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How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of Personality Tests in Hiring

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Are you a proud “Advocate”, according to your Myers Briggs Type Indicator test results? Or maybe you discovered after taking the Big Five Personality Traits test that you possess a high level of openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness, a medium level of extraversion, and a slight neurotic streak?

If you’re anything like most of us, you’ve probably taken a personality test or two in your lifetime. You may have even been required to take one as part of a job application. 

Many workplaces now utilize personality assessments to gain a better understanding of potential hires. They do so in the belief that these tests will give them a baseline idea of how each candidate will act in different situations and bring to the fore the key characteristics of their personality.

But as you’ll soon learn, the history of personality tests highlights a very interesting fact that many workplaces either aren’t aware of or willingly ignore: personality tests were never intended to be used as a hiring tool. 

If you’re an HR leader who currently uses them in your recruitment process, or you’re considering doing so, this article is a must-read. You’ll learn all about the history of personality assessments, the most popularly used ones in the workplace, and the pros and cons of doing so. We’ll also suggest a far more effective alternative for you to consider.

Why personality tests exist

According to the Harvard Business Review, personality tests are now a $500 million industry. And its annual growth rate is estimated at between 10%-15%. So this sector that’s all about deciphering what’s happening in our human skull is set to surge. 

While the first personality test wasn’t used in the realm of hiring, psychologists have adapted existing frameworks to suit the world of recruitment. Based on the latest innovations in clinical psychology, these assessments can give valuable insights into the human personality and psychology. 

Since these types of personality and psychology assessments first became popular in the mass media, psychologists have changed and adapted their test methods. The history of personality tests is long and varied and surprisingly related to shell shock in the first world war. 

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at how the personality test originated and became a recruiting crutch.

Personality tests is a growing industry
The personality tests industry is growing 10%-15% a year, according to the Harvard Business Review

Where personality tests began and who created them

Before we delve into the types of tests you may want to consider, it’s worth understanding how they emerged. Let’s take a look at the history of assessing personalities. 

Believe it or not, the origins of the personality test can be traced back to the first world war. Charles Myers, a doctor with the Royal Army Medical Corps, documented a case of a 23-year-old soldier who was suffering from ‘shell shock’

While the condition of shell shock would later be better understood as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the work Myers conducted created a system that would come into widespread use by the US Army. 

Fast-forward to 1918, and a telegram to the War Department read: “Prevalence of mental disorders in replacement troops recently received suggests urgent importance of intensive efforts in eliminating mentally unfit from organizations new draft prior to departure from the United States”. 

“It is doubtful whether the War Department can in any other way, more importantly, assist to lessen the difficulty felt by Gen. Pershing than by properly providing for initial psychological examination of every drafted man as soon as he enters camp.”

By this point, the U.S. Army already had neuro-psychiatry and psychology divisions alongside a school of military psychology within the Medical Officers Training Camp. That led to more than a million new recruit soldiers having psychological assessments. 

Robert Sessions Woodworth, a professor at Columbia, created what would later become the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet for draftees. The brief test consisted of a series of yes or no questions that helped to determine each soldier’s traits and psychological state.

The widespread use of personality tests during the first world war sparked intrigue in the labor sector. While the theory behind the original assessments was that psychologists could use them to work out whether an individual was suffering from shell shock, it became clear that these tests could reveal more about each individual. 

Employers soon began using tests to avoid hiring job applicants with neurotic tendencies who were likely to cause trouble in the workplace. However, as the working world advanced, employers saw the value in using such assessments to delve into the characteristics of employees’ personalities. 

One example was the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, which came out in 1931. The assessment evaluates characteristics including neurotic tendency, self-sufficiency, introversion or extroversion, and dominance or submission.

Different types of personality tests 

Now that you have a clearer idea about the history of personality assessment and testing, it’s worth taking a look at the types of assessments that have gained popularity.

After all, not all personality tests are created equal. While there’s an array of tests out there, two of the most common types are self-report inventories and projective tests.

