In my still relatively new role as the eLearning Guild’s director of research a favorite part of my job is the serendipity of it—the surprises that come whilst engaged in researching—especially something I thought I knew a lot about. Our new report on personality instruments confirmed many things I knew (for instance, the instruments are fine for helping people “understand differences” but not much else) but shone light on some things that were new to me, or had been less clear before.

Random tidbits

  • William Moulton Marston (pen name: Charles Moulton), who created the DiSC profile, was also the creator of the comic character Wonder Woman.
  • A good deal of criticism about the personality inventory industry deals with the fact that most results are reported in overwhelmingly positive terms. There is, however, a parallel field of interest regarding the “Dark Triad” of personality variables—Machiavellianism, narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy—which “often show differential correlates but share a common core of callous-manipulation.” (Furnham, Richards, & Paulhus 2013). The readings are fascinating, dealing with everything from manipulative coworkers to cheating students and narcissistic managers.
  • Using Google Scholar to search the phrase “astrology validity” gives approximately 29,000 more results than does a search for the phrase “DiSC personality assessment validity”, or variations thereof, put together.
  • The best partial comment from all the literature, regarding the Myers Briggs Type Indicator: “The MBTI appears to measure something…” (Pittenger 1993).
  • A criticism of many personality inventories is their low test-retest reliability; that is, a person repeatedly taking the test may come up with different scores each time. Some defending the assessments deal with this by blaming the respondent. I took many sample online assessments while I was researching; my favorite not only blamed me for not doing well, but then contributed to its own lack of test-retest reliability by telling me to just take it again after saying my profile was “too balanced”:

    "A 'balanced' profile is one in which none of the calculated personality factors are significantly higher or lower than the average, and that means that we can't produce an in-depth report based on this particular set of results. We want to be sure that we give you the best possible report we can, so in this situation we recommend that you try the questionnaire again. If you focus on answering the questions as directly and openly as you can, and avoid taking too long considering your choices, we will usually be able to compile a more thorough report.”

  • Having worked in L&D for decades I have always found the interest in personality inventories curious, as they have nothing to do with ability or skill. While some researchers call for continued work in improving existing assessments or the methods used in administering them (for instance, in developing more valid alternatives to the usual self-report format), I was surprised to see so little endorsement of switching from personality-based investigations altogether to better examination of ability and skill. Among the few here are Murphy & Dzieweczynski (2005), who remind us that tests of ability are easier to construct, more valid and reliable, and are more likely to predict job performance than any test of personality.

I enjoyed revisiting and taking a deeper dive into the Barnum Effect. First defined by Forer but renamed for the man famously credited with saying, “There’s a sucker born every minute, “ the Barnum Effect posits that people tend to agree with positive, vague descriptions of themselves, even with specifics that could be applied to anyone. For instance, from Forer (1949): “You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof.” The perception that such descriptions are accurate and credible extends to any accompanying inventory and its administrator/interpreter as well.

  • I admit I was surprised at the amount of research offering encouraging data about the “Big Five” or “Five Factor Model” (FFM), which looks at traits measured on a continuum: Extroversion or Surgency; Neuroticism vs Emotional Stability; Agreeableness vs Antagonism; Openness to Experience or Intellect; and Conscientiousness or Will to Achieve (also known via the acronyms OCEAN or CANOE). As trait model offers scores on a continuum rather than forcing respondents into “type” boxes, the Big Five is inherently more reliable and appropriate for research. Overall, the literature reveals the Big Five and its variations as the most valid and useful of the existing personality inventories, and the one offering some ties to workplace performance. Also, unlike other well-known tools with commercial interests and marketing support, the Big Five is available as a free, open-source product.
  • Finally, while I am a Gryffindor at heart, I could pass for a Hufflepuff.

Want more?

Access the full research report, Personality Inventories: Fiction, Fact, Future.


Forer, B. R. (1949). The fallacy of personal validation: a classroom demonstration of gullibility. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 44(1), 118-123.

Furnham, A., Richards, Sl, & Paulhus, D. (2013). The dark triad of personality: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass (March). DOI: 10.1111/spc3.12018.

Murphy, K. & Dzieweczynski, J. (2005). Why don’t broad dimensions of personality perform better as predictors of job performance? Human Performance 18(4), 343–357.

Pittenger, D. (1993). Measuring the MBTI…and coming up short. Journal of Career Planning and Employment 54(1), 48-52 .