When did personality tests get popular? A brief history of personality tests
Recently, our psychologists and researchers discussed the history of personality tests and when assessments like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator gained popularity. We thought it was a interesting conversation, and so (furiously taking notes as fast as we could type) thought you might want to know a little of the history.
The study of (and interest in) differences in people’s behavior (and why those differences exist) has been around for centuries. However, attempts at organized, objective ways to measure and figure out people’s personalities (as well as other characteristics, such as cognitive ability) really started to get popular around WWI.
WWI and the Study of Personality
Why was WWI a trigger for the study of personality?
It actually started in the military. Leaders there saw the potential value in recognizing certain characteristics of soldiers on a large scale. And those characteristics (aspects of personality) could be useful for a soldier, or counterproductive.
Either way, they thought it would help leaders know what made someone good at their job (and what didn’t).
At the same time, WWI was also the catalyst for applying psychology in industries and organizations, which is where I/O psychology was born.
Think of psychology like biology, and I/O psychology like farming. Biology studies living organisms and their structures, the chemical processes that help things grow and how plants develop. But that information doesn’t get you very far on its own, until you apply it to something like farming. With an understanding of biology, you can be a become a better farmer because you know what chemicals plants need, you understand how they grow (or die), and overall you get more plant-bang for your plant-buck.
Same idea with using psychology and applying it to organizations.
Your companies run smoother because you understand how people are motivated and work together. And the people who work there are happier. And ultimately, the company does better on it’s bottom line.
Anyway, back to WWI era and applied psychology.
Applied Psychology, I/O Psychology and Personality Assessments
Outside of the war effort, the primary focus of measuring psychology was on psychopathology (a fancy name for studying mental disorders). The most notable of these measurement tools was the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory).
Also coming into popularity was positive psychology, which focused on normal and beneficial aspects of a personality.
And when the positive psychology people joined forces with the I/O psychology people (who wanted to predict and enhance productivity in the workplace), the unofficial history of personality tests began.
We see examples of this kind of psychology in the development of two early (and popular) personality assessments: the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the California Psychological Inventory (CPI). A lot of work in this area began to flourish in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
Over the next few decades, research and interest in the value personality measurement tools ebbed and flowed.
Project A, the military and personality tests
However, an Army-sponsored project conducted in the 1980’s (termed Project A) re-examined many of the personnel selection issues that originated in WWI. What it found was a great amount of value in personality assessments in organizational contexts. Interestingly, another personality assessment called the FIRO-B (Fundamental Interpersonal Relationship Orientation-Behavior) was also developed in William Shutz work to help US Navy submarine teams work better together when tensions run high in wartime situations.
Since that time, advances in the statistical measurement of personality (and the large amount of research and evidence backing it up) have proven how useful personality assessments can be when it comes to predicting meaningful work behaviors and performance. (Note – the Myers-Briggs personality assessment itself doesn’t predict performance, but many other tools do).
In addition to work behavior and performance, personality assessments are incredibly useful in dealing with major life events. All these things have cemented personality measurements into our current society.
Pretty interesting history of personality tests, huh?
If you want to dig a little deeper into behavior, motivation and other “psych 101” terms, check out these blogs:
Lastly, we have a few things up our collective sleeves for the upcoming World Introvert Day on Jan. 2. If you have any questions about Introversion, head over to our Facebook page or Instagram page where we’re collecting your questions to answer on Jan. 2!