The vast majority of personality inventories rely on “self report” for their input. Quite simply, individuals assess themselves on what I’ll call the “first level.” Since I refer to a “first level,” there obviously must be at least one more level. There is, and it’s a level of assessment that individuals can NOT provide by themselves no matter how good the inventory nor how “truthfully” the individuals respond to it. Therefore, personality assessments don’t tell the whole story.

You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better?

This doesn’t mean personality assessments aren’t useful (or ‘valid’ in scientific terms), it simply means that there’s more to a person’s story than they can reveal via any series of questions in a personality inventory. This goes for ALL personality inventories, some, more than others, but none can overcome the limitations of self-assessment. In short, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better? This is where an expert in psychology comes in handy. To get the best understanding of an individual, an expert in psychology and psychological assessment can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we ALL leave in our own account of our personality.

Although many psychologists would agree and offer varying degrees of scientific proof, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality that serves my point. Freud’s theory is grounded in the way he described the structure of the human psyche. This structure includes three components; the Id, Ego and Superego. Without going into the details of each of these components, Freud also developed the concepts of Consciousness and Unconsciousness (although he wasn’t the first to describe them). Almost everyone has some familiarity with these terms – even if not exactly in the way that Freud defined them.

Consciousness has to do with one’s direct awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can fairly accurately describe things that we experience while we are in a conscious state. Unconsciousness is the other ‘side’ of ourselves; the side to which we do not have direct access and therefore do not readily understand nor recognize. As such, we are unable to describe things that exist in our unconscious mind – even though it is constantly at work.

I could stop here and have a pretty good case for why self-report assessments don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include our unconscious self and our unconscious self has a big impact on who we are.

But there’s more.

Freud also described how the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personality work together. I’m not going to go into great detail here except to say that the unconscious mind significantly influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. And it's far more influential than most think.

Here’s a simple example of how unconscious behavior reveals itself in our daily lives: Tying your shoes. This is an activity that we perform virtually every day – but odds are you can’t tell me how you do it. We’ve done it so much that it’s become “automatic.” Basically, we do it without thinking. There are many other examples. Sticking with the shoe example, behaviors that we do repetitively oftentimes become “automatic.” Automatic behaviors require very little (if any) thought, and true to unconscious behavior, we have a hard time recalling or describing them. (A nice benefit to automatic behavior is that it uses almost no mental resources. This means that we have plenty of resources to attend to other matters – aka, multi-tasking.)

Automatic behavior is just one way in which unconsciousness affects who we are. Unconsciousness also affects our thinking and feeling. In short, we are very significantly influenced by psychological processes that we aren’t even aware of. Others may note these influences (or outcomes in our behavior) but we don’t. Things we say may be very apparent to others, but pass completely unnoticed by ourselves. For example, some individuals have a habit of repeating various phrases (usually “filler” words) without any awareness. You may know someone who repeatedly says, “at the end of the day”, or “you know what I mean?”, “um”, “actually”, or any of a cast of phrases that are “thrown in” to the conversation but add no value. Even if they are partially aware that they say these things, they have no idea how frequently they do it – unless you record them and show it back to them. In addition, people are very poor judges of how much they talk (vs. listen). You can test this with a friend, but I must warn that you this is almost never appreciated. Test at your own risk.

These are some simple ways in which our unconscious mind affects our behavior without our awareness. But that’s not all. There are even more “active” ways that our unconscious mind affects us that can be very confusing, or even misleading to an accurate assessment of ourselves (as actors) AND others (as observers).

Freud also developed the concept of “defense mechanisms.” In short, these are ways of thinking and behaving that counteract a thought or memory that is bothering us at an unconscious level. One such example is called, “reaction formation.”

Reaction formation is the term Freud used to describe the unconscious -- and extreme -- change of thought and behavior resulting from one’s unconscious need to (over)compensate for previous behavior that the individual now considers offensive. By way of “reaction formation” the individual unconsciously undergoes a radical transformation wherein the behavior or attitude they once held, suddenly becomes hyper offensive and disgustingly deplorable -- in others! Smoking is often given as an example. Former smokers sometimes become the loudest and most assertive critics of those who smoke. Freud’s theorizing is that by engaging in overcompensating behavior, one is clearing up or avoiding the unconscious tension they experience by virtue of having been a former transgressor.

Other forms of defense mechanisms include denial (unwilling or unable to accept the truth because of the psychological harm it causes), projection (attributing one’s own intolerable thoughts or problems to another so as to ‘shift blame’), repression (a less extreme variant of denial that involves pushing one’s hurtful thoughts or feelings into the unconscious self so as not to deal with them directly). And there are others.

Scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal.

The point is, not only are we largely unaware of our most frequent behaviors (automatic behavior), but our psyche is constantly at work trying to protect ourselves from threatening thoughts, feelings or behaviors (defense mechanisms). As a result, scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal. And this isn’t because the respondent is lying, they really believe that they are accurately describing themselves. There are many other factors that distort our valid understanding of ourselves, these are just two of the most common.

An expert in psychology and psychological assessment can identify these, and other unconscious influences on behavior, and consequently, scores on a self-report personality inventory. Sometimes this can be done merely by noting unusual or telling patterns in the individual’s responses to a reputable personality assessment, but frequently it requires the collection of data beyond the single assessment. Psychological interviews are among the best ways to spot potentially misleading information as taken straight from the personality inventory. The content of these interviews can be designed specifically to test questions raised by the instrument.

It’s very important to stress that these types of advanced interpretation of any psychometric assessment are complex. They need to be left to experts who have a thorough understanding of psychology as well as tests and measures used as tools to predict behavior.

In sum: Solid psychological assessments offer great value over less scientifically constructed measures (e.g., typical unstructured interviews). But, as with any other tool, it’s important to know the true strengths and limits of what they offer in the complex task of psychological assessment. As anyone who’s made a regrettable hire can agree, what you see in the interview isn’t always what you get on the job.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

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Published by R. Chris Steilberg, PhD

Endlessly curious about why people do the things they do and the connections and differences among us. For every 'thing' I learn, I realize more that I haven't. I guess I'm on a full-out quest for relative ignorance. View more posts

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