The History of “Personality Tests”

Throughout time, man has wanted to understand how humans function in the world. Assessing personality traits or psychological testing has been around for over 70 years. It has been around earlier, much earlier, when we think about Hypocrite’s work in analyzing the four major body fluids- blood, urine, bile, and phlegm to sort out different types of men. He called those types: Melancholy, Sanguine, Phlegmatic, and Choleric.

Before World War I most of the deep thinkers in this area had devoted their minds to analyzing how machines might work, since it was seemingly easier to measure them. The first work to address ability testing was F. Parsons’ “Choosing a Vocation” in 1909. It was in 1916 that the first use of a psychological test was used in hiring with for an American police department. After the Great War came a great leap forward in understanding the human machine and it’s creative engine, the mind. The modern phase of psychology and management had begun.

In the 1920’s, theories and hypothesis were beginning to be written up in various scientific journals and the refining of test methodology had started in earnest. In 1921, Carl Jung published his book “Psychological Type”, which was translated into English two years later. William Moulton Marston completed another major work in his book “Emotions of Normal People” published in1928. In the same year, Thurstone created scales for measuring. Likert developed the first forced choice rating scale in 1932.

The next major move forward was in the 1950’s. Recruitment needs of World War II had accelerated the growth of standardized testing and people were taking these theories and models and developing experiments to try and validate the various hypotheses. Massive studies began and lots of data began to be collected. Ability, aptitude and achievement testing remains a complex and highly technical process that is still only administered by experienced professionals with post secondary education.

Isabel Meyers, the daughter of Katherine Briggs is credited for introducing the self-report movement at this time. Out of this movement came the best-known assessment tool, the Meyers Briggs Type Indicator. Other assessment tools quickly followed like Walter Clark’s DiSC Tools in 1952 and the FiroB in 1958.

In the mid 70’s, these tools became “popularized” and began to show up more frequently in organizations. They were no longer the privy of psychologists and hence there was no guarantee of proper monitoring the applications. In 1975 the Association for Psychological Type and Center for Application of Psychological Type established criteria and began to distribute MBTI. Not only were career counselors using these instruments, but also Human Resource departments were becoming interested in using some of these instruments for development, hiring etc. At the same time, many researchers began to doubt whether psychological testing would in fact be a reliable process for hiring and promoting. This concern is evident in the major court decisions related to employment testing which commenced in 1971.

Today behavioral and style assessment tools are being widely used by Human Resource professionals; managers and coaches to help individuals and teams function at peak performance. There are a number of well-designed instruments and the magic of computers make the mathematical calculations far superior. Unfortunately poorly designed “quizzes” abound and often remain popular despite their potentially limited use.

We are now in the next explosion due to the accessibility through technology of online assessments – both those that are good and those that are not. This is creating a whole new set of pressures and challenges in the use of assessments. Everyone who uses assessments needs to ensure that they have the proper training and support in order to deliver their products most effectively.

The MBTIR and The DiSCR are the two most common instruments used in organizations. They are based on the work that Carl Jung and William Marston respectively. Jung sought to explain why people differ from one another by identifying fundamental preferences or traits rooted in biology. Marston sought to explain how people adjust to varying environments, by starting with their emotional response to it and relating this response to behavior.

Probably at least three quarters of the individuals who have taken any sort of assessment, have taken some version or variation of Jung or Marston’s work. Difficulties arise because they measure different things even though clients may lump them all together. The profiles obtained from each instrument cannot be expected to correlate. They were designed for different purposes and based on different views of human behavior. An important distinction between the two measures is found in their theoretical origins. Both original authors sought to find a systematic way to understand human behavior.

There are lots of variations of the two main types of assessment and there are paper and on-line versions available to preview and test before using them. But before adding these tools to your business and/or administering an assessment you need to consider a few questions.

1. What is the purpose of doing this assessment?

2. What does it purport to measure?

3. Is this the right timing?

4. Will the results take over the agenda and take the focus away from what you want to achieve?

5. What is the person’s attitude towards assessments?

6. How many has she or he completed in the past and what has been his or her experience?

If you answer these questions comprehensively, it will help you determine if an assessment is the right approach to use and which instrument might best suit your purpose. One last tip. Try it out on yourself. If it feels that it captures some of your personal characteristics it will probably do the same for others. Good luck and happy assessing.