Have you seen the BBC’s experiment Child of our time – The big personality test? Anything to do with personality always catches my attention and I listened to this with a great deal of interest. The BBC are tracking children born in 2000, and in spring of 2010 they will run a programme on the outcome of their findings.
If you complete the questionnaire, you will notice the questions they ask are far more than a personality questionnaire would seek – in fact, only a very small section of questions is based on the Big Five personality traits. The rest of the questions simply capture background information that they will use to identify and measure happiness or contentment with life and perhaps, success.
The origins of the big five
This was really puzzling: Psychologists would know that away back in 1988 and perhaps before that, Costa and McCrae created the Big Five personality test, yet here we have the BBC crediting this to John and Stravastava (1999). I’m sure that Costa and McCrae, or those who use the system, are able to contest this themselves. When it is being used as part of a scientific experiment with such worthies as Professor Robert Winston fronting, it does seem odd. If something as crucial as this is wrong, one wonders what else and this makes me a bit suspect of trusting the rest of the experiment.
The Big Five Factors of personality
This is a personality trait measure. The traits each individual is identified as having, in response to the questionnaire, are measured against a norm of the population. By doing this it can be ascertained whether, as opposed to all others in this norm group, those measures come out High, Medium or Low. Surprise Surprise! These three divide into one third of the population high, one third medium and one third low – neat or what?
How much of a trait one has – or how they compare to others – is not the only way of measuring personality, however there are a great number of trait systems and they do seem to be popular. The videos at the end of the debrief were well done, however one of the questions raised – and I could raise a great deal more when referring to traits – was from someone who scored low on Neuroticism:
“Should I be working on my neuroticism. Watching more Woody Allen movies or what?”
This, I think, is the challenge of trait theory. How much of a trait is good, bad or indifferent? Is it static? Perhaps we are predisposed to using this trait, however surely we use more or less of it, depending on the circumstances or mood we’re in?
Personality Type theory
To me, type theory is much more substantial and dependable. The difference is that when measuring type it is measured on bi-polar scales and each individual can move along these scales, even though they are predisposed to prefer one side of a scale more than the other. These scales mean nothing in isolation – they need to be combined to identify a whole personality.
If one is an adherant of Carl Jung, the Swiss psychologist, they would agree that it does not matter where a person is positioned on these scales against a normed sample – as according to Jung each person is unique. Of course we share the preferences and movements on the bi-polar scales with others in the population, although we will all use them in different degrees and at different times.
The Five Factors measure extraversion with no mention of introversion, however the assumption is if one has the trait of extraversion, they are not introverted. The challenge with this is that the majority of people are close to the centre of the introversion/extraversion scale, and could behave in an introverted way one minute and be more extraverted in another. Again some of the characters speaking on the Child of our Time video also questioned this as they felt, even when admitting to being extraverted, that they enjoyed quiet down time when they did not want to be extraverted. Only those at the extreme ends of these scales would be easily recognised as one or the other. Jung referred to these as Attitudes, whereas the Big Five list them as traits.
The Child of our Time site suggests that the personality test will explain - ‘what makes you the person you are’ and yes, this is what personality assessment, (they are not tests) does. This will only happen if the person who has completed the questionnaire and received a personal profile as a result has more questions answered than raised. This trait profile does seem to be causing people who have taken the ‘test’ and described it on their own video to be asking more questions than agreeing they have understood from this experience what type of person they are.
You may also enjoy reading about how we made a Personality Test that is easy to use.