Personality Inventories

A personality inventory is a  questionnaire or other standardized instrument designed to reveal aspects of an individual’s character or psychological makeup. It helps to reveal the respondent’s personality traits. There are several types of personality inventories – some of them are generic personality inventories and some more specific in terms of what they intend to assess – autonomy, locus of control and so on!

Personality inventories are used for variety of purposes including individual counselling, relationship counselling, organization development, talent management, career selection, career transition and so on. Most of the well-known and respected personality inventories clearly specify their intended use and they should only be used for their intended use.

I personally believe that personality inventories are excellent tools that offer you valuable insights about your own personality. They could be immensely useful if used constructively in career planning or achieving life goals including harmony in professional and personal relationships.

I am discussing three important personality inventories in this article.

(1) 16 Personality Factors – 16 PF

British & American psychologist Raymond Cattell (1905-1998) developed 16 Personality Factors (popularly known as 16 PF) after decades of psychometric research into intra-personal psychological structure. It is one of the comparatively older and well-respected personality inventories that is used by clinical psychologist as well as other professionals including HR professionals.

It should be noted that 16 PF accesses traits, and unlike types they are not dichotomies – an individual is not put into one of the two mutually exclusive categories; instead his/her score on those factors indicates where he/she is leaning. High score and low score indicate the two extremes of the factor respectively. For example, low score on warmth factor indicates reserved and distant person, whereas high score indicates warm-hearted and caring person. Most individual scores are in the middle of two extremes for any of these 16 factors.

The 16 PF assesses sixteen primary personality traits (also called source traits) of an individual known as personality factors that I have listed below.

  1. Warmth – This factor indicates how reserved, impersonal (low score) or caring and warm-hearted (high score) the person is.
  2. Reasoning – This factor shows cognitive ability and intellect of the person. Low score and high score indicate lower ability and higher ability respectively.
  3. Emotional Stability – This indicates how much the person get affected by emotions under stressful conditions.
  4. Dominance – This factor indicates the degree of co-operation, avoiding conflicts or being dominant and forceful.
  5. Liveliness – Indicates how restrained, serious or spontaneous & enthusiastic the person is.
  6. Rule-Consciousness – This factor indicates degree of conformity/compliance of the individual. It shows person’s attitude towards authority and how likely he/she will comply with the rules.
  7. Social Boldness – Indicates how shy, timid or socially bold and outgoing the person is.
  8. Sensitivity – This factor indicates degree of compassion,  tender-mindedness or toughness and objectivity of the person.
  9. Vigilance – Indicates how much unsuspecting, trusting or vigilant and sceptical the person is.
  10. Abstractedness – This factor suggests the degree to which the person is grounded, practical or idea-oriented and imaginative. Lower scores here indicate more of practical approach whereas high score indicates imaginative nature.
  11. Privateness – This factor indicates how genuine,  forthright (low score) or non-disclosing and discreet (high score) the person is.
  12. Apprehension – This factor indicates the degree of self-assurance or self-doubt of the person.
  13. Openness to Change – This factor indicates how conventional, attached to the familiar or adaptable and experimenting the person is.
  14. Self-Reliance – Indicates how affiliative (group-oriented) or individualistic the person is.
  15. Perfectionism – This indicates the degree of impulsiveness, tolerance to disorder or organized behaviour and self-discipline.
  16. Tension – This factor indicates how relaxed, patient or driven and impatient the person is.

The 16 PF traits mentioned above are the result of years of factor-analytic research focused on discovering the basic structural elements of personality. The 16 PF is an extremely useful and comprehensive measure to assess normal-range personality. Owing to Cattell’s background in physical sciences (BS in  Chemistry in 1926, Followed by PhD in Psychology in 1929 from Cambridge University), the 16 PF has strong scientific foundation and it is based on solid empirical research. The 16 PF research includes more than 2,000 publications since 1974.

Raymond Cattell wanted to apply scientific methods to the uncharted domain of human personality to discover the basic elements of personality. He believed that human characteristics such as creativity, authoritarianism, altruism, or leadership skills could be predicted from these fundamental personality traits; just as Water = H2O! (He was a Chemistry student after all! :p)  Through factor-analysis  (a process of finding underlying factors behind complex phenomenon involving many variables) Cattell identified surface traits  (or secondary traits/factors) and source traits (or primary traits/factors) as he decided to refer to them. Surface traits represent groups of related source traits and Source traits represent the underlying structure of the personality. Cattell considered source traits much more important in understanding personality than surface traits. The identified source traits became the primary basis for the 16 PF Model as listed above.

