9 Methods/Approaches Of Assessing Human Personality

Every science, whether physical or social science, has a method of study. Such a method or methods evolve following researches and empirical experiences, which are sometimes, peculiar to the discipline and its subject matter. Psychology, which is a science of behaviour, has accordungly evolved different methods of studying its subject matter – “behaviour”. These methods follow the same approach of studying or measuring personality; personality itself being the totality and integration of person’s behaviour and peculiar traits, which make the individual easily distinguishable from others.

Here under are some of the methods used by psychologist in studying and measuring personality:

  • Natural And Directed Observations
  • The Case Study Or Case History Method
  • Interview Method
  • The Questionnaire Method
  • Performance/Situation Test Method
  • Rating Scales Methods
  • Test Method
  • Psycho-Analytic/Clinical Method
  • Projective Method

1a. Natural Observation

This method involves observing and recording the behaviour of the person or the persons under study in the natural environment. By so doing, the psychologist can learn about how an individual or group of individuals adjust or responds to social situations by observing them and their companions during informal social interaction. The natural observation method often includes the use of tape recorder, motion pictures and such other data gathering techniques. When such observations are made and recorded on several occasions under same socail situations, the social behaviours of the person or persons under study can be predicted and controlled under the given social situation.

The natural observation approach has the disadvantage of giving little or no information about why or how behaviour occurs. However, it does provide a description of the way of people behave in their social and natural environment. The ideas about the reasons for the behaviour can be checked in a controlled observation or an experiment.

1b. Directed Observation

This method has to do with observing behaviour in an experiment or Laboratory setting. For example, a psychologist may decide to observe how a six-year old child reacts when confronted with a baby monkey for the first time. All details, even if they appear trivial, are recorded in shorthand or by a camera or motion picture.

Although his methods allows for the control of events and behaviour, some psychologists’ object to the data obtained on the ground that removing the child or the organism from its natural environment and putting it in an artificial setting, such as laboratory, changes its behaviour. Another ground of criticism is that sometimes, the experimenter may be biased in his observation. But such grounds of criticisms may be controlled by a well trained psychologist who can manage the artificial situation as if it were natural and check the influence of his own personal biases.

2. The Case-Study Or Case History Method

This method involves the gathering of past information concerning the individual under study. The psycho-social backgrounds and other factors that have influenced the development of the individual under study are traced and recorded. Such facts as the individual’s circumstances of birth, heredity, family background, social environments such as school, neighbourhood and cultural/religious backgrounds, are studied in details. The idea behind the use of the case-study or case history method is based on the fact that the personality and the behaviour of an individual are influenced by his past experiences, both conscious and unconcious; and that if we understand the forces that have influenced the individual’s development, we will be able to predict his or her behaviour and be able to assist the person better when he or she is in need.

The case-study method is very useful in the understanding of behaviour and treating of some psychological problems. But is has certain limitations. For instance, the people supplying the information concerning the person under study may be biased and partial and fail to be objective in the information they give.

However, such limitations can be checked if a well-trained psychologist is employed to carry out the study. Different persons who are very close relatives of the individual under study may also be interviewed to verify certain conflicting information.

3. Interview Method

This is the most widely used method of studying behaviour and selection of persons for various types of service. In this method, the interviewer and the interviewee sit facing each other while the later answers questions asked by the former. As the person is being interviewed, his answers and the way he gives them are recorded; besides, his gestures and other expressions, including his hesitations and avoidance of any answers and use of words are equally taken note of.

The values of data from interviews depend on how well the interviewer has been trained. Good interviewers are careful to establish rapport, that is, a relaxed and cooperative relationship with the subject. A trained psychologist always plans, in advance, what questions to ask and the general order, which he is going to ask the questions. He may also keep the interview flexible eough in order to enable both parties to bring up other matters not included in the list of questions.

The entire interview may be tape-recorded so as to play it back for further evaluation and consideration with the help of another trained psychologist.

One problem inherent in this method is that of the influence of the personal prejudices of the interviewer in evaluating the interviewee. A similar problem to this is the tendency of the interviewer to rate people more favourably when they are of similar traits with the interviewer. However, using video taped interviews and well trained interviewers who are aware of such limitations can help to reduce such errors and tendencies.

