4 Children sat around a pub bench with different facial expressions

Probing personality

Can personality be studied in a reliable way?

We all recognise that people are unique, with distinct personalities. We also have an urge to categorise, and numerous approaches have been taken to analyse personalities and draw out common themes. Personality is sometimes broken down into a number of qualities.

The most common tests focus on four or five qualities – such as the so-called Big Five:

  • openness to experience
  • agreeableness
  • conscientiousness
  • neuroticism
  • extraversion.

Subjects complete carefully constructed questionnaires and end up with a score for each of the categories.

A variant of this method is the Myers–Briggs model, which is based on the book ‘Psychological Types’ written by the psychiatrist Karl Jung in the early 1900s. This model assesses:

  • extraversion vs introversion
  • sensing vs intuition
  • thinking vs feeling
  • judging vs perceiving.

The Big Five is still the dominant model today for personality studies, although some replace ‘neuroticism’ with ‘emotional stability’ to reflect an ideal direction towards low neuroticism. One researcher has suggested a sixth dimension to the model – ‘honesty and humility’. Debate is ongoing in the field as to whether the five- or six-pronged model is the right one.

Personality models have come under attack because of their lack of a biological basis, but the field of biological psychology is attempting to address this. A 2011 paper published in ‘Psychological Science’ used brain imaging to support the theory of there being a biological basis to the Big Five. The paper’s researchers suggest a neuroscientific approach could support further understanding of human psychology.


These models seem to be somewhat robust – if people do the tests on different days, their scores tend to be similar and they are not influenced much by mood.

But are these measures of value? They can be useful tools for self-awareness and can help people understand and interact with others. They may also help to identify people susceptible to mental health problems.

For example, psychological measures provide a very good way of picking out people likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a traumatic incident. PTSD is relatively rare, which makes it controversial, but a 2012 study of research papers examining the link between PTSD and personality traits since 1980 (when it was first identified as a disorder in the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’) found consistent links to traits like moodiness, anxiety, envy and anger. It also found three personality-based subtypes of PTSD: externalising (acting out), internalising (depressive) and even a mild form of the disorder (‘low-pathology PTSD’).

One problem with such personality tests, though, is that individuals can end up being pigeonholed into a certain ‘type’ or influenced to behave in ways they think are expected of them.

Lead image:

Nick Ford/Flickr CC BY NC ND


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Neuroscience, Psychology, History
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development