Self-report inventories

Self-report inventories are exactly what they say. These types of personality assessments tend to be a number of questions that each of the participants or candidates has to answer. The answers that a test taker gives may be based on a scale (e.g. 5 = Agree and 1 = Disagree) or be yes or no answers. The general idea is to identify what traits an individual has based on how much they relate to statements or the answers that they give.

Have you ever done a questionnaire in a magazine to figure out who you should marry or what job you should have? This type of personality assessment takes a similar format, however, they have clinical backing. 

Some well-known examples of self-report inventories include the Myers Briggs Type Indicator and the California Personality Inventory. Strategic services will offer self-report questionnaires to candidates. Often enough, these are context-specific to the role for which they are recruiting. Each will have a common form that works as a personality measurement.

Projective tests

Projective tests are a less straightforward type of personality assessment. As part of these tests, participants will look at ambiguous images, scenes, or even words. Unlike self-report inventories, these assessments focus less on a person’s traits and more on their hidden beliefs and values. 

Having their foundations in clinical psychology, these types of assessments draw upon scientific research to identify certain characteristics that a person has.

Imagine a therapist is showing a client ink blots and asking them what they see. That’s one of the easiest ways to illustrate a projective test. While these are used in both social psychology (soc psychol) and workplace settings, we often associate them with the former. 

When participants look at certain test items, they state what they see or how they make them feel. These responses are said to provide an insight into their subconscious and personality.

How they started being used in recruitment

Personality assessments are commonplace in clinical settings. However, recruiters quickly learned that these tests can be used to pinpoint behavioral patterns that indicate overall job performance. 

For example, if a person is highly organized and works well as part of a team, you reasonably deduce that they will excel in a workplace. Conversely, if someone finds it hard to keep on top of tasks, they may not be a good fit in a fast-paced company.

Needless to say, different personality types work well in different settings. An outgoing and chatty individual may be able to become an expert salesperson, while a strategic individual could work well in an analytical role. 

So it makes sense that many hiring managers think that the better you can understand someone’s human personality by conducting personality testing, the better chance you have of choosing the right person for the job. 

Driven by this belief, it’s little wonder that the popularity of psychological tests in the workplace has exploded. Research from the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology suggests that 13% of American employers use personality tests in the interview process

However, as we’ll later explore in more detail, basing hiring decisions on the results of a candidate’s personality assessment is a bad idea. Psychological tests will not help you to track down the right talent. In fact, relying on personality assessment resources is more likely to lead to the opposite effect by causing you to overlook the perfect candidate. 

Personality tests in recruitment
Personality tests are used in the interview processes for 13% of American employers, according to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology

6 modern methods of personality testing

While the original personality test was used to screen soldiers for shell shock, times have changed. These days, there are many different methods to identify the personalities of individuals. Many of these assessments are in the public domain or cost a small to large fee to use. To help you get to grips with the tests available, here are some of the most common.

6 modern methods of personality testing
6 modern methods of personality testing

Myers Briggs 

First up, let’s take a look at one of the most famous personality tests. The Myers Briggs Type Indicator was originally developed by Isabel Briggs Myers, and her mother, Katharine Briggs. 

The system is used to identify different personality types based on participants’ answers to a series of questions about their typical behaviors and reactions to given situations. 

The results are given as an acronym of one of the 16 types of personality the test assesses. For example, “The Protagonist” is otherwise known as an “ENFJ”. An ENFJ result represents that the test taker has Extraverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Judging personality characteristics. 

While possessing “The Performer” personality, also known as an “ESFP”,  means that the test taker has extraverted, sensing, feeling, and perceiving as their dominant personality characteristics. 

Within the modern world of business, the Myers Briggs Type Indicator is often used in various sectors to work out which candidates will be a good fit for specific roles. 

The Four Temperaments 

Based on the psychological research of Dr. David Keirsey, the Four Temperaments is a “configuration of observable personality traits”. 