4. The Questionnaire Method

The name of this method suggests that it is a list of selected questions given to an individual or a group of individuals, the answers, which throw light upon the person’s or persons peculiarities. “Yes” and “No” are written in front of the questionnaires. The person either strikes out the wrong answers or indicates the correct ones, which are peculiar to his behaviour or personality. The questions are not like tests with either right or wrong answers. They are raher used in gaining knowledge about the individual’s traits, such as self-confidence, sociability, introversion or extroversion, tendency to dominate or be dominated, etc.

The limitations inherent in the questionnaire method include the following:

1. The subject may conceal his real peculiarities by giving opposite answers.

2. Sometimes, the framing of the questions may be such that the psychologist may take them to mean one thing and the subject takes them to mean a different thing.

3. The subject may answer the questionnaires without thinking about them, thus giving wrong cues to his attitude or personality.

Despite the above short-comings, the method has proved to be of tremendous value. The method also affords us the help to study behaviours and personality comparatively and the simultaneous study of a number of people whose various responses can be compared.

5. Performance/Situation Test Method

The performance method was conceived by M.A. May and Hartshorne, H. in their classical study in 1920s, where they placed thousands of children in different kinds of situations and allowed them to behave in anyway they wanted to, but unknown to them that they were being monitored. Thus, in this method, the subject is given a variety of specific job to perform and the subtle quality of his behaviour and personality examined without him having the idea that he is being observed.

For example, a very simple method of finding out the honesty of the students in the class could be something like this. Some materials could be dictated and the copies collected. The mistakes of students should be secretly noted without any markings on the copy, following which the copies should be returned with the instruction that the mistakes are to be noted and marks allocated. The dictation is then written on the class board.

The honest ones will cancel their mistakes while the dishonest will quietly correct theirs. The honesty of the students can now be measured by comparing these with the mistakes previously noted.

6. Rating Scales Method

This method involves classification of certain personality traits on the basis of their varying degrees. Those who intimately know the person under study are given the rating form to rate or classify the person’s traits according to their varying degrees. These degrees are usually indicated by numbers ranging from 1 to 4, or 1 to 5 or 1 to 7. Generally, a five point scale is used, indicating:

a. Very superior 5
b. Superior 4,
c. Average 3,
d. Inferior 2 and
e. Very inferior 1.

For instance, the question, is Dike reliable? May be expressed in varying degrees into five point scale as follows:

– Very reliable … 5
– Generally reliable … 4
– Reliable … 3
– Generally unreliable … 2
– Very unreliable … 1

The rater places a mark on the suitable descriptive phrase and his rating or assessment is then coverted into numerical score on a scale of 1 to 5.

Rating may also be done by arranging persons in the order in which they show a particular personality trait like honesty, assertiveness, intelligence, discipline, etc. In this case, the most honest, assertive, intelligent or discipline are placed at the other end, with other persons arranged in between in the order of the degrees they showed.

One major limitation of this method is that only those who know the person very closely and have observed him properly in respect of the trait about which they are rating him can give any reliable assessment of the person. Another limitation is that it is always possible for the rater to make the rating either favourable or unfavourable according to his own bias.

Thus, the validity of this metjod can only be assured when ratings done independently by a number of raters tally.

7. Test Method

Psychologists have devoted much time to developing tests for measuring intellectual ability and other personality peculiarities. They have designed aptitude tests, which help to predict what individuals are likely to accomplish if they receive training in a given field. Psychologists also have techniques for measuring attitudes toward social problems. They have also produced measuring devices for basic vocational interests and their personality charcteristics. We are all familiar with achievement tests, which measure how well one has mastered certain subject, such as Maths, Physics or History. Such tests and similar methods of measurements give more objective data on specific aspect of individual’s personality than interviews and questionnaires. They give results that can be expressed statistically.

Though the test method is very reliable when used with care, it is only designed for the study of specific aspect of behaviour.

