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History of Personality Assessments in the Workplace

25 January 2017

± minute read

    History of Personality Assessments in the Workplace
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Do you ever get asked: “Why personality?”

Surely cognitive ability, experience and formal qualifications are enough to ensure good performance and appropriate fit to the job? The reality is that within the context of an ever-changing workplace characterised by unrelenting global competition, technology, virtual teams and continuous change, many people have the qualifications necessary to meet the minimum requirements of the jobs to which they apply. Robert Hogan 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 that makes a person employable, but personality characteristics too.

The importance of gaining perspective into the origins of personality assessments cannot be understated. By understanding the developments over the last century, we gain greater insight into the thinking that formed our most prolific personality theories. This allows us to form a picture of the context in which many of the constructs we now use evolved. 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.

Early assessment procedures

Sophisticated testing programmes were used in China over 4000 years ago, where the Chinese emperor had his officials examined every three years to determine their fitness for office and promotion possibility (Bowman, 1989). As time progressed, so did various avenues in assessing individual differences.

Astrology is an example of an early method of describing individual differences. The individual’s personality characteristics were determined through the observation of the position of planets at their time of birth. There are still many practising astrologists today. Another example is physiognomy, which is the notion that personality can be determined by outer appearance and having features that relate to certain animals. In other words, it was thought that people who shared physical similarities with animals also shared the animal’s psychic properties. For example, a person who looked like a fox was likely to be sly. Phrenology is also well-known as an unusual practice in describing behaviour. Certain bumps on the skull were linked to certain characteristics. Phrenologists would feel a person’s head to determine their personality.

Hippocrates proposed the concept of humorology, related to the four body fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm). Galen hypothesised that the four humours could be linked to four different temperaments (sanguine, choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic). Eysenck and Eysenck (1958) later embedded these four temperaments within the introversion/extroversion and the emotionally stable/emotionally unstable personality dimensions. In fact, these two personality dimensions form the basis of a number of personality questionnaires today.

Modern assessment methods

It was not until World War I that personality testing actually emerged in its more contemporary form, when a need arose for more large-scale testing. Much credit should be given to Robert Woodworth, who developed the first objective personality measure called the Woodworth Personal Data Sheet (1919). This was a checklist designed to detect susceptibility to psychoneurosis in army recruits. The Personal Data Sheet consisted of 166 “face obvious” questions that the subject was to answer by endorsing YES or NO. Example items included: “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 World War I that assessment centres were employed by the German army recruitment office, 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. Not long after this, the British government established War Office Selection Boards (WOSB). These were 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 designed on the basis of internal consistency (Thurstone & Thurstone, 1930). The Bernreuter Personality Inventory followed shortly afterwards, 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 implemented the ipsative scoring method approach.

During World War II, it was reported that the US Congress made use of the German assessment centre to screen applicants for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS is the predecessor to the US Central Intelligence Agency. For further reading into this process, you can refer to the Assessment of Men (1948).The 1940’s also saw 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 individuals. The MMPI was also the first instrument to introduce the use of validity scales.

William Sheldon introduced an uncanny personality theory called somatotypology that enjoyed brief “pop-psych” fame in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This theory classified people into endomorphic, mesomorphic, and ectomorphic body types that were related to particular temperaments. It was later dismissed by the scientific community.

Even though psychological tests had received much criticism during this period, the use of tests appeared to increase. Guilford went so far as to state that psychologists had adopted Thorndike’s viewpoint that “whatever exists at all, exists in some amount and that whatever exists in some amount can be measured”. It was also during this time that Raymond Cattell developed the 16PF questionnaire. This was based on Allport and Odbert’s (1936) lexicon of “trait terms”, with the aim of assessing normal aspects of personality. Allport and Odbert’s lexicon also forms the basis of the Five-Factor Model (FFM) of personality, 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 banned from being used for selection purposes. Walter Mischel created a paradigm crisis in personality measurement. He insisted that personality cannot be measured, 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 California Psychological Inventory. This was the first multivariate inventory of personality that was designed to predict outcomes rather than measure traits. Thorndike referred to the CPI as the “sane man’s MMPI”, as over a third of the items overlap with the MMPI. The outcomes, or scale constructs, are presented in “folk concepts”, which are terms that every person should recognise.

The controversy around the use of personality assessments took a turn for the good in the 1980’s, when personality assessment made a comeback in the area of industrial psychology. This 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. Barrick and Mount (1991) also commenced with their series of meta-analytical studies, showing that personality measures organised in terms of the FFM predict occupational performance.

The 1980’s saw much growth in the development and use of personality assessments, analogous to the many changes that were occurring in the workplace. Some of these were 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. Research shows that many personality assessments today are not bogus requirements for selection or development, but should 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%.

It is conceivable that research in the field of personality assessment will continue in perpetuity. The continuous scrutiny of personality assessments ensures that they are continuously updated and better validated, to remain abreast with the changing world of work.


You might also be interested in the history of intelligence testing and the history of psychometric testing

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