According to this particular test, there are four different types of personality: Guardian, Idealist, Artisan, and Rational. Each of these combines two elements of our character — our action and communication style. Recruiters and employers can use this test to gain an overview of the test taker’s basic outlook. 

Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory

The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is one of the best-known tools to help diagnose mental illnesses. While the test has ‘personality inventory’ in its name, it’s worth knowing that this is less to do with personality types than disorders. 

The assessment dates back to the 1930s when clinical psychologist Starke Hathaway and neuropsychiatrist J.C. McKinley at the University of Minnesota developed it. The psychological testing system is often used in the modern world to determine cases of psychopathy and other conditions. 

The Big Five Personality Test

The Big Five Personality Test, otherwise known as the Five Factor Model, helps individuals to measure their big five personality traits using a standardized assessment. As the name suggests, this works on a five-factor model, looking at specific areas of your personality. 

The five-factor model measures the participant’s level of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The test consists of 60 questions, which means that it only takes between five and 10 minutes to see which of these five factors test-takers apparently possess. 

The Birkman Method

Based on Dr. Roger W. Birkman’s Test of Social Comprehension, this personality assessment is now used by thousands of companies around the world. The Birkman Method is a personality test that uses positive psychology to assess a person’s unique attributes. This particular test is based on the four perspectives of an individual’s personality — motivation, self-perception, social perception, and mindset. 

The DISC Assessment 

DISC is an acronym that stands for dominance, influence, steadiness, and conscientiousness. Participants taking this personality assessment will fall most heavily into one of the above categories. 

Those in the dominance category will be confident and love getting results. People in the influence category will be open and able to influence others. Individuals in the steadiness category will be dependable and cooperative. People in the conscientiousness category place focus on accuracy, expertise, and competency.

While there are countless other personality tests that recruiters and psychologists may use, such as the International Personality Item Pool, the ones listed above are some of the most popular. 

As we have mentioned, there has been a long history of employers using personality assessments as part of their hiring process and to shape the career paths of candidates. With that in mind, this is an area that continues to develop and expand with new research.

Pros and cons of personality tests in hiring

In order to gain a more complete picture of using personality tests in hiring, it’s helpful to look at both the pros and cons of doing so… 

Pro: You can gain a better understanding of each personality type 

The reason that personality tests have become so popular in the recruitment world is that they can help you to better understand each candidate. When someone undertakes one of these tests, you can quickly gain insights into their possible working style and personality type. That could be helpful when you’re looking for a specific professional with a well-defined skill-set.

Con: Test scoring can be subjective 

Scoring these assessments can be an incredibly subjective process, especially when it comes to projective tests. Test takers may gain different test results depending on the day or their mood. They may be impacted by the testing conditions as well. 

For example, if the hiring manager administering the test is unfriendly, the test taker may feel negative emotionality, like anxiousness. Ultimately, the questions — or rather test items — tend to be highly subjective. There’s no right answer. That means that how each test taker responds will depend on how they feel in the given moment. 

Pro: You may be able to find a good fit for your culture 

When you understand an individual’s personality, it may seem like an easy way to decide whether they will be a good fit for your culture. Using a personality inventory could appear to be a straightforward means of getting an overview of how a potential employee may work with your existing team. 

You may want to use the results they gain to analyze how their traits will contribute to the greater workplace environment. However, before you start hiring based on the results of psychological assessment resources or so-called culture fit, keep in mind that hiring for culture fit is problematic in itself. 

It doesn’t take into account a candidate’s skills or personal development. What’s more, hiring based on so-called personality could lead to you inadvertently discriminating against certain individuals. 

Con: Not all tests are reliable or accurate

One of the biggest problems with personality tests is that they aren’t always reliable. The internet is rife with such tests, but most are riddled with problems regarding their validity in a workplace setting — including those that have been developed by psychologists in a clinical setting.  

