Thursday, 13 December 2012

A new test for finding out what people really think of their personality

A problem with your standard personality questionnaire is that most people like to make a good impression. This is especially the case when questionnaires are used for job candidates. One way around this is to use so-called implicit measures of personality, designed to probe subconscious beliefs. The famous Rorschach ink-blot test is one example, but many psychologists criticise it for its unreliability. A more modern example is a version of the implicit association test, in which people are timed using the same response key for self-referential words and various personality traits. If they associate the trait with themselves, they should be quicker to answer. Now a team led by Florin Sava have proposed a brand-new test based on what's called the "semantic misattribution procedure".

Nearly a hundred participants watched as personality traits were flashed one at a time for a fifth of a second on a computer screen. After each trait (e.g. "anxious"), a neutral-looking Chinese pictograph was flashed on-screen. The participants didn't know what these Chinese symbols meant. Their task was to ignore the flashed personality traits and to say whether they'd like each Chinese symbol to be printed on a personalised t-shirt for them or not, to reflect their personality.

This method is based on past research showing that we tend to automatically misattribute the meaning of briefly presented words to subsequent neutral stimuli. So, in the example above, participants would be expected to attribute, at a subconscious level, the meaning of "anxious" to the Chinese symbol. When assessing the suitability of the symbol for their t-shirt, it feels subjectively as if they are merely guessing, or making their judgment based on its visual properties. But in fact their choice of whether the symbol is suitable will be influenced by the anxious meaning they've attributed to it, and, crucially, whether or not they have an implicit belief that they are anxious.

In this initial study, and two more involving nearly 300 participants, Sava and his colleagues showed that participants' scores on this test for conscientiousness, neuroticism and extraversion correlated with explicit measures of the same traits. The new implicit test also did a better job than explicit measures alone of predicting relevant behaviours, such as church attendance, perseverance on a lab task, and punctuality. The implicit scores for extraversion showed good consistency over 6 months. Finally, the new implicit test showed fewer signs of being influenced by social desirability concerns, as compared with traditional explicit measures. Next, the researchers plan to test whether their new implicit measure is immune to attempts at deliberate fakery.

"The present study suggests that the Semantic Misattribution Procedure is an effective alternative for measuring implicit personality self- concept," the researchers said.


Sava, F., MaricuΤoiu, L., Rusu, S., Macsinga, I., Vîrgă, D., Cheng, C., and Payne, B. (2012). An Inkblot for the Implicit Assessment of Personality: The Semantic Misattribution Procedure. European Journal of Personality, 26 (6), 613-628 DOI: 10.1002/per.1861

--Further reading--
A personality test that can't be faked

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


  1. Florin is a male name, actually. Great article though, and interesting research.

    1. thanks, I didn't realise - I've made the necessary correction.