Taking the Big 5 Personality Test

The traits which supposedly determine your professional preferences...
28 November 2022

Interview with 

Josephine Andresen, UCL


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Keen to find out what I could, I got in touch with Cambridge University’s Psychometrics Centre where they study psychological assessment. They gave me one of these tests to have a go at myself…

James - The report explains the likely consequences of one's standing on five broad personality domains. The following pages contain phrases describing people's behaviours. Please use the rating scale next to each phrase to describe how accurately each statement describes you. Number one, 'worry about things': very inaccurate, moderately inaccurate, neither accurate nor inaccurate, moderately accurate, very accurate. I'd say I'm pretty middle of the road on that, so I'm going to go with neither accurate nor inaccurate for that one. 'Have a vivid imagination.' Moderately accurate...'

Josephine - Hi, I'm Josephine Andresen and I work at the Psychometric Centre at Cambridge Judge Business School as a business development associate.

James - Josephine, I've come here today because you guys have sent me a personality test. I've got five scores in five different categories.

Josephine - Yeah, it's a big five personality questionnaire, which is constituted of extraversion, then agreeableness, then conscientiousness (would you start right away with the task when you get it? Would you continuously work on it) Then, Neuroticism (how many negative emotions do you have? Anxiety, depression, but also anger) and openness to experience. Through a lot of research, scientists have boiled personality traits down to these traits that are stable throughout life. So you score quite highly on agreeableness - 80 and quite low on neuroticism. So I feel like the highest and lowest scores always gives you quite an indication of what the person might be like. So for agreeableness, for example, it means that you don't seek conflict with other people, which might make you a good team partner, but also you might like to have a culture that's a bit more friendly and not that competitive. Because there's also disadvantages of being quite agreeable.

James - The big five personality test is potentially something quite a few people will have heard of. What is it that has made that the sort of standard?

Josephine - It is so prominent within science, but also within organisations because, first of all, it's not biased. For example, race biases or gender biases. Usually it's very important for these questionnaires to have questions that would account for that. For example, 'I like to play or go to football matches' could be a measure for extroversion, but only if you like sports. Largely, compared to other tests, for example, the Myers Briggs, that is quite popular but not very scientifically valid. In the big five personality test, when you score high on extraversion, it actually shows with experiments, real life studies, it would actually predict certain kind of behaviour - that you actually do go to more parties or, for openness to experience, you do actually engage in these behaviours. And then it's also reliable because if you do it a lot of times it always shows the same results.

James - Why might filling out this sort of questionnaire give a good indication of what job I might like to do?

Josephine - Usually, for different jobs, but also for different companies, they have different cultures. Different jobs have different levels of stress. So, for example, you are very low on neuroticism, so you might actually fair quite well in a stressful job. Also, a company that has a very friendly culture, you might fit in there very well because you score high on agreeableness. But if it's another company, like consulting, that's a bit more competitive as I have understood it so far, you might not like that that much. A company would actually know if you fit them very well.

James - Okay. That's interesting. I suppose the question then becomes: consultancy jobs for example are paid very well, could I use what you've taught me just now, use that to apply to a consultancy firm in the future? Maybe I might think, "okay, I want to score lower than I usually would in an agreeableness score."

Josephine - Yeah, you can definitely cheat on these tests. A lot of employers like conscientious people who get to work right away, who actually do the task that they said they would do. But there are also things like social desirability tests that would ask you, "do you ever lie?" And people who might answer in a very socially desirable way say, "no, I never lie", Even though everyone lies. Or, "do you ever break the law?" Everyone sometimes breaks the law - I mean I obviously never do. But then you also need to ask yourself, as a person, if you pretend you're very low on neuroticism, then you get into a job that's very stressful and then in the end you don't actually fit into it.

James - You're only hurting yourself by lying on these tests in the long run. From what you're saying, I'm getting the sense that you are quite supportive of these as pretty useful tools almost for removing bias. Perhaps an interview where you walk in and meet someone and speak to them one on one, there's lots of scope for them to make unconscious judgements about you that then contribute to whether they progress your application or whatever.

Josephine - Definitely. Compared to an interview, it can remove biases. For example, if a woman aspires to be in a leadership position, some people might have the assumption "women are a little bit more emotional." But actually there's not much of a difference when you compare men and woman and if you see the test and she doesn't score that, then it might remove that bias. But then again, I think you shouldn't only use the questions, but also the interview. Because there can also be, for example, the reference group effect that maybe you have a lot of extroverted friends and then when you do the questionnaire you compare yourself to them and think you are an introvert. But then when you go somewhere else, like to an introverted group compared to them, you're actually quite extroverted.

James - You mentioned earlier about how the big five personality traits are meant to be quite consistent across your life as you grow older. But then one thing that struck me as I was answering some of the questions like: Do you like to go on binges? Do you love excitement? Do you jump into things without thinking? Those occurred to me as characteristics which might, as you get older, become less prominent.

Josephine - What I would say here is, for example, the question, 'Do you like to go to parties?' First of all, you might think, yeah, probably when you're 60 you wouldn't like to go to a big club or rave. But, then again, party means something different when you're 60. So it might be a dinner party and then an extroverted person might still like to go to a dinner party.


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