Using the Trait Approach to Assess Personality

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  • 0:03 Personality Traits
  • 1:09 Psychological Assessments
  • 2:50 Issues with the MMPI
  • 5:19 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Why are people so different from each other? What makes us who we are? How can we assess someone's personality? In this lesson, we'll look at trait theory in psychology and personality assessments that are based on it.

Personality Traits

Sanaa is very different from her friend Nathan. Sanaa is trusting and always looks on the bright side, whereas Nathan is suspicious and always convinced that the worst is happening. Why are they so different?

A personality trait is a stable characteristic that's part of someone's personality. It is stable because it is generally the same over time. Sanaa is likely to be generally optimistic about the future, even a year or decade from now. Optimism, ambition, extroversion, and humor are all examples of personality traits.

People use traits all the time to assess others. They'll say that someone is funny or smart or mean or depressed. People use these traits to make judgments about others' personalities. For example, when Sanaa says that someone is funny, she is highlighting a personality trait she sees as positive. When she says someone is petty, she's highlighting a personality trait she thinks is negative.

But psychologists use traits very differently from others. Let's explore the most common psychological assessment based on personality traits, the MMPI, and some of its weaknesses.

Psychological Assessments

As we've said, Sanaa and her friend Nathan are very different. How might psychologists see the difference between the two of them?

There are several assessments based on trait theory in psychology. The most famous is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, or MMPI. This test helps identify a taker's personality and any psychological disorders he or she might have. It asks more than 500 questions about how a person thinks, feels, or believes.

Answers to a certain group of questions can then be clustered together to indicate a trait. For example, if Sanaa answers 'true' to questions like 'Things usually work out in the end,' and false to questions like 'The world is worse than it was ten years ago,' then she might be optimistic. Nathan, on the other hand, is likely to answer opposite of Sanaa on those questions, indicating that he's more pessimistic.

Traits like depression, hypochondriasis (or obsession with bodily issues), paranoia, introversion, and gender normativity (that is, being traditionally masculine or feminine) are all part of the MMPI's assessment.

Other trait-based assessments work in a similar way, using self-reported answers to find patterns. Unlike the MMPI, these focus less on possible pathologies and more on general tendencies. One common model of personality is the Big Five model, which focuses on the traits of openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Many tests are available to assess these traits. Another, more dated model is the popular Meyers-Briggs system, which uses clusters of traits to classify people as one of 16 personality types.

Issues with the MMPI

Sanaa is intrigued by the MMPI. She thinks that it can tell her a lot about the differences between herself and Nathan. But some people have raised criticisms about the MMPI and other assessments based on trait theory.

The biggest issues with tests like the MMPI center on the fact that they are self-report assessments. That is, you are asking people to communicate what they think and feel. They might not be completely honest. For example, Nathan might think that others will judge him if he says that he thinks the world is getting worse, so he might lie on that question, which could skew his results.

But the bigger criticism regarding the self-reporting done in trait assessments is that it asks people to report on subconscious processes, or things that go on below the surface of a person's mind. Humans are really bad at knowing what's going on in their subconscious.

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