The 16 PF has kept itself updated and it has gone through 4 revisions since its initial release in 1949 and the last revision was in 1993. Thus despite being relatively older measure, it is relevant and well accepted even today.

The 16 primary personality traits (aka source traits) are grouped together to form what are known as global or secondary factors (aka surface traits). Thus, secondary/surface trait Extroversion/Introversion is a group of following related primary (source) traits –  Social Boldness, Liveliness, Warmth, Privateness, and Self-Reliance. I have depicted grouping of source traits to form surface traits in the diagram below –

16 PF – Source Traits & Surface Traits
The 16 PF – Grouping of Source Traits that form Surface Traits

It is also interesting to see how various groups people show up on the 16 PF inventory. The image below is one landmark study that illustrates how creative artists, authors score low on warmth and perfectionism (self-control) scale but score fairly high on intelligence as well as sensitivity. Pilots on the other hand, are not as sensitive as these two, but score high perfectionism (self-control) and are fairly relaxed individuals; as they are required to be in their profession.

The individual personality traits are quite important when it comes to choosing profession. When I meet individuals for personal consulting, I encourage them to align their work with who they really are! The personality inventories prove immensely helpful in gaining such insights about one’s real self.

16PF Sample Report for Pilots, Creative People & Writers
The 16 PF Sample Report for Pilots, Creative Artists & Writers (Courtesy: Koritzke’s Illustration)

The plots of the 16 personality factors for writers, creative artists and airline pilots are self-explanatory and drive home my point about personality and profession.

The 16 PF personality inventory by Raymond Cattell is not only impressive for its own in-depth scientific foundation and ability to keep itself updated and relevant; but it is also instrumental as a foundation for more recent and advanced personality inventories such as Big-5. That’s the reason why I have covered 16 PF in details, and if you want to know more  about it, do refer to the reference links provided at the end of this article.

(2) The Big Five

The Big Five personality traits is also called Five Factor Model (FFM). It represents five broad factors (dimensions) of personality, sometimes referred by the acronym: OCEAN, which stands for – Openness To Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion (also Surgency), Agreeableness and Neuroticism. Beneath each of these proposed global factors, a number of correlated and more specific primary factors are claimed. For example, extraversion is said to include such related qualities as gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, warmth, activity, and positive emotions. As you would recognize, this is quite similar to the 16 PF source traits and surface traits. This is the most recent model of personality that psychologists/psychiatrists have accepted.

The history of the Big Five is quite interesting. The five factors were derived by factor-analysis (again) of a large number of self and peer reports on personality-relevant adjectives and questionnaire items. In 1936, Gordon Allport and S. Odbert extracted some 4,504 adjectives which they believed were descriptive of observable and relatively permanent traits from the dictionaries at that time. The hypothesis was that the individual differences that are most prominent and socially relevant will come to be encoded as terms in the natural language. In 1940, Raymond Cattell retained the adjectives from Allport & Odbert study, and eliminated synonyms to reduce the total to just 171. He developed the 16 PF Questionnaire based on this research work. Later other researchers such as Ernest Tupes, Raymond Christal, John Digman, Lewis Goldberg and Paul Costa/Robert McCrae.

There are two similar theories proposed –

  1. The Big Five by Lewis Goldberg – The original five factors suggested by Goldberg were: Surgency (extraversion),  Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability (Neuroticism), and Intellect/Imagination (Openness).
  2. Five Factor Model (FFM) OCEAN by Costa & McCrae – The five factors suggested by this duo are: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

As we can see, there is a slight difference between the factors proposed by these two theories. The details of their individual researches and differences, though quite intriguing, are beyond the scope of this article.  However, for all practical purposes the OCEAN model depicted below and the description that follows it could be used for this inventory.

The BIg Five - OCEAN Model
The Big Five – OCEAN Model
  1. Openness To Experience – This is also called Intellect or Intellect/Imagination by Goldberg. This factor indicates being curious, intellectual, having wide interests, imaginative and insightful.
  2. Conscientiousness – This factor includes traits such as being organized, systematic, thorough, reliable and well-planned.
  3. Extraversion – The classic dimension of extraversion/introversion, it was called as surgency by Goldberg. It includes more specific traits such as being outgoing, sociable, talkative, energetic, and assertive.
  4. Agreeableness – This factor indicates being affable, trusting, sympathetic, kind, and warm.
  5. Neuroticism – Also referred to as emotional stability by Goldberg. This factor includes more specific traits such as anxious, irritable and moody.

