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Towards Redefining Implementation of Personality Assessment in Professional Military Education

  • Published
  • By Capt Keith A. Happawana, PhD

One of the key aspects of developing strong leaders is deepening an understanding of one’s own personality and leadership style. Professional Military Education (PME) relies upon personality assessment to portray accurate depictions of personality traits so that leaders can deepen their understanding of their own psychological tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses.1 Framed differently, PME relies upon personality assessment and related discussion to further develop leaders. With the weight of importance given to personality assessment, selection of measures used should be carefully evaluated; in the case of PME, personality measures used are weak, not consistent with current models of personality, and need to be changed. Arguments presented below will elaborate on current issues and conclude with a method for replacement of Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) in favor of the International Personality Item Pool Representation of the NEO PI-R™ (IPIP-NEO).

Test Descriptions

MBTI was created in the 1940s by two American authors who were inspired by the work of Carl Jung. The test defines results as a four-letter code type, which depicts a personality type that comprises introversion or extraversion, sensing or intuition, thinking or feeling, and judging or perceiving.2 A widespread implementation of the test is the 16Personalities test, which is free, publicly available, and gives specific summaries of each MBTI personality type. The vast majority of validity, reliability, and research support for the MBTI is from the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, which is owned by the Myers-Briggs Foundation, and presents findings that are contrary to other entities of research on MBTI.3

Construction of the IPIP began around the 1990s with a primary purpose of being a public and free alternative to the NEO personality test, which is costly and therefore difficult to implement in research and across settings for assessment of the big five personality traits.4 Since inception, the IPIP-NEO has gained a solid level of research backing of over 850 published articles, and is considered to be a viable alternative to the NEO.5 Output includes percentile ranks with indicators of low, average, or high for each of the big five personality traits, “OCEAN”: Openness (measures creativeness/openness to change), Conscientiousness (measures goal-directed behaviors/organization), Extraversion (measures sociability/emotional responsiveness), Agreeableness (measures friendliness/cooperativeness), and Neuroticism (measures emotional stability). These five traits can be further specified into a number of subscales, which are all represented in the output of the IPIP-NEO.

Comparison of MBTI and IPIP-NEO

Availability: The MBTI and IPIP-NEO are both public domain and freely available (both in terms of administration and results) through a simple browser search. Implementation of the MBTI in PME and the IPIP is available online. Administration of both tests are highly similar, and both take around 10-20 minutes to complete.

Validity and reliability: Generally speaking, validity refers to how well a test measures what it intends to measure, and reliability is an assessment of how often a test will yield results that are devoid of measurement error. Validity and reliability are both critically important because they speak to the overall accuracy of the test and depict how well the test stands up to scientific scrutiny. A test that lacks such qualities cannot withstand scientific scrutiny, and yet is still practiced, is pseudoscience, at best.6

While an in-depth analysis of psychometric properties with respect to the MBTI and IPIP-NEO is beyond the scope of this article, core findings in literature dictate that the MBTI is weak in most domains of both validity and reliability, especially in comparison to the research support of the IPIP-NEO.7As presented below, there are numerous problems with the underlying personality theory of the MBTI, and the big five model (which is used by NEO and IPIP-NEO) is considered to be a superior model of personality.8Furthermore, given the structural and construct problems of MBTI, researchers have likened measure as highly suspect of pseudoscientific practice and “not much more telling than a fortune cookie reading.”9 Additionally, one to two letters of the four-letter code of MBTI are accounted for as typical change for assessment of the same individual, which means that within the MBTI model 25-50 percent change in personality classifiers is deemed normal for personality, which is typically viewed as a static construct.10 The IPIP-NEO and big five traits as a whole are largely consistent and static across the lifespan.11

Traits measured: MBTI depends on a four-factor model of traits that are not fully independent, which is problematic because profile analysis becomes unclear and uncertain.12 The IPIP-NEO is modeled to capture the big five personality traits, which is a dominant model of personality and well accepted within research domains. Additionally, output of the IPIP-NEO gives scores on well-validated subscales that comprise each of the big five traits (e.g., Friendliness, Gregariousness, Assertiveness, Activity Level, Excitement-Seeking, Cheerfulness, and overall Extraversion score as opposed to just “extraversion” from the MBTI). MBTI scales do correlate to some extent with the big five traits, but neuroticism is not accounted for, and the IPIP-NEO has much stronger correlations than the MBTI.13

Cognitive Effects/Biases: A number of cognitive biases/effects need to be considered in personality assessment. Of primary importance, the Barnum effect states that people tend to accept generalized statements about themselves as accurate and true, even though the information is extremely vague and worthless.14 Horoscopes provide daily clear-cut examples of the Barnum effect, such as, “some challenges will come your way soon, but you can face them if you prepare” or “you have an inclination to be reserved at certain times.” These statements rely on confirmation bias, which is the tendency to look for information that validates beliefs whilst ignoring contrary evidence. Results of the MBTI are riddled with Barnum statements, and other tests used in some PME (such as the “5 voices” test, which also lacks any formative literature/empirical support) are heavily dependent on cognitive biases and generalized statements in order to be construed as meaningful by those to take the test.15

Generalizability: The MBTI is strongly lacking in predictive validity, which means that personality scores on the MBTI do not well explain how an individual will function in various job settings, such as leadership positions.16 Such a deficiency is problematic in the Air Force as leaders need to be dynamic and have a good understanding of how their personality styles will impact their functioning in often changing job/leadership settings. Conversely, the big five traits (i.e., output of the IPIP-NEO) have strong predictive validity regarding job performance and leadership style propensities,17 which means that leaders who attain an understanding of their/others personality through a big five model framework will attain vital information for predicting and fine-tuning performance given their personality tendencies.