As a hiring manager or recruiter, if you do choose to use a personality assessment, you need to be picky about which one you use. Selecting one that is research-backed could be the way to go. A test’s reliability refers to how accurate it is. Opting to use renowned psychological assessment resources will make a big difference. 

Pro: They may help you understand a person’s talents 

Each of us brings a unique set of traits and talents to the table. Whenever you’re interviewing a candidate, you’ll be on the lookout for how well they will be able to contribute to your team. 

You may be able to use the results from a personality test to figure out an individual’s strongest personality-based qualities, as well as their weakest. Armed with that information, you may be able to find the right spot within the company for that professional. 

Con: People aren’t always honest in tests

Self-report inventories are particularly challenging since the results rely on a person’s opinion of themselves. The truth of the matter is that participants may give false answers to gain favorable results. This can impinge on the validity of the results.

This trend is known as ‘social desirability’ and means that individuals can determine which answers recruiters want them to give and go with them. So, someone could get a stellar result in a test without being honest about themselves. 

What people should consider instead of personality tests in hiring

Psychological testing can help to identify certain insights about people. However, it is by no means the Holy Grail, especially when it comes to hiring. When you’re looking for ways to screen candidates, it’s far more worthwhile to delve into a variety of other assessments.

Remember, many of the tests were developed by psychologists to identify psychology-related disorders, and were not intended to be used in a workplace setting. What’s more, the results only present a theory about a person’s personality, rather than an absolute truth about them.

So instead of using personality assessments, you may choose to ask job applicants to complete a role-related assessment or work as part of a team. Rather than judging someone based solely on their personality, you should also look at job-related topics and other common factors you’re looking for. 

That may mean asking a candidate to complete a trial piece of work or having them attend an assessment day in your workplace. Your approach to personnel selection needs to be varied, instead of using a single tool or technique to make the decision.

How Vervoe’s skills assessments can replace personality tests

Vervoe skills assessments can replace personality tests
Vervoe skills assessments shift the hiring process from focusing on the background and personalities of candidates to what skills they have

As we’ve touched on throughout this article, it’s not ideal to use personality tests as a recruitment tool. What’s the alternative then? Vervoe’s skills assessments. 

By providing companies with a means to predict job performance, Vervoe’s skills assessments can support hiring managers to find the right person for each job. Vervoe is committed to making hiring about merit, not personality, background, or other superficial metrics. 

So how exactly does it work?

Vervoe is a platform that allows hirers to test candidates’ job-ready hard and soft skills. You can create assessments from scratch and specifically tailor them to match the precise qualities you’re after for each role. Or you can grab a pre-made assessment from our growing library, and customize them to suit your needs. 

With a versatile range of question types including text, video, audio, code, and our new Customer Service Simulator, you can keep candidates engaged and see how they get to the answers they give. 

And with our AI grading system, you can scale your hiring and watch our machine-learning algorithm pick up on your preferences for good and bad answers, and rank candidates accordingly. 

Our ability testing helps you gain a clear picture of how well a candidate’s abilities measure up to those you require in a given role — and not just how well they perform in an interview.

Conclusion

The history of personality tests is equally surprising and fascinating. With their widespread, and often unquestioned, usage in the workplace, it’s almost hard to believe that these tests originated in the first world war. 

Using them in the workplace can be a fun exercise, but it shouldn’t be much more than that. Adding weight to test takers’ results, and even going so far as to use them to determine a candidate’s viability for a role, is a hiring practice that needs to be curbed. 

If your organization wants to make evidence-based hiring decisions, it’s time to ditch personality tests once and for all. Instead, start using skills-based assessments like the innovative solution Vervoe provides.

Monica Mizzi

Monica Mizzi

Monica Mizzi is a digital marketer and freelance writer who works with businesses to boost their online visibility and craft compelling content. She's worked with the likes of Google and Vimeo, and her portfolio includes pieces published in The Guardian, Huffpost, and inflight magazines.

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