As a teenager, I wanted a way to understand why some people have lots of friends, while others don’t. I wanted to know why some people seemed emotionally resilient, never flinching no matter what life threw at them, while others could easily be overwhelmed by emotions. So, I got into personality tests. But, if you’re reading this, you have a big advantage I didn’t have–we can skip all the bad ones and go straight to the one that is widely regarded as being the most scientifically accurate personality test: the Big Five.
The Big Five is widely considered the most scientifically accurate personality test. You can take it right here. This test might look boring than those “What Marvel character are you?” tests you see on Buzzfeed, but that’s actually a good thing. This is developed by real researchers in the field and has detailed results.
What it measures
The Big Five test looks at five different traits that help explain personality. Openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Since I’m not a psychologist, we’re using the Wikipedia definitions to keep things clear:
Openness: “Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent, and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine.”
Conscientiousness: “A tendency to be organized and dependable, show self-discipline, act dutifully, aim for achievement, and prefer planned rather than spontaneous behavior. High conscientiousness is often perceived as stubborn and obsessive. Low conscientiousness are flexible and spontaneous, but can be perceived as sloppy and unreliable.”
Extraversion: “Energy, positive emotions, surgency, assertiveness, sociability and the tendency to seek stimulation in the company of others, and talkativeness. High extraversion is often perceived as attention-seeking, and domineering. Low extraversion causes a reserved, reflective personality, which can be perceived as aloof or self-absorbed.”
Agreeableness: “A tendency to be compassionate and cooperative rather than suspicious and antagonistic towards others. It is also a measure of one’s trusting and helpful nature, and whether a person is generally well-tempered or not. High agreeableness is often seen as naive or submissive. Low agreeableness personalities are often competitive or challenging people, which can be seen as argumentative or untrustworthy.”
Neuroticism: The tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability…A high need for stability manifests as a stable and calm personality, but can be seen as uninspiring and unconcerned. A low need for stability causes a reactive and excitable personality, often very dynamic individuals, but they can be perceived as unstable or insecure.”
For more information on the Big Five traits, check the Wikipedia page. If you want to go deep and really learn about the Big five, check out this University of Oregon page which helps explain why it is probably the most accurate personality test we have–so far.
Can personality tests really describe you?
No test is perfect, but there is good evidence the Big Five can reveal important aspects of your personality. One study noted,
“Conscientiousness has emerged as the only general predictor of job performance, while other dimensions relate to more specific aspects of job performance. For example, Agreeableness and Neuroticism predict performance in jobs where employees work in groups, whereas Extraversion predicts success in sales and management positions.”
Remember, whatever you score on this test is not a life sentence. You can change yourself over time, and by understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your personality you can make better choices. Indeed, scientists believe the “self” is constantly changing. If the test suggests you are unassertive, you can take steps to change that. I also like to remember this quote from Susan Cain, author of Quiet: “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured…Spend your free the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”
Is your personality fixed? Sort of.
Some evidence suggests that your personality is fixed by first grade. But although some key aspects of ourselves are determined early, how we view life has an important impact. In one study, a group of students were given feedback on a test. Half the students were told they did well and were complimented for being smart. The other half were told they did well and complimented for working hard. In subsequent tests, the students that were complimented for hard work did better than the students complimented for intelligence. Why?
If hard work is the cause of our success, working harder pays dividends. But, if intelligence is the cause of our success, then working harder doesn’t matter as much. How well you will do is fixed.Thus, ironically, the students who were told they were smart did poorly compared to the other students. In technical terms, the belief that we control our own lives is known as having an internal locus of control. In contrast, believing that outside factors (like intelligence, or other people) control our lives, is having an external locus of control.
But if believing you have control over your life can influence your success, surely there are other ways we can change our personality–right? Yep.
Want to change your personality?
The easiest way to change our personality is to just get older. One study showed that we become more agreeable and conscientious. So, your average 30 year old is not only more organized than your average 20 year old, but also warmer. This change is something I have really noticed in my own life. At 20, I was incredibly unorganized and actually a bit impatient with my own messiness. Now that I’m 28, it is much easier for me to slip into a zen-like state and get cleaning done. As expected, we also become a little less open as we age, probably a reflection of us knowing what we like. Studies have also shown that living abroad increases openness, agreeableness, and emotional stability.
As an interesting side note, the active ingredient in LSD and psychedelic mushrooms has been shown to increase openness, which further shows that various things can change personality. While we certainly don’t recommend breaking the law or endangering yourself with illegal substances, it is interesting nonetheless.
The Elephant in the Room
You’ve probably heart of the Myers Briggs (MBTI) test. It’s probably the world’s most popular personality test. It is based on the theories of Carl Jung, who worked with Freud. It is so popular that it is even used by Fortune 500 companies to place employees. It’s the test with the 16 different personality types that look like this: INTJ, ENFP, ESTJ. However, many believe it is not reliable or rigorous enough.
This article in Fortune breaks down some of the criticism. They note that despite the test’s popularity, it has “has been subject to sustained criticism by professional psychologists for over three decades.”
I used this test for years, and it is still interesting, but it is considered to be relatively inaccurate, at least at a scientific level. Although I believe there is some good and value from the test, the sheer fact that there are only 16 possible results tells you that, at the very least, it is overly general. After all, are there really only 16 types of people?
While no personality test is perfect, it is probably best to take MBTI results with a larger grain of salt than those with the Big Five. If you’re interested in the Myers-Briggs-type tests, or other alternative tests, I recommend this website. But, as we mentioned earlier, you really should just take the Big Five, the most scientifically accurate personality test.
What personality tests do you like? What were your results from the Big 5? Let us know in the comments!