies.

Whether one is assessing surface-level tendencies or internal psychological systems, one still must choose the precise tendencies or systems to target. These decisions generally are guided by broad theoretical principles about the nature of personality. With respect to surface-level phenotypes, the most common choice is to assess mean-level behavioral tendencies. Assessors commonly compute people’s average tendency to display a particular type of behavior by aggregating together behavioral reports from diverse social contexts. This choice reflects the thinking of trait theories of personality, which view average tendencies in action as the defining expression of personality. In contrast, others caution that an assessment of mean-level tendencies is a necessary but insufficient step. It is insufficient because other features, such as variation in action across contexts (Mischel and Shoda 1995) or time (Larsen 1989), also distinguish individuals from one another. The assessment of contextual variation in action is consistent with social–cognitive theories of personality (Bandura 1986, Cervone and Shoda 1999), as detailed in Section 3.2.

Regarding the underlying genotypes, different theories again suggest different targets of assessment. Psychodynamic views explain behavior in terms of internal psychic conflicts that involve material of which persons are not consciously aware. Assessment thus must target these nonconscious psychological systems; projective tests such as the Rorschach inkblot text and the Thematic Apperception Test are designed for this purpose. Social–cognitive theories contend that the core features of personality are cognitive capabilities through which people acquire social skills, reflect upon themselves, evaluate their actions, and regulate their behavior and emotional experience in accord with personal goals and standards for performance (Bandura 1986). This view dictates that assessments target an interacting system of cognitive and affective mechanisms (Cervone et al. 2001). Both psychodynamic and social–cognitive theories anticipate that there may be complex, nonlinear relations between underlying psychological systems and overt behavioral patterns. In contrast, some trait theories of personality propose that internal personality structures and overt behavior are related in a relatively direct, linear manner. Personality is construed as a small set of inherited trait structures (e.g., conscientiousness, extraversion), each of which fosters a characteristic mean level of phenotypic thoughts, feelings, and actions (e.g., conscientious acts, extraverted acts; McCrae and Costa 1996). Finally, some theorists study the role in personality functioning of personal narratives that individuals construct over the course of life (McAdams 1996). Their work suggests that personality assessment should include procedures (e.g., oral interviews or written narratives) to assess individuals’ life stories.

2.2 Nomothetic Vs. Idiographic Assessment

A second distinction involves overarching strategies of assessment. One strategy is to focus on an individual person and determine the potentially unique constellation of psychological variables that best characterizes that individual. Another is to focus first on the variables, and to seek a set of personality variables and associated assessment procedures that can be used to characterize the personality of any and all individuals. The former approach is an ‘idiographic’ strategy (from the Greek idios, referring to personal, private, and distinct characteristics), whereas the latter approach is ‘nomothetic’ (from the Greek for law, nomos, used here to refer to the search for universal scientific laws). A typical nomothetic strategy might use standardized tests to determine individuals’ relative standing on one or more individual-difference variables. Idiographic assessment might involve interviews, unstructured self-descriptions, or biographical analyses of an individual’s life.

Personality assessment may blend nomothetic and idiographic procedures. For example, one may have the same assessment goals and employ the same general testing procedures with all individuals. However, the exact content of the test items one employs may vary from person to person. Kelly’s (1955) Role Construct Reperatory test is a classic example of a test that combines nomothetic procedures with idiographic content. The assessor’s goal is always to identify the ideas, or constructs, that people use to understand their world. The testing procedure is always one in which test takers are asked to indicate how a set of target persons is similar or different from one another. The exact content of the test items, however, varies idiographically. Each test taker provides a personal list of individuals who are of importance to him or her. This personalized list then comprises the list of target persons employed in the test. Contemporary assessments of belief systems and social-cognitive processes commonly mix idiographic and nomothetic methods in this manner (Caprara and Cervone 2000).

In practice, personality assessment has been dominated by the use of nomothetic procedures. The most commonly employed assessment instruments, such as the Cattell 16 P.F. Inventory, the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire (EPQ), the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), or the revised NEO personality inventory (NEO-PI-R), are nomothetic devices. Assessment consists of the administration of a standardized test that is used to rank individuals on a set of individual-difference dimensions.

2.3 Sources Of Data

Whether one is employing a nomothetic or idiographic strategy, another question faced by the personality assessor is the source of data to draw upon. Block (1968) has drawn useful distinctions among alternative data sources; the following section modifies and elaborates upon his distinctions in light of contemporary research developments.

One can delineate at least seven sources of data that may be used in personality assessment

(a) Behavioral Observations in Naturalistic Settings are direct observations of a person’s everyday behaviors, or the analysis of biographical records (e.g., school attendance records, records of legal infractions) that provide an objective index of such behaviors.

