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1.5: Application of Personality Theory - Assessing Personality

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    As in the section above on research methods, an extensive discussion of personality assessment is beyond the scope of this textbook. However, this is such an important issue that we will look at it briefly here, and then will take a closer look in some of the chapters throughout the rest of the book. There are a number of excellent handbooks available on psychological assessment (e.g., Goldstein & Hersen, 1990; Groth-Marnat, 2003), including two that focus on cross-cultural and multicultural assessment (Dana, 2000; Suzuki et al., 2001).

    Personality assessment most commonly occurs in a clinical setting, when an individual is seeking help for some problem, whether it is an adjustment disorder or a potential mental illness. Assessing personality goes beyond this singular role, however. Certainly a clinical psychologist would be using personality assessment in order to understand a patient’s symptoms, provide a diagnosis (if appropriate), and recommend a preferred course of therapy. Similarly, school psychologists use assessment to identify any possible learning disorders and/or adjustment issues as they pertain to the educational environment. But other psychologists use personality assessment for a variety of reasons as well. Industrial/organizational psychologists use personality assessment to identify preferred candidates for particular jobs, career counselors use these assessments in order to provide valid recommendations regarding the choice of a career path, and research psychologists use assessment in their ongoing efforts to correlate certain personality types to observable behavior or other measures. Thus, the assessment tools used to describe and/or understand personality have a wide range of potential applications.

    Reliability, Validity, and Standardization

    A particular personality assessment is of little value if it has no reliability or validity and if it is not presented in a standardized format.Reliability refers to the likelihood that a test will give essentially the same result on different occasions, or that two versions of the same test will give similar results. Validity refers to whether a test actually measures what it purports to measure. Standardization refers to the manner in which a test is given, which must be the same for every person receiving the test if there is to be any value in comparing the results among different people.

    Determining the reliability and validity of a test can be a long and complicated process, involving a variety of statistical methods to confirm the results. During this process the psychologist(s) developing the test will also typically establish norms. Norms are consistent ways in which particular groups score on a test. For example, on measures of aggressiveness the "normal" level for men may be quite different than the "normal" level for women. Standardization is quite a bit simpler to establish, since the test can include precise instructions dictating the manner in which it is to be given.

    Assessing Personality with Objective Tests

    The most famous self-report inventory is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (or MMPI). The MMPI is also probably the most widely used psychological test in the world, and it has stood the test of time (it is currently in its second version, a 1989 revision of the 1943 original). The current version consists of 567 true-false questions, which address not only normal personality traits, but psychopathology and the accuracy of the test-taker as well. The test has several built in "lie" scales, in case a person were trying to fake a mental illness (e.g., if they were trying to fake an insanity defense to avoid responsibility for a crime) or minimize any symptoms they may actually be experiencing. The questions themselves range from rather simple (e.g., I enjoy drama.) to rather strange (e.g., I am a prophet of God.), but when put all together they provide a highly valid assessment that can easily be scored by computer (hence the popularity of the test, for both reasons). NOTE: Those are not actual questions from the MMPI, but they are based on real questions. The MMPI is an empirically based instrument. That is, interpretations are based on the pattern of responding obtained by various psychiatric samples. Since the standard MMPI was developed for adults and is rather lengthy, an abbreviated version was developed for use with adolescents: the MMPI-A.

    A number of alternatives to the MMPI have been developed. The California Psychological Inventory has been available almost as long as the MMPI and, more recently, the Personality Assessment Inventory has become popular. Another important test is Millon’s Clinical Multiaxial Inventory (the MCMI), which was developed in accordance with Millon’s own theories on personality development and personality disorders (see Appendix A). The MCMI was designed with certain advantages in mind, including being relatively short compared to the MMPI and being connected with a specific clinical theory. However, since the test was designed specifically to distinguish amongst psychiatric populations, it is not as useful when assessing “normal” individuals (Keller et al., 1990; Groth-Marnat, 2003).

    Behavioral assessment and thought sampling are techniques designed to gain an appreciation of what an individual actually does and/or thinks on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. In each case, observers are trained to make precise observations of an individual at precise times. This provides a statistical sample of the individual's actual behavior and/or thoughts over time. Naturally the only person who can record an individual's thoughts is that person himself or herself, but as long as they are carefully informed of the procedure and are fully cooperating, the technique works fine. When applied correctly, the great value of these techniques is that they are truly objective, in other words, they record actual behaviors and actual thoughts.

    Assessing Personality with Projective Tests

    The two most famous projective tests are the Rorschach Inkblot Technique and the Thematic Apperception Test (or TAT). Both tests involve the presentation of ambiguous stimuli in an attempt to draw out responses from a patient, responses reflecting impulses and/or thoughts that the patient may not even be aware of (i.e., the patient projects their own thoughts and feelings onto the ambiguous stimuli, even if those thoughts and feelings are subconscious).

    The Rorschach Inkblots are just that, inkblots on a piece of paper that can look like most anything. An individual being tested is first asked to say what each inkblot looks like, and then they are asked to explain how they saw what they identified. The answer to a single inkblot is not particularly informative, since any one inkblot may remind the person of some particular thing. However, as the patient goes through all 10 inkblots, trends should become apparent to the psychologist that reflect the dominant issues affecting the personality of the patient (again, even if those issues are subconscious and not available to the conscious awareness of the patient). Initially, the Rorschach was reviewed unfavorably and then ignored. Rorschach became depressed, and died only 9 months after the test was published. Eventually, however, the test became more and more popular, and today is certainly one of the most widely recognized psychological tests. However, studies comparing the Rorschach and the MMPI have shown the latter to be far more valid. In an effort to improve both the reliability and validity of the Rorschach technique, there is now a standardized scoring system.

