how to measure 200 personality scales in 200 items

One of the frustrating things about personality research–for both researchers and participants–is that personality is usually measured using self-report questionnaires, and filling out self-report questionnaires can take a very long time. It doesn’t have to take a very long time, mind you; some questionnaires are very short, like the widely-used Ten-Item Personality Inventory (TIPI), which might take you a whole 2 minutes to fill out on a bad day. So you can measure personality quickly if you have to. But more often than not, researchers want to reliably measure a broad range of different personality traits, and that typically requires administering one or more long-ish questionnaires. For example, in my studies, I often give participants a battery of measures to fill out that includes some combination of the NEO-PI-R, EPQ-R, BIS/BAS scales, UPPS, GRAPES, BDI, TMAS, STAI, and a number of others. That’s a large set of acronyms, and yet it’s just a small fraction of what’s out there; every personality psychologist has his or her own set of favorite measures, and at personality conferences, duels-to-the-death often break out over silly things like whether measure X is better than measure Y, or whether measures A and B can be used interchangeably when no one’s looking. Personality measurement is a pretty intense sport.

The trouble with the way we usually measure personality is that it’s wildly inefficient, for two reasons. One is that many measures are much longer than they need to be. It’s not uncommon to see measures that score each personality trait using a dozen or more different items. In theory, the benefit of this type of redundancy is that you get a more reliable measure, because the error terms associated with individual items tends to cancel out. For example, if you want to know if I’m a depressive kind of guy, you shouldn’t just ask me, “hey, are you depressed?”, because lots of random factors could influence my answer to that one question. Instead, you should ask me a bunch of different questions, like: “hey, are you depressed?” and “why so glum, chum?”, and “does somebody need a hug?”. Adding up responses from multiple items is generally going to give you a more reliable measure. But in practice, it turns out that you typically don’t need more than a handful of items to measure most traits reliably. When people develop “short forms” of measures, the abbreviated scales often have just 4 – 5 items per trait, usually with relatively little loss of reliability and validity. So the fact that most of the measures we use have so many items on them is sort of a waste of both researchers’ and participants’ time.

The other reason personality measurement is inefficient is that most researchers recognize that different personality measures tend to measure related aspects of personality, and yet we persist in administering a whole bunch of questionnaires with similar content to our participants. If you’ve ever participated in a psychology experiment that involved filling out personality questionnaires, there’s a good chance you’ve wondered whether you’re just filling out the same questionnaire over and over. Well you are–kind of. Because the space of personality variation is limited (people can only differ from one another in so many ways), and because many personality constructs have complex interrelationships with one another, personality measures usually end up asking similarly-worded questions. So for example, one measure might give you Extraversion and Agreeableness scores whereas another gives you Dominance and Affiliation scores. But then it turns out that the former pair of dimensions can be “rotated” into the latter two; it’s just a matter of how you partition (or label) the variance. So really, when a researcher gives his or her participants a dozen measures to fill out, that’s not because anyone thinks that there are really a dozen completely different sets of traits to measures; it’s more because we recognize that each instrument gives you a slightly different take on personality, and we tend to think that having multiple potential viewpoints is generally a good thing.

Inefficient personality measurement isn’t inevitable; as I’ve already alluded to above, a number of researchers have developed abbreviated versions of common inventories that capture most of the same variance as much longer instruments. Probably the best-known example is the aforementioned TIPI, developed by Sam Gosling and colleagues, which gives you a workable index of people’s relative standing on the so-called Big Five dimensions of personality. But there are relatively few such abbreviated measures. And to the best of my knowledge, the ones that do exist are all focused on abbreviating a single personality measure. That’s unfortunate, because if you believe that most personality inventories have a substantial amount of overlap, it follows that you should be able to recapture scores on multiple different personality inventories using just one set of (non-redundant) items.

That’s exactly what I try to demonstrate in a paper to be published in the Journal of Research in Personality. The article’s entitled “The abbreviation of personality: How to measure 200 personality scales in 200 items“, which is a pretty accurate, if admittedly somewhat grandiose, description of the contents. The basic goal of the paper is two-fold. First, I develop an automated method for abbreviating personality inventories (or really, any kind of measure with multiple items and/or dimensions). The idea here is to shorten the time and effort required in order to generate shorter versions of existing measures, which should hopefully encourage more researchers to create such short forms. The approach I develop relies heavily on genetic algorithms, which are tools for programmatically obtaining high-quality solutions to high-dimensional problems using simple evolutionary principles. I won’t go into the details (read the paper if you want them!), but I think it works quite well. In the first two studies reported in the paper (data for which were very generously provided by Sam Gosling and Lew Goldberg, respectively), I show that you can reduce the length of existing measures (using the Big Five Inventory and the NEO-PI-R as two examples) quite dramatically with minimal loss of validity. It only takes a few minutes to generate the abbreviated measures, so in theory, it should be possible to build up a database of abbreviated versions of many different measures. I’ve started to put together a site that might eventually serve that purpose (shortermeasures.com), but it’s still in the preliminary stages of development, and may or may not get off the ground.

The other main goal of the paper is to show that the same general approach can be applied to simultaneously abbreviate more than one different measure. To make the strongest case I could think of, I took 8 different broadband personality inventories (“broadband” here just means they each measure a relatively large number of personality traits) that collectively comprise 203 different personality scales and 2,091 different items. Using the same genetic algorithm-based approach, I then reduce these 8 measures down to a single inventory that contains only 181 items (hence the title of the paper). I named the inventory the AMBI (Analog to Multiple Broadband Inventories), and it’s now freely available for use (items and scoring keys are provided both in the paper and at shortermeasures.com). It’s certainly not perfect–it does a much better job capturing some scales than others–but if you have limited time available for personality measures, and still want a reasonably comprehensive survey of different traits, I think it does a really nice job. Certainly, I’d argue it’s better than having to administer many hundreds (if not thousands) of different items to achieve the same effect. So if you have about 15 – 20 minutes to spare in a study and want some personality data, please consider trying out the AMBI!

ResearchBlogging.org

Yarkoni, T. (2010). The Abbreviation of Personality, or how to Measure 200 Personality Scales with 200 Items Journal of Research in Personality DOI: 10.1016/j.jrp.2010.01.002

5 thoughts on “how to measure 200 personality scales in 200 items”

  1. I was blown away by the creativity and originality of the paper. I have already introduced the paper to my personality classes as a direction that I hope the field will go. Congratulations on a terrific idea and a great paper!

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