8. The Psycho-Analytic Or Clinical Approach

This method is generally used in gaining knowledge about abnormal or extrem cases. Throught it, attempt is made to have diagnosis and give treatment to various social disorders. In fact, the method is a combination of test, interview and case-history methods. The two popular tests in the psycho-analytic method are “Free Association and Dream Analysis”. In the two tests, the individual is encouraged to give vent to his inner mind freely without any restriction. By so doing, the individual unconsciously reveals and bares out his unconscious mind. The analysis of the dreams and the ideas expressed by the person helps the psycho-analyst to analyse and identify the peculiarities in the individual’s personality and use this in discovering the root cause of the clients abnormal behaviour and help him (the patient) out of his problem. It was Stigmund Freud who pioneered and made use of this method extensively in treating his mentally disturbed patients.

Although the psycho-analytic method has now lost its popularity, it is still in use by some psychologists and psychiatrists. Its main difficulty lies in the need for a skilled and experienced psychoanalyst. Besides, it is very expensive.

9. Projective Method

This is the most famous method among psychologists for measuring and investigating personality. Projection means the observation of some specific attribute in something or action, according to one’s personality and mental state. It implies the expression of the inner self or attribute on some external object.

For example, the pictures and other resemblances of Jesus Christ printed on some calendars may mean different things to different persons in keeping with the peculiarities of their personality. Religious persons, Christians particularly, may see such pictures as the symbol and expression of the Christian faith by the printers. Those who are less religious in thinking may see such printings as purely commercial ventures by the printers. Although the Almanac itself is a mere paper object, people do not see it entirely from this light. They try to project their own inner mind and personal peculiarities upon it. Many peculiarities of the individual’s behaviour or personality can be investigated by analyzing such projections made upon material objects or actions of other persons.

Two Important Tests In The Projective Method include the Rorschach ink-blot test and the Murray’s Thematic Apperception Test (T.A.T.) as explained here under. They are used extensively in the investigation of personality.

i. The Rorschach Test

Also called the ink-blot test, is named after the Swiss Psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach, who invented it in early 1900. Since he died in 1922 at the age of thirty-seven, psychologists who continued with his work have made improvement on it.

The “ink-blot” test consists of ten cards, each containing an elaborate ink-blot. Five blots are in green colour, five others are in gray and black. The subjects are made to study one blots at a time and tell what each blot resembles. They are allowed to think about the ink-blot in each card as long as they need. The psychologist records the responses, then shows the card a second time, asking the subject to deal in details with ambiguous interpretations and explain which part of the blot led to the responses given.

The Scoring involves three criteria:

a. Do subjects reacr to a whole blot, to a part or to a small detail?

b. Do their responses involve movement, form, colour or the three combined, and is the form clear or blurred?

c. Do subjects see human or animal figures, or chiefly, inanimate objects?

. Seeing whole figures shows high level of intelligence and the ability to combine.

. Seeing forms in motion, particularly human forms, shows vivid imagination.

. Responses to colour show impulsiveness or even emotional instability.

. Seeing animals suggests lower intelligence, and notinf unusual details shows introversion and mental conflict.

However, complete scoring involves many factors beyond mere counting of subject’s responses.

Psychologists have not all agreed on the value of the Rorschach test and the projective techniques in general. Some say it may only be valid with children and not adults; others say that the objectivity is doubtful and that their interpretation lacks experimental verification.

Despite this disagreement, the ink-blot tests have helped in the diagnosis of mental disorders.

ii. The Thematic Apperception Test (TAT)

This kind of projective technique of measuring personality involves the use of say, twenty pictures, each of which is presented to the person being tested. The person is required to tell a story based on his feelings and thoughts about the people or objects in each of the pictures presented to him. For example, one picture may show a well dressed gentleman coming out of a big mansion, while another may show a traditional chief in “Agbada” addressing a few young men under a tree. Another of the pictures may also certain a religious procession causing traffic hold-up on a busy high way.

The Psychological fact is that, as the person narrates stories on the basis of the pictures, he projects or expresses his inner feelings, thoughts experiences and intelligence in the manner he describes the situations in the pictures. This test was developed and used by a Harvard University Professor, Henry A. Murray (Murray and Morgan, 1935; Murray et al; 1938).


All the methods discussed above have their peculiar merits and demerits in the study of personality. But none in itself can give a general understanding of personality. A combination of two or more of the methods can afford one a more in depth knowledge of what aspect of personality one wishes to study, the subject of behaviour and personality being very complex and dynamic phenomena.

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