Personality assessments emerged as early as World War I, with the U.S. Army screening soldiers for neuroticism (or emotional instability) to determine their vulnerability to shell-shock. Shell-shock is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition thousands of soldiers were experiencing at that time, severely debilitating their performance in the field. Assessing new recruits for neuroticism was a way for the Army to ascertain who was unsuitable for military duties.
Since then, personality assessments have become commonplace and adopted across industries. As a result, personality testing has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. With a large body of research demonstrating that personality traits can be predictive of job performance, testing adoption continues to grow. Today, 80% of Fortune 500 companies use personality assessments for hiring, with the testing industry expected to generate rerevenues of $6.5 billion by 2027.
In particular, one of the most popular frameworks for measuring personality is the Five-Factor Model, which assesses individuals on the “Big-Five” personality traits: openness to new experiences, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. With respect to industrial and organizational psychology, many studies show how conscientiousness (i.e., greater organization and self-discipline) tends to positively correlate with job performance (1).
However, other research suggests that personality assessments may not as strongly predict job performance compared to other forms of assessments, such as tests of cognitive ability (2). The findings that question the efficacy of personality assessments in personnel selection may be more a consequence of the limitations associated with self-reported measures of personality rather than issues stemming from the validity of personality as a marker of job performance.
The problems with self-reported measures of personality
Self-assessment is the most widely used method of assessing personality, primarily due to convenience (i.e., potential hires are merely required to answer a set of questions about themselves). While self-reported personality is useful for examining how a person perceives themselves, this form of assessment is fraught with issues that may result in inaccurate predictions of job performance.
When completing a self-assessment, people are typically consciously aware of what is being measured and the questions that are measuring it. This conscious awareness allows people to regulate their responses, leading to biases in self-reporting. For example, social desirability bias is quite common in self-reports, leading people to answer questions in a way that makes them look good rather than answering truthfully (3). Thus, a job candidate hoping to impress their potential employer may answer questions to portray themselves as highly conscientious when in reality they are actually low on conscientiousness.
Self-reports are also subjective, in that they rely on and assess one’s point of view. The subjective nature of self-reports often results in reference-group effects, where a person’s perception of themselves is biased to the degree that their self-views are based on comparisons of other people (4). For instance, one might think of themselves as an extraverted person if—by comparison—the people they surround themselves with tend to be extremely introverted.
Reducing self-report biases with language-based assessment
To combat the limitations of subjective and explicit self-reporting (e.g., reference-group effects and social desirability biases), candidate evaluation should integrate more objective and implicit measures of personality. Personality assessments that are not dependent on personal perspectives, where one is not consciously aware that their personality is being measured (or how it is being measured), will help construct a more accurate representation of a job candidate’s personality.
In a substantial number of peer-reviewed studies, researchers using Receptiviti’s science have demonstrated the utility in assessing people’s everyday language use as an objective and implicit behavioural measure of personality. Function words, in particular, are processed largely unconsciously, making them an ideal implicit measure of behaviour to help bypass the biases inherent to explicit self-reporting.
Research employing our science also shows that people use similar language patterns over time and throughout different contexts. Such findings support language use as a reliable measure for evaluating individual differences and traits, like personality. For instance, people scoring higher on extraversion—a personality trait representative of sociability and positive affect—typically use higher rates of language relating to social topics (e.g., references to friends) and positive emotion.
Self-reports measure personal views and opinions, but language is a measure of behaviour
However, self-reported responses may not always correspond with behavioural responses. In fact, research shows that self-reported responses better predict other self-reported responses (5), while behavioural responses better predict other behavioural responses (6). In other words, people’s language-based personality may not consistently match with self-reported personality because language is a measure of behaviour, whereas self-reports are a measure of personal views and opinions.
For example, one might answer a personality survey in accordance with their belief that they are not a highly neurotic person–perhaps because, compared to the severely neurotic individuals they surround themselves with, they see themselves as emotionally stable (i.e., the reference-group effect). This same person may also use an inordinate number of self-references (i.e., first-person singular pronouns: I, me, my) in their written and spoken conversations, which reflects a certain vulnerability to neuroticism and other negative affective states (e.g., depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in general ).
That is, while self-reports inform how a person perceives their own personality, patterns apparent in one’s everyday language provide a more objective behavioural indicator of personality. Recent research further suggests that language is a stronger predictor of personality than self-reports (8), reinforcing the efficacy of everyday language use in measuring personality.
Comprehensive personality assessment requires a combination of self-report- and language-based assessments
Widespread reliance on personality assessments has relegated self-report-based personality assessments as a form of “gold standard.” In reality, self-reports pose problematic limitations, but are often deferred to simply because they offer an inexpensive and convenient way to assess personality. However, examining job candidates’ language use is just as convenient, if not moreso, than administering self-reports.
While self-reports provide subjective information about how one sees themselves, language use provides objective information about one’s pattern of behaviours. Each of these personality measures remain only one piece of the puzzle. Examined together, they offer more holistic insights into a person’s personality and their fit for a particular role, culture or employer.
Judge, T. A., Rodell, J. B., Klinger, R. L., Simon, L. S., & Crawford, E. R. (2013). Hierarchical representations of the five-factor model of personality in predicting job performance: Integrating three organizing frameworks with two theoretical perspectives. Journal of Applied Psychology, 98, 875–925.
Martin, W. (2014, August 27). The problem with using personality tests for hiring. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2014/08/the-problem-with-using-personality-tests-for-hiring
Crano, W. D., Brewer, M. B., & Lac, A. (2015). Principles and methods of social research (3rd ed.). Routledge.
Heine, S. J., Buchtel, E. E., & Norenzayan, A. (2008). What do cross-national comparisons of personality traits tell us? The case of conscientiousness. Psychological Science, 19, 309–313.
Boyd, R. L., & Pennebaker, J. W. (2017). Language-based personality: A new approach to personality in a digital world. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 18, 63-68.
Eastwick, P. W., Eagly, A. H., Finkel, E. J., & Johnson, S. E. (2011). Implicit and explicit preferences for physical attractiveness in a romantic partner: A double dissociation in predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 993-1011.
Tackman, A.M., Sbarra, D.A., Carey, A.L., Donnellan, M.B., Horn, A.B., Holtzman, N.S., Edwards, T.S., Pennebaker, J.W., & Mehl, M.R. (2019). Depression, negative emotionality, and self-referential language: A multi-lab, multi-measure, and multi-language-task research synthesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 116(5), 817-834.
Youyou, W., Stillwell, D., Schwartz, H. A., & Kosinski, M. (2017). Birds of a feather do flock together: Behavior-based personality-assessment method reveals personality similarity among couples and friends. Psychological Science, 28, 276-284.