(b) Behavioral Observations in Experimentally Constructed Settings are observations of a person’s behavior in situations designed by a researcher to constitute a context that is relevant to a personality construct or constructs under study. The test taker’s reactions in that context are interpreted as indicators of the construct. Although the use of experimentally constructed settings has the advantage of greater experimental control, it also has a significant disadvantage. Personality characteristics often reveal themselves in the way people select environments; that is, in their choices to enter some settings and avoid others. Assessment procedures that confront all individuals with a fixed set of circumstances are insensitive to the influence of personality factors on the selection of environments.

(c) Explicit Self-reports ask people to describe their typical behaviors, thoughts, feelings, or personal characteristics. This is most commonly done through standardized multi-item tests, although explicit self-reports also may involve less structured techniques such as the writing of self-descriptive narratives.

(d) Implicit Self-reports are designed to tap beliefs or self-evaluations of which individuals may not be explicitly aware. For example, reaction-time techniques can reveal the degree to which individuals associate concepts with one another; an implicit test of self-esteem might use reaction-time measures to determine how strongly the concept of ‘self’ is linked to concepts of positive vs. negative emotional tone (Greenwald and Banaji 1995).

(e) Observer Reports are assessment procedures in which peers, family members, or other persons familiar with an individual are asked to evaluate their typical behaviors, feelings, or personal characteristics.

(f ) Psychophysiological Indices include any of a wide variety of indicators of neural or biochemical systems that directly bear upon personality functioning and psychological differences among individuals. For example, electrophysiological measures are used to assess individual differences in cortical brain activity that may be a biological basis of overt individual differences in extraversion (Geen 1997).

(g) Cognitive Indices are assessments of the content or organization of a person’s knowledge about themselves and the world. Many of the most important differences among individuals involve differences in knowledge and beliefs systems. A diverse set of tools, many deriving from the study of social cognition, have been employed to assess enduring individual differences in the content, complexity, and organization of knowledge structures that underlie personality functioning and individual differences (Caprara and Cervone 2000).

2.4 Comprehensiveness Of Assessment

A final distinction concerns the comprehensiveness of personality assessment. Assessors sometimes wish to obtain a relatively complete portrait of the dispositional tendencies or underlying psychological dynamics that characterize an individual. Alternatively, one may desire merely to tap one or two personality variables of interest. The term ‘personality assessment’ commonly is applied to both comprehensive assessment efforts and measures of individual personality variables.

3. Illustrative Assessment Strategies: Five-Factor Theory And Social–Cognitive Theory

The conceptual distinctions drawn above are somewhat abstract. A more concrete understanding of alternative personality assessment strategies can be obtained by considering some examples of theory- driven assessment. Two examples are considered here; namely, the personality assessment procedures that derive from five-factor theory (McCrae and Costa 1996) and social–cognitive theory (e.g., Bandura 1986, Mischel and Shoda 1995, reviewed in Cervone and Shoda 1999).

3.1 Assessing Individual Differences In Global Dispositional Tendencies; The ‘Big Five’ Or ‘Five-Factor’ Model

As noted above, the most common approach to personality assessment is to rank individuals on nomothetic individual-difference dimensions. The dimensions commonly represent global surface-level tendencies; that is, average tendencies to display behaviors that are representative of a given dispositional category. In a comprehensive assessment effort, individuals are ranked on a system of n individual-difference dimensions. The individual’s personality is then represented as a point in ndimensional space.

A primary question that arises is: What are the n dimensions? What set of dimensions is necessary and reasonably sufficient to capture individual differences in the population? A corollary question is methodological: How can one identify these dimensions? On the latter question, there has long been consensus. Investigators conduct factor analyses of the dispositional tendencies of large populations of individuals. The resulting factors then constitute the dimensions that form the core of personality assessment. Despite consensus on methods, on the former question there historically has been disagreement. Investigators in the mid-twentieth century proposed factor-analytic structures containing as many as 16 and as few as two dimensions. A major development in the 1980s and 1990s is that investigators achieved substantial consensus on the number and the nature of the factors required to assess phenotypic individual differences. Consensus centered on a five-dimensional trait taxonomy known as the big five (John and Srivastava 1999) or five-factor (McCrae and Costa 1996) model. The factors represent global individual differences in (a) extraversion or energy, (b) emotional stability or neuroticism, (c) conscientiousness, (d) agreeableness, and (e) openness to experience, particularly novel intellectual or cultural experiences. (Some interpret the fifth factor as being closer to intellect than to openness.) This five-dimensional structure has been identified in both self-reports and observer-reports, in assessment using both trait adjectives and items from professional personality inventories, and in both English (the model’s language of origin) and other Indo–European and non-Indo– European languages.

The five-factor model provides an appealingly simple solution to the problem of assessing phenotypic tendencies. One merely plots people’s average tendencies to exhibit actions indicative of each of five dispositional categories. Assessors also may seek more detailed information, such as people’s tendency to display behaviors that are representative of narrower trait dimensions that are hierarchically related to the primary factors (in the way that sociability, for example, is hierarchically related to extraversion). Nonetheless, measuring the big five remains the core assessment task.

