Why do we do personality testing?

Personality testing is very helpful because it

  • tells us about a person's coping in general with stress and life, sometimes by creating a stressful situation in the act of testing, giving us a chance to watch the person react, make sense of something that is senseless, or assign meaning to things and explain their thoughts
  • tells us about how a person copes with specific stressful situations or demands, and more about how they are handling matters now (e.g., seriously depressed and suicidal)
  • can answer some question put to us by others, like ability to hold some job, reach some goal, or likelihood of behaving in some way
  • can guide therapy and provide self-understanding for the client regarding strengths and weaknesses

What kinds of tests are there?

  • Cognitive tests are those of memory, intelligence, achievement, etc, you have already studied, and they are presumed to have little to do with personality although they can
  • Objective (Standardized) tests like the MMPI and Millon take standard questions which research shows can help us classify people, give them to the patient, and then compare the client's answers to the answers given by certain groups. The MMPI was designed to diagnose patients for psychiatrists, and the Millon forces people into categories
  • Projective tests are based partially on Freudian ideas of projection.
    • Freud thought we project parts of ourselves we can't accept onto objects or people. It's a way to expel parts of us we can't handle but still deal with them. He thought you were, by definition, unconscious of the process.
    • Others took the unconscious part out, and assumed we project things we can't accept, as well as things we can, onto people. Thus, what we project tells us something about how we think inside. This is more of a cognitive approach, and if you believe in schema, then think of projection as the act of "schematic processing" of information to fill in the blanks.
    • Regardless, we tend to project more onto things that make less sense to us or have less structure for us. The more something is structured, the less we have to project into it to make sense of it. The more something is like us, the more we screen what we say about it to not think about things we don't want to face.

Meehl in 1954 criticized clinical psychology for doing too much with projective tests and basically projecting what we felt into our clients. He advocated for an actuarial approach to psychology; you get charged health insurance based on your age, sex, area of the country, health habits, etc... We could classify your personality the same way. This would allow us to form diagnosis with greater accuracy and predict behavior better. Others criticized this, indicating that diagnosis is not just picking out what a person is like on the outside, but what defines their core. The point of diagnosis is not just to predict behavior, but also to predict what interventions will work and how. And as to accuracy, take issues like predicting violence; research shows we just aren't that good at predicting it no matter what we do.

Some tests measure states, or temporary personality factors, like the Beck Depression Inventory. Other tests measure traits, or relatively enduring aspects of our personality that can be used to predict how we will behave in the future. Some tests are based on pathology and assess problems and symptoms, while others are based on normality and evaluate healthy functioning and coping skills. For example, the MMPI assesses pathology, while the NEO PI R assesses normal personality traits. Finally, some tests are idiographic and compare your scores on one part to your scores on another. The Edwards Personal Preference Schedule is like this, based on Murry's ideas of different needs and the weight of some needs over others. Other tests are nomothetic and compare your scores to a set or scores for "normal" people. The Rorschach is one such test.

Some test designs differentiate between personality styles and personality characteristics. A personal style is thought to be more flexible and less pathological, while characteristics are seen as more rigid and unbending, and more likely to lead to serious problems. Many personality tests assess faking or the deliberate attempt to present yourself as something other than what you are. There's fake bad, fake good, and fake crazy. Projective tests are thought to be beyond this... although some would argue objective tests are too.

What do we report from what we see in personality tests?

  • Information on resources and problem solving styles, impulses and impulse control, coping skills and level of adjustment
  • Emotional lability or stability, emotional coping (master of my emotions or slave to them), insight into feelings and their sources, specific feelings that may be hard to deal with, affective sense of oneself (good vs. bad, strong vs. vulnerable), and defenses and ability/flexibility in using them
  • Relationship quality, stability, and potential, empathy and it's depth, and strategy for meeting needs

A Word on Cookbooks and Such

Cookbooks tell you that, given certain ingredients, you can make certain foods. Cookbook programs tell you that, given certain test scores, you can make certain conclusions. On the one hand, they can be helpful in identifying basic data to remember and basic formulations of what the test data mean. However, cookbooks don't integrate data. Computer printouts from interpretive programs are wonderful, but the decisions about how to interpret the data are made by some computer programmer and aren't even visible to you. The research behind them may be shaky, and how would you know? Further, every one will have some contradictions in it, and understanding what they mean and if they really are contradictions, or some more complex issue at stake.

Computers aren't "programmed" to recognize cultural variables, local norms, and aspects of a person's life that would impact test interpretations in the present either. They can only hope to give you a list of hypothesis, but don't tell you about the personality organization of a person.

Tasks for Students

Erikson saw four problems for students learning to conduct assessments:

  • the wish and fear of being an expert
    He writes about the power of the position, but the fear of being wrong
  • balancing morbid and pollyanish interpretations
    He notes how students in his class would make Barnum statements, and continued despite the professors' interpretations because they were afraid to say bad things about the client
  • using oneself as an "instrument"
    This entails using oneself as a baseline with regards to "normal," forcing your own theory onto the client, and free-association of the meaning of things the client said
  • writing the report
    Understanding the client's personality is hard enough, but finding the words to describe it is even harder

To this I would add two more tasks:

  • Developing a theory and learning to use it in understanding the data points. Conflicting test findings can often be resolved by turning to theory and a deeper understanding of people's functioning.
  • Learning to balance "getting good data" with the needs of the client. While you need "good data" to write your report, the assessment process itself (the testing, the discussion of personal information with a stranger, the completion of tests with no idea how well or poorly you are doing on them...) can be stressful for the client. A good evaluator can be flexible and balance the needs of the evaluator with those of the client.

Dynamics of Testing

There are several kinds of dynamics that can happen in testing that Masling points out:

  • the voyeur
    testing allows you to see into others' lives and maybe feel like a bit of a sneak in doing it or a bit of a noble scientist
  • the oracle
    testing allows you to "draw momentous and portentous inferences from signs and symbols" from Schafer, and the mystery and power of a wise one can be intoxicating
  • the personal explorer
    some enter this field either with an active need to discover themselves, or with a passive desire to do so through an active curiosity in their lives about what's inside a person; either need can be met in testing, but problems can develop if you focus only on those pieces of others that you can do something with in yourself... This does a disservices to the client in that you miss portions of who he or she is, and may read in things that aren't there
  • the dependent tester
    some use the client as a social connection, and want to stay on the client's good side, avoid confronting them on issues, or pressing too deep into painful areas to avoid hurting the client... This, as well, doesn't help the client
  • the rigid and defended tester
    some test and make assessment an intellectual puzzle that they can figure out, interpreting everything, putting the client in a passive and dependent role and to stay our of the "master's" way
  • the sadist/the saint
    The first sees only pathology, weakness, and inadequacy in the client through a personal need to feel superior, while the second sees only strengths, skills, and superiority in the client through a narcissistic need to join them and be special too

Obviously, you may not start out in these roles, but you may still blunder into them through client transferences and your countertransferences, or though your own transferences.