Assessing personality
By Jen Waters
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

After taking the Myers-Briggs personality test, a person is categorized by four of eight distinguishing factors, but these classifications are only some of the many ways people can be understood.

"For thousands of years, people have been trying to describe people," says Dr. Thomas Wise, director of psychiatry and behavioral services at Inova Health Systems in Fairfax. "In the time of Hippocrates, people were labeled as 'phlegmatic' or 'bilious.' "

Hundreds of personality tests are available today. Some focus on a specific strength or weakness, while others give a general overview of a person's temperament. The exams are used in professional, medical and research settings to better understand a person's tendencies.

Although the Myers-Briggs test is popular with the public, psychiatrists and psychologists don't use it when diagnosing a patient, Dr. Wise says. This exam is used most often in the workplace or schools for determining a person's skills.

One of the tests more widely used among psychologists to determine how the personality might affect physical or mental health is the EPI, the Eysenck Personality Inventory, which was developed by the late Hans Eysenck, a German research psychologist. It focuses on extroversion versus introversion and neuroticism versus stability.

Extroverts like to be around people, and they usually have a lot of energy, Dr. Wise says. When people are extremely extroverted, however, they tend to have problems delaying gratification, which can lead to behaviors that require restraint, such as overeating or substance abuse.

On the contrary, introverts are people who enjoy being alone, and they tend to be less energetic. Because they can more easily delay gratification, they are more able to do something today that might not pay off for a few years. If people are extremely introverted, however, they have a propensity for depression. They also can be uncomfortable around people.

Further, if people score high for neuroticism on the EPI, it means they are more likely to experience vulnerability, depression, anxiety and anger. This type of person would live in a constant state of worry.

"People who are very low on the scale [for neuroticism] might have problems if they were going to take a test because they wouldn't be motivated by any anxiety or fear of failure," Dr. Wise says. "You want to be in the middle on the scale. You want to be toward average."

Another personality test widely used by psychologists is the NEO Personality Inventory — Revised, which was designed by Paul Costa, the chief of the laboratory of personality and cognition in the Gerontology Research Center at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda. The exam assesses five main factors of personality, the emotional, interpersonal, experiential, attitudinal and motivational. Its results can be applied in vocational counseling, behavioral medicine, clinical psychology, psychiatric treatment and research.

Qualities measured in the test include whether someone is open to new experiences, generally agreeable and consciously goal-directed, Dr. Wise says.

Understanding personality "is very complicated," he says. "How can you have very few words to describe people who are complex? No one has the final answer, but you do the best you can. It's difficult to make a general statement. People can't be reduced to a pen-and-paper test."

Of all the personality tests available, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory is probably used in the greatest number of disciplines, says Robert Archer, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

The 567-question true-false exam was developed by Starke R. Hathaway and J.C. McKinley, who were working at the University of Minnesota Hospitals in Minneapolis when the MMPI was published in the early 1940s.

Examples of the types of questions the test takers answer are, "I seem to be unhappy most of the time," "My parents treated me unfairly," "People do not respect me" and "I wish my marriage were more stable." Personality tests are copyrighted, and the exact questions on the exams are kept confidential for the purpose of obtaining accurate results.

The findings can be useful in evaluating medical patients and people involved with criminal-justice cases. The test also can be used to determine the amount of psychological injury that could have been caused by a trauma.

Airline pilots; emergency medical technicians; and employees in human-resources offices, police and fire departments, and nuclear power plants often are asked to take the test to measure their stability. The military also has used the MMPI to screen people as they are going through boot camp.

"An individual's personality characteristics and traits are an important influence in behavior," Mr. Archer says. "Personality assessment will often predict if a prisoner will get into fights. It's also helpful in predicting their risk upon release."

How personality types can affect relationships is revealed by measuring the seeking of sensation, says Marvin Zuckerman, professor emeritus at the University of Delaware in Newark. In 1964, Mr. Zuckerman, who holds a doctorate in psychology, created the Sensation Seeking Scale, which is often used to better understand drug abusers, alcoholics, people in risky vocations and people who engage in risky sports.

"Knowing your personality is quite helpful to many people," Mr. Zuckerman says. "In any situation, we're looking to see how people respond. If there is very little change in stimulation, high-sensation seekers get very bored and restless and find it difficult to endure the situation. Learning about personality is an essential dimension of understanding behavior."

Apperceptive personality tests are another way of trying to understand the way a person thinks, says David Silber, professor emeritus at George Washington University in Northwest. He holds a doctorate in clinical psychology.

During the exam, a person makes up a story to pictures and answers questions about the characters in the story. The plot and traits of the characters may give insight into how a person sees himself and other people, Mr. Silber says. Rorschach tests also reveal a person's perceptual style. This exam involves having the subject look at ink blots and describe what he or she sees.

"Different tests highlight different parts of a person's functioning," Mr. Silber says. "The more types of tests you take, the more overlapping the results, the better the results."

No matter what type of test a person takes, a professional should interpret the results, says Lourdes Griffin, administrator of outpatient behavioral health services at Washington Hospital Center in Northwest. She holds a doctorate in psychology.

"It's not an exact science," she says. "You take it one day, and you're one way. If you take it the next day, you're a little more another way."