    The TAT is similar to the Rorschach, except that it involves actual pictures of people (although they are still very ambiguous drawings) and the patient is asked to tell a story about the people in the picture. There is no objective scoring system for the TAT, so reliability and validity remain arguable, and the test is more famous than popular as an assessment tool. However, it has been shown to have high validity for certain specific research studies, such as studies on the need for achievement, and continues to serve a function in clinical formulations.

    Clinical Interviews

    As valuable and informative as the well-established psychological tests are, there is certain vital information that simply cannot be addressed with most tests, such as: a person's appearance, their attitude, facial expressions, ability to communicate with another person, etc. In addition, tests often lead to further questions, or the need for clarification or explanation. In order to address such issues, both in general and in greater detail, clinical interviews are an essential part of the overall personality assessment. Although the results of an interview are somewhat subjective, when viewed in the context of the psychologist’s clinical experience, along with results of an assessment tool, they provide psychologists with a much more complete understanding of the person whom they are evaluating.

    Discussion Question: Have you or anyone you know ever had psychological testing (don’t forget standardized tests of knowledge and intelligence in school!)? If you are at all familiar with psychological testing, for any reason, what effect did it have on you (or someone you know)?

    Critical Thinking in Psychology

    Critical thinking is always important in psychology, but given the complexity of individual personalities, the many different theories, and the variety of approaches for studying and assessing personality, it is particularly important for our consideration here. Although we often think of the word critical as something negative, when we talk about critical thinking in psychology we are actually talking about being open-minded to many possible answers, but arriving at a most likely answer in a reasoned and logical fashion. Critical thinking is a skill, but unfortunately one that all too often isn’t taught (Halpern, 1996, 2007; Sternberg, 2007).

    A typical approach to teaching critical thinking is to use examples of false claims and systematically deconstruct the manner in which they are made to appear true, while at the same time discussing the psychological processes involved in decision making (see, e.g., Halpern, 1996; Ruscio, 2006). John Ruscio has done a nice job of organizing his discussion around four areas pertaining to the tactics of pseudoscientists who would intentionally mislead us: 1) deception, the methods they use to deceive us; 2) self-deception, the types of evidence that lead us toward unwittingly deceiving ourselves; 3) psychological tricks, a variety of tricks that create and sustain unwarranted beliefs; and 4) the decision-making process and the ethical concerns of pseudoscientific practices. Ruscio (2006) has also provided a handy list of the characteristics of pseudoscience:

    1. Outward Appearance of Science

    2. Absence of Skeptical Peer Review

    3. Reliance on Personal Experience

    4. Evasion of Risky Tests

    5. Retreats to the Supernatural

    6. The Mantra of Holism

    7. Tolerance of Inconsistencies

    8. Appeals to Authority

    9. Promising the Impossible

    10. Stagnation

    While it may seem tempting for you to take for granted that you do not need to apply critical thinking to the theories presented in this book, that could present something of a problem for you. Many of these theories disagree with one another. Although the major theories have all been proposed by famous and respected theorists, some critics claim they were not developed scientifically, and the spiritual paths that will be discussed in the last section of the book have many skeptics. As you consider each theory, there are some critical thinking skills you can keep in mind. What is your goal as you evaluate a theory? What do you know and how are you drawing conclusions? If your class is having a debate or a discussion what is being said, how is it being said, and how are the arguments being analyzed? Are certain conclusions probable; are you, or others, overconfident in your conclusions? Have you considered alternatives? Practicing these, and other, skills can help to develop your critical thinking abilities (Halpern, 2007). Finally, consider this “simple” definition of critical thinking offered by Diane Halpern:

    Critical thinking is the use of those cognitive skills or strategies that increase the probability of a desirable outcome. It is used to describe thinking that is purposeful, reasoned, and goal directed - the kind of thinking involved in solving problems, formulating inferences, calculating likelihoods, and making decisions, when the thinker is using skills that are thoughtful and effective for the particular context and type of thinking task. (pg. 6; Halpern, 2007)

    Discussion Question: When you hear someone make a claim, whether it is something scientific or a commercial advertisement, do you tend to believe it, or do you apply critical thinking to evaluate whether the claim is likely to be true?

    Personality Theory in Real Life: Making the Connection Between Your Life and Personality Theory

    In this chapter we do not have a particular theory or perspective within which to consider your own life. So, let’s try considering your life in any way you want. I do want you to consider one basic question, though. Who are you? You might also ask yourself what makes you the person you think you are. Try writing down some of your thoughts. Writing the ideas down helps to force you to really pay attention to your thoughts, rather than just casually thinking about the questions without going into any detail. When you are done, take a look at what you have written. Ask yourself again, “Is that really me?” You may want to write down your new thoughts after evaluating what you have written.

    Then try something that may be very interesting, but possibly a little unnerving. Ask a friend or relative, someone you think really knows you well, and have them write down some ideas on who you are. Don’t bother them, or distract them, while they are doing this. Let them have the time they need to do it. Then look at what they have written, and once again ask, “Is that really me?” Finally, compare what you wrote and what they wrote. Is there a difference, and if so, is it a big difference?

    Whether the different descriptions of who you are or, in other words, the descriptions of your personality are the same or different, how do you feel about that? Some may find comfort in learning that others see them as they see themselves. Some may be confused if others see them quite differently than they see themselves. There are no right or wrong answers here, it is just an exercise to help you begin thinking about how psychologists study personality. As we move through the various theories and perspectives presented in this textbook, it will provide a starting point from which you can hopefully learn something interesting about yourself and about the people you interact with every day.

    This page titled 1.5: Application of Personality Theory - Assessing Personality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.