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History of Personality Assessments in the Workplace

21 February 2012

± minute read

    History of Personality Assessments in the Workplace
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Do you ever get asked: “Why personality?”  Is cognitive ability, experience and having a formal qualification not all there is to job performance and job fit?  I’m afraid not. 

Within the context of our ever changing workplace, which to an extent can be characterised by unrelenting global competition; technology; virtual teams and continuous change, we as industrial psychologists, psychometrists or as HR practitioners, are often confronted by the following questions: Is the person good with detail?  Is he/she flexible and resilient? Does this person have a high need for achievement? How much do genes influence one’s behaviour? Why do people behave the way they do?  Will this person be a good fit for our organisation?  Can they work independently? And so the list goes on.  However, psychological testing and specifically personality assessments are permeating all levels of society to assist professionals in answering the above questions. Dr Robert Hogan, president of Hogan Assessments, stated that there is more to being employable than just the ability to locate and allocate resources, acquire and interpret information, understand complex systems, and be technologically literate (Hogan Assessments, n.d.).  In other words, cognitive ability is not the only factor which makes an employee employable, but personality characteristics too. This brings us to the importance as to why we as professionals should gain perspective into the origins of personality assessments. It is not only important for us to know the power that personality assessments possess in predicting future job performance, but it is also important to understand the origins and development of personality assessment over the last century.  

We invite you to please join us in this series on the History of Psychological Assessments in the Workplace, starting today with Part One of the series. Who knows - familiarising yourself with the History of Personality Assessments in the Workplace may even further “arm” and assist you when having to persuade senior management or the finance department to increase the budget for assessments in an organisational setting. Research shows that many personality assessments today are not bogus requirements for selection or development but should rather be perceived as an organisational investment, having historical roots and based on much scientific scrutiny.  In other words, investing in an organisation’s most critical assets – their people (and the right people for that matter) – is most likely to yield positive returns in the long run.  In fact, a meta-analytical study conducted by Schmidt and Hunter (1998) revealed that by adding a measure of conscientiousness (a personality factor) to a measure of cognitive ability improves predictive validity by up to 18%. Prior to commencing with the origins of personality assessments, it is rather important to provide a broad definition of what personality is. According to Pervin and John (2001) personality is defined as those characteristics of people that account for consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving, and are often referred to as individual differences. These differences allow us to make predictions about how people will behave on a daily basis, and have special application in the workplace. The first recordings of the use of an assessment procedure for selection was found in the Bible in Judges chapter 7 versus 1 to 8, whereby Gideon observed his soldiers drinking from a river so he could select those who remained on the alert. Much credit can also be given to the Chinese for their more sophisticated testing programmes dating back to more than 4000 years ago, whereby the Chinese emperor had his officials examined every three years to determine their fitness for office and promotion possibility (Bowman, 1989). As time evolved however, so did various avenues in assessing individual differences. Such historical avenues in describing human differences included amongst others:

  • Astrology –using the position of planets to describe personality characteristics of people.
  • Humorology – a concept by Hippocrates and later extended by Galen who hypothesised that the four body fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm) as stated by Hippocrates can be linked to four different temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic). Did you know that Eysenck and Eysenck (1958) embedded these four temperaments within the introversion/extroversion and the emotionally stable/emotionally unstable personality dimensions which they later proposed?  In fact, these two personality dimensions can be seen today as forming the basis of a number of personality questionnaires today.
  • Physiognomy – the notion that a person’s personality can be judged from their outer appearance and relating these features to animals. In other words, it was said that people who shared physical similarities with animals also shared some psychic properties with these animals, for example, a person who looked like a fox was sly.
  • Phrenology – was used by linking certain ‘bumps’ on a person’s head to certain personality characteristics.

However, what was common amongst these notions to understanding behaviour was the lack of rigorous scientific measurement and objectivity. It was therefore not until World War I that personality testing actually emerged in the more contemporary form, and a need arose for more large-scale testing. Much credit should be given to Robert Woodworth, who developed the first objective personality measure for detecting army recruits susceptibility to psychoneurosis, known as the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet (1919). The Personal Data Sheet consisted of 166 “face obvious” questions that the subject was to answer by endorsing YES or NO.  Example items include: “Do ideas run through your head so that you cannot sleep” or “Do you have a strong desire to commit suicide?” It was also during this time that assessment centres were invented by the Germans in which four to five candidates were intensively evaluated with interviews and realistic job simulations for two days.  This method examined the “total personality” and provided an overall evaluation of suitability for the role as a military officer.  It wasn’t long after the Germans made use of assessment centres for officer selection that the British government established War Office Selection Boards (WOSB) – assessment centres modelled on the German method. Prior to the WOSB assessment centres, the British made use of interviews only, focusing on candidate’s social class when hiring.  This meant that the higher the candidate’s social class, the better their chance of being recruited.  However, the supply of upper class candidates was quickly exhausted and they found that WOSB assessment centres were far more superior at identifying good leaders in combat than just interviews. 