To some, the model also provides an appealingly simple solution to the problem of assessing causal genotypic structures. Although many proponents of the big five structure treat it merely as a descriptive model (Goldberg 1993), some suggest that it also is explanatory. In McCrae and Costa’s (1996) five-factor theory, the factors are construed as ‘dimensions of individual differences in tendencies to show consistent patterns of thoughts, feelings, and actions … (and) also … a property of an individual that accounts for his or her placement along this trait dimension’ (McCrae and Costa 1996, p. 235). ‘Agreeableness,’ for example, refers simultaneously to a person’s tendency to exhibit the behaviors one calls ‘agreeable’ and to an internal structure that corresponds to, and purportedly explains, this overt tendency.

This theoretical position has an interesting implication for assessment. It dissolves the distinction between the assessment of overt tendencies and internal psychological systems (Sect. 2.1, above). Fivefactor theorists assess an individual’s average behavioral tendency and interpret the measure as an index of both what the person does (an overt behavioral disposition) and what the person has (an internal psychological structure).

Although the simplicity of this approach may be appealing, its underlying logic can be questioned. Two concerns are of particular note. First, the five factors are identified in analyses of populations, yet are assumed to exist in the psychological make-up of each and every individual in the population (McCrae and Costa 1996). On purely statistical grounds, there is no reason to expect that group-level statistical parameters will replicate themselves at the level of each member of the group. (As a simple example, a group may average 40 years of age, yet no one in the group may be 40 years old.) Second, five-factor theory explains overt dispositional tendencies (e.g., a person’s consistently agreeable acts) by inferring hypothetical causal constructs that contain the very properties that one is supposed to explain (e.g., agreeableness). This approach violates a standard principle of scientific explanation. As Hanson (1961, pp. 120–1) explained, ‘What requires explanation cannot itself figure in the explanation,’ for example, ‘if the colors of objects are to be explained by atoms, then atoms cannot be colored’ (also see Nozick 1981). This principle of explanation suggests that one should not explain dispositional tendencies by inferring psychological constructs that directly embody those tendencies. It follows, then, that the assessment of surface-level tendencies and of internal psychological systems that explain those tendencies should be construed as separate tasks (Cervone et al. 2001).

3.2 Assessing Cognitive And Affective Systems And Persons-In-Context: Social–Cognitive Theory

An approach to personality and assessment that differs markedly from five-factor theory is that of social– cognitive theory (reviewed in Cervone and Shoda 1999). Social–cognitive theory rests on three main principles. Persons and sociocultural environments are viewed as reciprocally interacting systems. The core person variables are cognitive and affective mechanisms through which people interpret the world, reflect upon themselves, and self-regulate their behavior. Finally, personality is viewed as a complex, dynamic system; social–cognitive and affective mechanisms function in concert as interacting systems that underlie the coherence of personality functioning (Cervone and Shoda 1999).

This theoretical perspective has significant implications for assessment. One implication is that assessments of surface-level behavioral tendencies and of underlying psychological systems must be kept distinct. If overt tendencies reflect complex interactions among multiple underlying social–cognitive mechanisms, then there may be no simple relation between an overt behavioral pattern and any individual socialcognitive variable. The assessment of overt tendencies then cannot substitute for the assessment of internal structures. A second implication is that personality assessment must be contextualized. People’s selfregulatory abilities enable them to vary their behavior strategically in accord with the perceived opportunities and demands of environmental settings. One must attend to these contextual variations to appreciate fully the distinctive features of an individual’s personality (Mischel and Shoda 1995). A third implication is that personality assessment should include more than just an assessment of current dispositional tendencies. People possess potentials that may not be reflected in their typical daily activities. A person may, for example, possess a potential for leadership or for parenthood that only manifests itself when relevant circumstances arise (Caprara and Cervone 2000). Social–cognitive assessors commonly target skills and belief systems through which individuals contribute to their own development over the course of time (Bandura 1986). Finally, social–cognitive theory and research indicates that the content of personal beliefs, and the interconnections among elements of personal and social knowledge, may vary idiosyncratically from one person to another (Cantor and Kihlstrom 1987). This implies that assessments must be highly sensitive to individual idiosyncracy. Social– cognitive investigators commonly assess personal belief systems through idiographic methods (Cervone et al. 2001).

4. General Comments

The divergent conceptions of personality assessment that derive from five-factor theory as compared to social–cognitive theory underscore the more general point made earlier. To assess personality, one must rely upon a theory of personality. Questions of personality assessment and personality theory are inevitably intertwined.

In recent years, basic research on biological, affective, and cognitive processes increasingly has informed the study of molar behavioral patterns and differences among individuals. These advances have begun to yield an integrative psychology of personality in which diverse sources of knowledge are brought to bear upon questions of personality functioning and individual differences (Caprara and Cervone 2000). An ongoing challenge for personality assessors, then, is further to develop assessment techniques that do not merely describe surface-level behavioral patterns, but also shed light on specific underlying psychological processes that contribute to the consistency and coherence of personality.


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