Today, there are many different methods of assessing personality, some of which get used in everyday life in order to gauge someone’s personality with the intention of finding out whether someone is compatible with oneself. In psychology, we understand personality and its difficulties, through various research methods, ranging from observations, structured personality tests or questionnaires to projective techniques. The aim of such methods is to assess an individual’s behavioural dispositions, whether extrovert or introvert, confident or insecure. However, questionnaires are conceivably the most straightforward and direct way to make an assessment, making them the most popular method of personality research. Nevertheless, their accuracy is often disputed, as there are many difficulties associated with questionnaires.
Personality questionnaires were first devised in post-war America (1918) to assess whether soldiers were emotionally disturbed. The structure was basic, requiring only yes/no answers, but these stimulated use of questionnaires in further personality research, first taken up by Allport who initiated the Trait theory. However, his questionnaires failed to take into account gender, age and culture and have been criticised for their lack of accuracy.
Since Allport, questionnaires have developed greatly to avoid many of the difficulties they have faced. Developments in depth, strategies, layout and their phrasing have all produced much more efficient results. At a most basic level, the subjects’ age, gender and culture should be taken into account when composing questionnaires: It may be inappropriate to have the same questions for a six year old, as it would be for a student or a sixty year old.
The ‘Personality Inventories’ (MMPI) developed questionnaires to use a number of different scales to measure the extent of one’s closeness to a particular psychiatric group, whether it is neuroticism, extroversion or psychoticism. This notion was first taken up by Maudsley in 1959, who measured extroversion and neuroticism. Eysenck, five years later, introduced a lie scale in order to eradicate the tendency for subjects to choose socially desirable answers. By 1975, ‘Eysenck’s Personality Quest’ had developed further to include a psychotic element, thus including all three elements of personality into his questionnaire scale. Eysenck, himself, admitted his psychoticism scale was inferior to any scientific research on the subject. However, the rest of Eysenck’s research was validated through criterion analysis.
Questionnaires face the obstacle of creating answers with flexibility and breadth within a multiple-choice structure. How can personality be derived from a list of questions with a limited range of answers? Questionnaires have been improved beyond the original yes/no answers, but multiple-choice options don’t always convey the subject’s feelings. Different measures have been introduced to overcome constricted answers, such as using a number scale to rate whether a statement is like oneself or not at all. Open-ended answers obviously have no limitations however this creates long and laborious research that can be criticised for its lack of uniformity.
Another difficulty attributed to questionnaires is the tendency to have a response set if the questionnaires are not carefully worded and put together. If there is a recognised pattern where appropriate answers can be identified, the subject may be inclined to respond repetitively, echoing the format of questions and without really thinking. It is therefore essential that questions be phrased differently each time. The most effective way of acquiring concentration from a subject is to form questions using double negatives. For example to start a question with ‘It is not uncommon…’ adds an element of confusion, thus making the subject think about what the question is really asking.
It is in human nature to want to please people and thus give socially desirable answers, which may not always be honest. Dishonest answers create unreliable data not only for the subject but also for stereotypical assessments. To avoid this difficulty, lie detectors have been introduced to questionnaires, although even with a lie detector there is always a possibility that the subjects are actually lying to themselves.
In essence, a questionnaire is asking the individual to assess objectively one’s own personality when answering the questions, yet this assessment is fundamentally subjective. Since the evaluation of someone’s personality concerns one’s mental process a questionnaire alone cannot fully convey the true extent of a personality.
Some researchers include questionnaires about the subject to be answered by friends and family to create an objective view to be incorporated with the subjects own. When these are integrated with projective techniques (assessing one’s subconscious side through analysis) the results are more. Thus, questionnaires’ efficiency is most when applied alongside other psychological research.
The Barnum Effect also queries the validity of questionnaires. It proves that a personality rating does not necessarily have to portray an individual’s true personality for them to accept it as long as it is positive (Furnham and Varian, 1988). This was proved by Forer’s assessment test (1949), in which he gave students the same personality assessment, which everyone accepted to be them. If an individual is so bad at recognising their own personality then why should a questionnaire about their personality be accurate? Criticisms of questionnaires argue that their results are purely broad stereotypes that could suit almost anyone. Experimental evidence has supported such criticisms, for example those of Hartshorne and May’s studies of 11-14 year olds’ cheating.
Arguments have been made that people’s personalities are so different and complex that any form of questionnaire cannot be accurate, as mental processes are too dynamic to be assessed by any type of questionnaire. Personality therefore should not be simplified into a series of questions and answers, since everyone has an individual personality.
Personality questionnaires contain many difficulties for example subjective views are not always reliable and one is susceptible to give socially desirable answers. The very structure of a questionnaire can also create difficulties due to their limiting choice of answers and the potential for a response set. Although these difficulties exist, their validity cannot be undermined within the field of personality, as they often lay the main foundations of theories and stimulate further research. When viewed as neither non-scientific research nor an analytical approach, questionnaires are generally regarded as an acceptable and reliable form of assessing personality. Questionnaires are especially useful when combined with observational and projective personality tests, such as Rorschach’s inkblot experiments.