The next major development in personality assessment was the Thurstone Personality Schedule, which was the first personality inventory to use the method of internal consistency (Thurstone & Thurstone, 1930). Following onto this, was the development of the Bernreuter Personality Inventory, measuring four personality dimensions: neurotic tendency; self-sufficiency; introversion-extroversion; and dominance-submission.  In 1931, the Allport-Vernon Study of Values was published, measuring values instead of psychopathology, which adopted the ipsative scoring method approach. The 1940’ssaw the development of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), where the scales were constructed by the method that Woodworth pioneered: contrasting the responses of normal and psychiatrically disturbed subjects.  The MMPI was also the first to introduce the use of validity scales. During this time it was also found that the U.S. Congress made use of the German assessment centre to screen applicants for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. For further reading into this process, you can refer to the Assessment of Men (1948). Did you know that during the 1940’s to the 1950’s, despite the continuous criticism personality assessments received, the benefits of such were reaffirmed? Guilford even stated that psychologists have adopted the dictum of Thorndike that “whatever exists at all, exists in some amount and that whatever exists in some amount can be measured” (Refer to Foxcroft & Roodt, 2001). It was also during this time that the 16PF questionnaire developed by Cattell, which was based on Allport and Odbert’s (1936) lexical approach to personality description, was published, with the aim to focus and assess more normal aspects of personality. Allport and Odbert’s lexicon of “trait terms” also formed the basis of the development of the Five-Factor Model (FFM), which today is the generally accepted model for reflecting the structure of personality.    Tupes and Christal (1958) stated that personality can be adequately described in terms of five general factors in their ground-breaking empirical research on personality assessment. However, their research was only really rediscovered in the 1980’s, when Costa and McCrae (1985) replicated their findings. During the 1950’s to about the late 1970’s a steady decline was seen in test use as tests were being misused and even banned from being used for selection purposes.  Mischel’s revolution brought to the fore that that we can’t measure personality because it does not exist and that people’s actions are rather determined by situational factors (Hogan, 2005). Despite the continuous debate and decline in test development and use, Gough (1957) managed to publish the first multivariate inventory of personality which was designed to predict outcomes rather than measure traits in occupational settings, the California Psychological Inventory. Nevertheless the controversy and decline in the use of personality assessments took a turn for the good in the 1980’s whereby personality and the assessment thereof made a comeback in the area of industrial psychology.  Such a comeback was fuelled by the news that well-constructed measures of personality predict job performance (Hogan, 2005).  It was also during this time that the NEO-Personality Inventory (Costa & McCrae, 1985) and the Hogan Personality Inventory (Hogan, 1986) amongst others were published.  Furthermore, Barrick and Mount (1991) commenced with their series of meta-analytical studies, showing that personality measures organised in terms of the FFM predict occupational performance and should be used across a wide range of jobs, industries and job levels to assist in predicting job performance. The 1980’s saw much growth in the development and use of personality assessments, analogous to the many changes which were occurring in the workplace, such as the introduction of computers and increased use of technology and move towards globalisation. As we headed for the 1990’s a shift was seen towards cross-cultural test adaptation and a drive towards online testing. Present day personality assessments are being used across the board for both selection and development across various industries, organisations and job roles.   It is conceivable that research in the field of personality assessment will never cease to exist. The continuous scrutiny of personality assessments ensures that assessments are continuously updated and better validated, to remain abreast with the changing world of work. 

Recommended Reading List 

Allport, G.W. & Odbert, H.S.  (1936). Trait-names:  A psycho-lexical study.  

Psychological Monographs, 47 (211). Barrick, M.R. & Mount, M.K. (1991).  

The big five personality dimensions and job performance.  A meta-analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1 – 25. Bowman, M.  (1989). 

Testing individual differences in ancient China.  American Psychologist, 44, 576 – 578. Cattell, H.B. (1989). 

The 16 PF: Personality in Depth.   Champaign. Illinois: Institute for Personality and Ability Testing, Inc. Cattell, R.B. (1943). 

The description of personality. II. Basic traits resolved into clusters. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 37, 475-507. Cattell, R.B. (1945). 

The description of personality: Principles and findings in a factor analysis. American Journal of Psychology, 58, 69-90. Cattell, R.B. (1947). 

Confirmation and classification of primary personality factors. Psychometrika, 12, 197-220. Costa, P.T. & McCrae, R.R. (1985). 

The NEO Personality Inventory Manual.  Odessa, FL:  Psychological Assessment Resources. Eysenck, H.J. & Eysenck, M.W. (1958). 

Personality and individual differences. New York: Plenum. Foxcroft, C. & Roodt,G.  (2001).  

An introduction to psychological assessment:  In the South African context.  Cape Town:  Oxford University Press. Gregory, R.J.  (2007).  

Psychological Testing:  History, Principles and Applications (5th ed.).  Boston: Pearson. Hogan Assessments. (2011). 

History of Personality [Web Page] Retrieved February 2012 from Hogan Assessments (n.d.). Are you employable?  Interpersonal skill in the modern job market [White Paper]. Retrieved February 2012 from http://www.hoganassessments.com/sites/default/files/AreYouEmployable.pdf. Hogan, R.  (2005). 

In defense of personality measurement:  New wine for old whiners.  Human Performance, 18 (4), 331 – 341. OSS Assessment Staff. (1948). 

Assessment of men: Selection of personnel for the Office of Strategic Services. NY: Rinehart & Co Pervin, L.A. & John, O.P.  (2001).  

Personality:  Theory and Research (8th ed.).  New York:  John Wiley. Schmidt, F.L. & Hunter, J.E.  (1998).  

The validity and utility of selection methods in personnel psychology: Practical and theoretical implications of 85 years of research findings, Psychological Bulletin, 124 (2), 262 – 274. Thurstone, L.L. & Thurstone, T.  (1930).  A neurotic inventory.  Journal of Social Psychology, 1, 3 – 30.  


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