As we can see, each of the Big Five factors is quite broad and consists of a range of more specific traits. It is important to understand that, similar to the 16 PF, in the Big Five or Five Factor Model (FFM), the factors are dimensions, not types; hence people vary continuously on them, with most people falling in between the extremes. This test is quite reliable and widely accepted among contemporary psychologists, psychiatrists and personality researchers. These factors are considered universal across diverse cultures and these factors are stable over a period of 45 years beginning in young adulthood.

This is one rare theory and model that is very well accepted by scientific researchers, clinicians as well as common man interested in personality insights. It is gaining more popularity in recent times because it is a model of what people want to know about one another.

(3) Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) instrument is the most popular, widely used personality assessment test in the world, and perhaps it is one of the most criticized one as well. I had written a separate post about MBTI on earlier. I had also written about Carl Jung’s functions Thinking, Feeling, Sensing, and Intuiting on in Personality Theories. Several variations of this personality type inventory are available including the famous Keirsey Temperament Sorter by David Keirsey or Personality Style Indicator (PSI) by Dr. R. C. Hogan and D. W. Champagne. All these inventories are based on Carl Jung’s theory of psychological types.

The MBTI is a type, thus unlike traits people do NOT vary continuously on these types; but instead they belong to one type or the other in that dichotomy. This is one of the criticisms against MBTI, but one should take into consideration that the preference indicated by the type could be slight or clear preference. This is analogous to variation on a particular trait. Also, it is crucial to understand that individual abilities might differ from the individual’s psychological preferences. For example, many engineers & professionals requiring analytical skill are trained to use ‘thinking’ more frequently, though they may have ‘feeling’ preference.

Sine I have already written about MBTI earlier, I will cover this shortly here. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is developed by the mother & daughter duo Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers. The eight preferences are divided into four pairs of preferences or dichotomies as described below –

  1. Extroversion or Introversion (E/I) – The classic dimension of extroversion/introversion is indicated by a preference on MBTI. It indicates whether one is outwardly focused or inwardly focused. Introverts are people who prefer their internal world of thoughts, feelings, fantasies, dreams, and so on, while extroverts prefer the external world of things and people and activities. Extroverts find interactions with people energizing whereas introverts get energized by solitude. Jung, as well as MBTI use these terms slightly differently than their everyday connotations.
  2. Sensing or Intuitive (S/I) – This preference indicates how one prefers to process the information. Intuitive preference imagines possibilities about how things could be and sees the bigger picture and how everything connects. Sensing preference focuses on how things are and deals with facts and data in a literal way. Intuiting (As Jung calls this function) comes from the complex integration of large amounts of information, rather than simple seeing or hearing as it happens in sensing. An intuitive person tends to prefer interconnections and interrelations of facts, events and can conceive their patterns. The sensing person can notice and recall sensory details such as colors, textures, tastes quite vividly.
  3. Thinking or Feeling (T/F) – This preference suggests how one prefers to make decisions – in impersonal way based on logical thinking or based on personal values and how one’s actions affect others. The thinking preference values justice, fairness and also enjoys argument, finding flaws. The feeling preference values harmony, forgiveness and pleasing others, pointing out best in others. It should be noted that thinking people can have emotions and quite capable of being warm and considerate; however when it comes to decision-making, their preferred way is impersonal, logical thinking. Likewise, people having feeling preference may have logical thinking, and quite capable of being analytical and rational; but their preferred way is subjective, personal value based when it comes to decision-making.
  4. Judging or Perceiving (J/P) – This preference indicates whether one prefers closure (Judging) or keeping options open (Perceiving). Before explaining further, it is important to note that MBTI uses both these words in different sense, and not exactly as their everyday meaning. Thus, people who prefer judging over perceiving are not necessarily more judgemental or less perceptive. The judging preference needs to have matters settled – they usually have (detailed) plans and respect deadlines, commitments. The perceiving preference like to keep options open – they are spontaneous, they improvise as they go and see deadlines, commitments as flexible.Interestingly, the judging people are internally perceiving – they take much longer to explore and evaluate various options before deciding their course of action. Once they decide, they usually prefer to lay out meticulous plan and follow it sincerely. On the other hand, the perceiving people are internally judging – they do not explore or evaluate many options beforehand. They choose an option and improve or change it during the course of their action later. Their plans are flexible and they do change their mind as required. Due to these inherent differences, the J/P people run into some conflicts while working in a team. A leader (or external intervention such as a consultant) with personality insights can choose different people with appropriate preferences for appropriate tasks and help them understand their differences as well as how they complement each other.

