The psychology of personality promises to help people better understand themselves and those they know in relation to others. Personality tests, which typically take the form of questionnaires, are the tools for doing that. These measures of personality are also used in scientific research to explore how individual differences in various traits correspond with other aspects of people’s lives.
Personality tests are only “tests” in a loose sense: There is no right or wrong answer to their questions. And the best personality measures are not “pass/fail”—they don’t sort individuals into one category or another, but instead place them on a series of trait continuums depending on how they compare to other people.
There are countless personality tests. Even a well-established set of traits like the Big Five can be assessed using a number of different questionnaires. Still, scientifically validated personality tests tend to have some features in common.
Test-takers typically read a series of items that describe a person and indicate the degree to which the description applies to them—or another person, if they are rating someone else’s personality. These lists can be as short as 10 items and as long as a couple of hundred (longer tests tend to provide more reliable results), and the items can be single adjectives or full statements about one’s nature.
For example, the second version of the Big Five Inventory includes the following statements, along with several dozen others, each of which is used to assess one of the Big Five traits:
- Is complex, a deep thinker. (openness)
- Is reliable, can always be counted on. (conscientiousness)
- Is talkative. (extroversion)
- Is compassionate, has a soft heart. (agreeableness)
- Keeps their emotions under control. (emotional stability/neuroticism)
When the ratings for the various items are totaled, the scores allow for comparisons between the individual and average scores based on samples of other test-takers. In this way, one can find out that they rate above average on openness, conscientiousness, and agreeableness, low on extroversion, and high on neuroticism—or any other mixture of trait evaluations.
While Big Five tests like the BFI-2 are relatively comprehensive, providing a broad picture of a person’s personality, there are many other questionnaires, some of which (such as the Narcissistic Personality Inventory) focus on a specific trait. Other personality measures, like the Hare Psychopathy Checklist, are administered through an interview with a trained professional, rather than with a self-test.
Take an online Big Five personality test.
Below are some of the most well-known and commonly used tools for assessing personality. Many are referred to as “inventories,” reflecting a collection of items to which a person responds, each one tied to different dimensions of personality. These measurement instruments are used in a range of contexts, from psychology studies to employee evaluation, and—importantly—some are better supported than others by scientific research.
- Big Five Inventory-2 (BFI-2) is the latest version of a tool for assessing the Big Five personality traits, which it labels as Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Negative Emotionality, and Open-Mindedness, as well as facets of each. It is employed in psychological research and can be used for personal assessment.
- The Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R) is a revised version of a tool originally named after the Big Five trait factors of Neuroticism, Extroversion, and Openness to Experience, though the current tool assesses Agreeableness and Conscientiousness as well, plus 30 more specific traits within each factor. It is used in psychological research.
- The HEXACO Personality Inventory-Revised (HEXACO-PI-R) is used to measure six dimensions of personality, based on the HEXACO model. They include factors that correspond to the Big Five, as well as the factor of Honesty–Humility. It is employed in psychological research and can be used for personal assessment.
- The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) is used primarily to assess symptoms of mental illness and maladaptive personality traits. The latest version (MMPI-2-RF) includes scales related to aggression, social avoidance, self-doubt, and other specific problems, as well as scales for broader, overarching factors. The MMPI is used for research and in applications such as mental health care, forensic evaluation, and candidate assessment for public safety jobs.
- The Hare Psychopathy Checklist-Revised (PCL-R) is an instrument designed to measure psychopathic traits, such as impulsivity and lack of remorse or guilt, in criminal offenders or others in forensic settings. Unlike personality tests that involve self-report questionnaires, it is meant to be administered through an interview and evaluation of the individual by a clinical professional.
- Psychopathic Personality Inventory-Revised (PPI-R), like the Hare checklist, is designed to assess a person’s levels of psychopathic traits, but it was developed for use with non-criminals and its results are based on responses to questionnaire items.
- The Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) is used to specifically assess an individual’s level of narcissism, often in a research context, though it can also be used for self-evaluation. It is not used for diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which is based on criteria in the DSM-V.
- The Hogan Personality Inventory (HPI) is based on the five-factor model and intended for predicting work performance, including in job candidates. Its scales are organized based on work-relevant characteristics such as ambition, sociability, and interpersonal sensitivity.
- The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assigns individuals a psychological “type” summarized in four of eight possible letters: Extroversion (E) or Introversion (I); Sensing (S) or Intuiting (N); Thinking (T) or Feeling (F); and Judging (J) or Perceiving (P). The results combine into one of 16 types, such as ENTJ or ISFP. The MBTI is widely used in business—such as for employee evaluation or during seminars—and unofficial versions are available for personal use, though scientists often cite its limitations, including that its separate “types” oversimplify personality differences.
- DISC or DiSC is the name given to a collection of personality assessments that assign individuals one of four types, or a blend of the types: Dominance (D), Influence (I), Steadiness (S), and Conscientiousness (C). Like the Myers-Briggs, it is promoted for use in learning about individual differences within organizations, but is generally not favored by contemporary personality scientists.
- Enneagram-related tests are based on the concept of the Enneagram of Personality and assign personality descriptions based on nine primary types and often secondary types called “wings.” While the Enneagram has been promoted in business and spiritual contexts, it lacks empirical support and is infrequently used by personality scientists.
Any personality test can be fun and intriguing. But from a scientific perspective, tools such as the Big Five Inventory (and others based on the five-factor model) and those used by psychological scientists, such as the MMPI, are likely to provide the most reliable and valid results. One thing that sets many of these tests apart is more nuanced scoring. The Myers-Briggs and other tests are used to assign people personality “types,” but traits are not black-or-white: the research suggests that they are more like a spectrum, with high and low ends.
While measures of the five (or six) proposed personality factors offer a relatively comprehensive and nuanced view of personality, they have limitations, too. Research suggests they may provide less reliable results outside of Western, industrialized countries—and that the major factors may not manifest in the same way everywhere in the world.
That depends on the test. Some, like the Big Five Inventory, can be taken online. Others, like the NEO Personality Inventory or the Myers-Briggs, must be acquired from a publisher for a fee—though brief or adapted versions of such tests may be available online.
In addition to the above descriptions of each kind of test, consider the source of any online test. A test provided directly by a scientist at a well-known university may be more empirically supported and informative than one offered by someone with no scientific credentials. Tests that provided nuanced scores (in terms of percentiles, for example) are likely to be more valid than those that give you a specific “type.”