A New Personality Test Also Gauges Mental Health
The latest research-based test to understand your personality traits.
Posted Nov 24, 2020
A new online personality test is now available that appears to have scientific merit. As reported by King’s College London Zoe Wilks and colleagues (2020), this free online personality test can provide users with quick feedback on their levels of key traits, and also serve as a potential screening instrument for mood, or affective, disorders. Such an approach could be useful not just for individuals, but for screening on a large-scale basis, as might be used on incoming college students.
You may wonder, why not just screen people for affective disorders directly? According to the British researchers, using standard clinical instruments to identify individuals who experience depression could create its own set of mental health problems. In their words, “screening might worsen mental health… by presenting negative emotions with inappropriate context,” leading people to view their “normal emotional reactions” as pathological (pp. 14-15). Experiencing sadness from time to time is not the same as fitting the clinical criteria for depression. However, when you’re asked to rate your current levels of sadness in a depression instrument on a scale of 1 to 7, you might conclude that your response of “6” means you do have this diagnosable condition.
Instead, if levels of personality traits that normally vary within individuals become used as substitutes for screening instruments, Wilks et al. argue that the same goal can be achieved of determining whether people in non-clinical samples are at risk for psychological disorders. Because some personality traits seem to influence susceptibility to affective disorders, assessing these in the context of a non-clinical screening test could accomplish the same goal of identifying people who could then be given further, more intensive, assessments.
The instrument settled upon by Wilks and her colleagues as worthy of investigation was a 172-item personality test used in occupational settings known as the Trait Self-Description Inventory (TSDI). Having been shortened to 50 self-rating items in a previous study, the TSDI was therefore relatively brief.
To test its utility as a proxy for a clinical screening test, the Kings College researchers administered the short online TSDI to nearly 8,500 participants along with one measure of mood disorders and another specifically assessing depressive symptoms. As an incentive for participation, those who completed the TSDI received the personality profiles the test automatically generates. There was even a bonus of a bit of advice on “how to manage their personality.”
Turning now to the instrument itself, the TSDI is based on the Five-Factor Model (FFM), the most well-accepted approach to conceptualizing personality traits. The FFM’s dimensions are Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism, all terms that mean very much what they sound like. The items were phrased either as statements (agree-disagree) or adjectives (characteristic-not characteristic of me).
Below are two examples of items for each of the five traits:
Openness to Experience
- Philosophical (learned, meditative, likes to theorize)
- I would enjoy being a theoretical scientist
- At social functions, I talk to as many people as possible
- Sympathetic (kindly, caring)
- I always treat other people with kindness
- I worry more than most people
The feedback that participants received upon completion includes descriptive statements (essentially translations of your own responses into the terms of the test) as well as the challenges you might face. For example, if you scored high on the Openness to Experience items, the feedback would include “The challenge you have is to ensure that the less stimulating but necessary things in life are achieved alongside the more novel and stimulating things that really capture your interests.”
For people receiving perhaps moderately high scores on neuroticism, the feedback might include “If you do find negative emotions are becoming more prevalent, you may find it useful to develop strategies to prevent you becoming dominated by them, especially when this badly affects work, social or family relations. Such strategies may include writing lists so that problems can be put in perspective.”
Overall, the cutoff for neuroticism as a potential indication of depression was reported as 58 in men and 70 in women, because women typically had higher scores on this trait than did men. Your feedback would therefore also provide you with an idea of where you stand on this risk scale.
Feedback from online tests such as the 50-item TSDI runs the risk of being so generic that everything sounds believable, a phenomenon known as the “Barnum Effect” in psychology. Like a horoscope, this false, generic feedback sounds plausible, so you tend to believe it (you’re the “sucker” in other words, in the famous Barnum quote). However, the program that the British authors developed appears to be tailored more to the individual test-taker, particularly since it also seems to combine scores on more than one scale.
With respect to the main research question, Wilks et al. report that the findings support the use of this measure in detecting individuals who are at risk of depression. Specifically, high scores on neuroticism and low scores on extraversion (i.e. high scores on introversion) were most strongly associated with the mental health symptom scales, fitting “the historic notion that neurotic introverts are especially vulnerable to depression” (p. 18). To a lesser extent, low scores on conscientiousness and high scores on personality openness were associated with scores on the depression measure. As the authors suggest, “high scores on openness to fantasy confer increased risk of depression” (p. 18). The value of the TSDI as a screening instrument in large non-clinical samples appears, from these findings, to be supported.
You may feel that you’re ready to take the plunge and complete the test yourself. The website link provided in the article is here and the access code given by the authors is 57562353. You will be asked to provide two brief demographic facts about yourself and then the 50 items will be presented to you with clickable points along the response scale. After you’re done, you’ll receive a brief profile that ties your scores not just into your personality but also your occupational and social interests.
To sum up, the perfect personality test may never exist but with the publication of this research-based version, it appears as though psychology has made progress toward that goal. Learning about your personality is just one step toward self-understanding, but it can be an important one to get you started as you strive for fulfillment.
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Wilks, Z., Perkins, A. M., Cooper, A., Pliszka, B., Cleare, A. J., & Young, A. H. (2020). Relationship of a big five personality questionnaire to the symptoms of affective disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 277, 14–20. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2020.07.122