These either preferences and four dichotomies form 16 MBTI types (4 dichotomies, each with 2 options: 42 = 16) as codes such as ENFJ, ESTP, INFJ, ISTP and so on. These 16 types and their brief description is depicted below (Click on the image to view it in larger size) –

MBTI - The 16 Types Explained
MBTI – The 16 Types Explained (Image By: Jake Beech via Wikimedia Commons)

Owing to MBTI types’ popularity, there are literally thousands of pages, illustrations, cartoons available all over the web. It is widely used and accepted all over the world for personal counselling, career guidance, talent management, organizational development and so on.

McCrae & Costa (proposed Five Factor Model described above) studied correlations between the MBTI scales and the Big Five personality construct, which is a conglomeration of characteristics found in nearly all personality and psychological tests. The data from their study suggested that four of the MBTI scales are related to the Big Five personality traits. These correlations show that E-I and S-N are strongly related to extraversion (0.74) and openness (0.72) respectively. T-F and J-P are more weakly related to agreeableness (0.44) and conscientiousness (0.49) respectively. The emotional stability (neuroticism) dimension of the Big Five is absent from the MBTI.

I have personally found MBTI quite insightful and useful for career planning and interpersonal relations. Like any other good personality inventory, it offers immensely valuable insights about the person – and when used correctly, it is indeed a powerful tool. I used it myself and recommend it to my friends and clients to assess normal-range personality. Moreover, I encourage them to use more than one inventory to see what different insights they could offer and what common factors/patterns they could recognize from those different reports.

Using Personality Inventories

I am adding links here to all the three personality inventories from their authorized/licensed sources. There are free alternatives available for all of these personality inventories, and few of them do a pretty good job similar to their official sources, such as for MBTI, but few are not as good as their licensed versions (for example, 16PF). As such, the theories behind these personality inventories belong to everyone, and similar inventories can be built with some research from the theories and knowledge available in the public domain.

I have included one free alternative for each of these personality inventories below –

Usually, it is a good idea to use multiple inventories or same inventory from different sources and compare your reports to see what combined insights you can get from them and what common patterns you notice about yourself through those reports! I have used all of these inventories myself and for my clients, and I know how connecting-the-dots takes the self-awareness to another level.

Also, it helps to discuss these reports with a knowledgeable person to interpret them properly. For example, the MBTI type needs to be verified from the individual rather than simply accepting the reported type, there are several nuances that should be discussed. Likewise, the 16 PF report needs to be interpreted properly taking into consideration all the factors together beyond their individual scores.

Lastly, please note that these inventories are spotlights that attempt to uncover several aspects of your personality. They are fairly accurate, but there is lot more to a person than what any one of them could report. These inventories do not predict who you are, rather they should reflect who you are – and they indeed do that to a great extent if you answer all the questions honestly. It’s important to keep all that in mind while understanding these reports!

Do add your comments, queries here about any of these inventories and I will try to explain further if required or point you to a more suitable resource.


  1. Personality Tests from Wikipedia
  2. Detailed information on 16 PF
  3. Contributions and Limitations of Cattell’s 16 PF
  4. The Big Five from Wikipedia
  5. Five Factors paper by Goldberg
  6. MBTI from Wikipedia
  7. Detailed explanation and information about MBTI

One thought on “Personality Inventories

  1. “The emotional stability (neuroticism) dimension of the Big Five is absent from the MBTI.”

    MBTI exists at the preferences and whole type level. But the Jungian psychological types on which it is founded go deeper. When you get into type dynamics (sequencing of the mental preferences for a person) and type development, neuroticism/emotional stability is addressed. Usually it is a result of unconscious adaptation from early age against one’s preferences, as a result of external pressures. This distances the self image from the real self causing neuroticism later. Also, stress behaviour (as well as management) is covered through the inferior function, which is only slightly conscious but connects one with the unconscious.

    MBTI (Jungian Type theory to be precise) is not comparable to other personality inventories as it is far more layered than just the types in its depth and insights. No matter what the psychologist community feels!

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