Application to PME: As currently applied in most PME, students take some form of the MBTI, state their four-letter personality code, and then make, compare, and contrast aspects of their own personality within the MBTI context. There are a number of problems with such an implementation, the primary of which is that students learn to dichotomize others when conceptualizing personality. For example, students learn to view themselves and others as either extraverted or introverted (“E” or “I” in the MBTI code), which is not only wrong but is also a harmful leadership practice because students are taught to erroneously label and potentially ostracize others. The faulty dichotomous logic is analogous to collecting weight measurements of a set of people and labeling them as either “fat” or “skinny” based on whether they are above or below the determined 50th percentile.

A more accurate and scientifically congruent way of classifying traits is through percentiles and proclivities, as seen in the IPIP-NEO. Output and recommendations on how to replace MBTI and other personality measures with the IPIP-NEO and big five personality model are shared next.

Recommendations for PME reform:

  1. Replace the MBTI and empirically weak/unsupported personality assessments with IPIP-NEO for PME curriculum. There is no monetary cost to using the IPIP-NEO.
  2. Implement OCEAN instead of MBTI four-letter code within personality modules. The narrative report for IPIP-NEO is comprehensive and will provide plenty of material for discussion. Report and discussion of results may include each letter of OCEAN and whether they are low, medium, or high in each trait. Deeper analysis can also be attained by evaluating full big five personality profiles of a narrative report, as opposed to looking at each trait individually.
  3. Replace literature/articles currently used with literature that those that discuss the big five personality model and how traits generalize to military and leadership settings.

Conclusion

Evidence was provided to demonstrate the weaknesses and problems of current applications of personality assessment in PME, and a framework for remodeling with better validated measures and practices are provided. The fundamental issue is that feedback speaking to the ineffectiveness of currently used assessments in PME has not been clearly delineated, so the need to make change has not be seen. Personality assessments currently used in PME are highly suspect of (or simply are) pseudoscientific practice, which is not only incongruent with current literature but is also harmful in several ways. Current practices in PME involving personality assessments are weak, ineffective, and need to be reformed.

Captain Keith Happawana, PhD

Captain Keith Happawana is a licensed clinical psychologist and currently functions as a staff psychologist and the psychological testing lead and consultant within the mental health flight, 673d Operational Medical Readiness Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. He completed his doctorate in Clinical, Counseling, and Applied Psychology at William Paterson University, New Jersey and his undergraduate degree in Psychology at University of California, San Diego. Capt Happawana was a direct accession and previously stationed at Wright-Patterson AFB, where he completed his Clinical Psychology residency.
This paper was written as part of the SOS Air University Advanced Research (AUAR) elective.

Notes

1 Melissa R. Bowers, J. Reggie Hall, Mandyam M. Srinivasan, “Organizational Culture and Leadership Style: The Missing Combination for Selecting the Right Leader for Effective Crisis Management,” Business Horizons 60, no 4, July–August 2017, 551-563https://doi.org/.

2 Scott P. King and Brittany A. Mason, “The Wiley Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences: Measurement and Assessment. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator,” Wiley Online Library, 18 September 2020, https://doi.org/.

3 Frank Coffield, et al., “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning A Systematic and Critical Review,” Learning & Skills Research Centre, 2004, https://www.researchgate.net/.

4 Lewis R.Goldberg, et al., “The International Personality Item Pool and the Future of Public-Domain Personality Measures,” Journal of Research in Personality 40, no 1, February 2006, 84-96, https://doi.org/.

5 Lewis R. Goldberg , “Publications That Employ the IPIP,” 23 September 2019, https://ipip.ori.org/.

6 Scott O. Lilienfeld, et al., Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (The Guilford Press, 13 October 2014)

7 Coffield, “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning”; Goldberg, “Publications That Employ the IPIP”; and R. R. McCrae and P. T. Costa Jr., “Reinterpreting the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator from the Perspective of the Five-Factor Model of Personality,” Journal of Personality 57, no 1, March 1989, 17-40, https://doi.org/.

8 Gregory J. Boyle, “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI): Some Psychometric Limitations,” Australian Psychologist 30, no 1, March 1995, 71-74https://doi.org/; Robert M. Capraro, Mary Margaret Capraro, “Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Score Reliability Across: Studies a Meta-Analytic Reliability Generalization Study,” Educational and Psychological Measurement 62, no 4, 1 August 2002, 590-602, https://doi.org/; and Robert Hogan, Personality and the Fate of Organizations (Routledge, 23 June 2006).

9 Robert Hogan, Personality and the fate of organizations.

10 The Myers & Briggs Foundation, “Reliable and Validity,” https://www.myersbriggs.org/.

11 Goldberg, “The international personality item pool and the future of public-domain personality measures.”

12 McCrae, “Reinterpreting the Myers‐Briggs type indicator from the perspective of the five‐factor model of personality.”

13 Goldberg, “The international personality item pool and the future of public-domain personality measures”; and McCrae, “Reinterpreting the Myers‐Briggs type indicator from the perspective of the five‐factor model of personality.”

14 Bertram R. Forer, “The Fallacy of Personal Validation: A Classroom Demonstration of Gullibility,” The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 44, no 1, 1949, 118–123, https://doi.org/.

15 James Michael, “Using the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as a Tool for Leadership Development? Apply With Caution,” Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies 10, no 1, 1 February 2003, https://doi.org/.

16 Coffield, et al., “Learning Styles and Pedagogy in Post-16 Learning A Systematic and Critical Review.”

17 Michelle A.Dean, Jeffrey M.Conte, and Tom R.Blankenhorn, “Examination of the Predictive Validity of Big Five Personality Dimensions across Training Performance Criteria,” Personality and Individual Differences 41, no 7, November 2006, 1229-1239, https://doi.org/.