How to interpret the results of a personality test?

Interpreting the results of a personality test can be a confusing and difficult task, maybe even causing discomfort. Considering this problem, this text seeks to minimize the obstacles encountered when interpreting this kind of test, through simplified explanations. It’s important to say that the analysis made in this text uses specifically the Big Five Aspect Scale (BFAS), which measures factors – broad traits – and aspects – narrow traits – of personality, based on the Big Five taxonomy (DEYOUNG; QUILTY; PETERSON, 2007).

It’s also important to explain that this text was made to complement a research that is being developed within AdmEthics. This research pursues the identification of character traits – based on the results obtained by Cohen and Morse (2014) – , to assist Ethics teaching on Higher Education Institutions. The data was collected by applying the BFAS questionnaire on a sample of students. For these participants to obtain returns and benefits from the research, this text was elaborated. Therefore, the main objective of this text is to help in the interpretation of individual results from the personality test applied in this sample.

The content presented here complements what’s discussed on the text “A guide to understanding personality: an introduction to moral character”. Therefore, it’s essential to read it in advance. Through the perspective presented in that text, personality is perceived as a structure that predicts feelings, thoughts and behaviours, activated or inhibited by the interaction between person and situation (JOHN; NAUMANN; SOTO, 2008). Actually, personality is a way to observe groups of trends that help to understand the human being. The most established personality model among researchers is the Big Five, which organizes it into five broad traits (or factors): Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism, Conscientiousness and Openness to Experience (JOHN; SRIVASTAVA, 1999). From this model, researchers developed the aspects of personality, which measures two faces of each factor presented above (DEYOUNG; QUILTY; PETERSON, 2007).

To measure factors and aspects of personality, normally the Big Five Aspect Scale (BFAS) questionnaire is used. The test is structured in 100 self-assessment items, organized in 20 items for each factor, which are divided into 10 for each aspect of personality. These items are answered according to a Likert scale that measures the level of agreement, ranging from 1 to 5. Basically, the respondent evaluates how much each item represents him. The results are obtained by the sum of the values in each factor, and their respective aspects. Thus, the factor score ranges from 20 to 100, and the score for each aspect ranges from 10 to 50.

To help the interpretation of the BFAS results, this text will be structured based on the main questions that need to be answered to understand the questionnaire. It’s important to state that the intention of this text is only to facilitate the interpretation of the results of BFAS, for the individuals who responded it.

 “I got a higher score in one of the traits, this means that it represents my entire personality?”

One trait does not exclude the other, they are actually complementary. For example, if the respondent scored high in Extraversion, this factor alone does not represent his personality in totality, but rather the combination of the factor with the other four. The same goes for personality aspects. Therefore, it’s recommended that the evaluated individual should observe the combination of scores on the five factors of personality and their ten aspects, to obtain a portrait of his personality.

 “What does a high, low and medium score represent?”

The BFAS measures how much each trait represents the respondent’s personality, therefore, a high score should be interpreted as a positive association between the trait – factor or aspect – and the respondent’s individual characteristics. At the same time, a low score describes a negative association, that is, the contrast of the trait. For example, if the respondent scores high in Extraversion, he has a tendency to extrovert characteristics, while a low score indicates introvert characteristics (the contrast).

When a medium score is obtained, it’s possible to interpret that the respondent has the trait, but there are no strong and determining tendencies. In a hypothetical case, if an individual scored 50 in Extraversion (medium score), it indicates that this trait does not strongly represents him. However, when analysing the aspects level of personality, this individual may have scored 50 for Enthusiasm and 0 for Assertiveness – both aspects of Extraversion. In this case, both aspects revealed important information to understand the respondent’s Extraversion score. Therefore, the results for personality factors are complemented by the results on it’s aspects, so it’s recommended that the respondent look at both to obtain complete information.

“My score high, low, or average compared to what?”

For these scores to make sense, researchers recommend showing the individual results by comparing them to a distribution of a relevant sample (PIEDMONT, 2013). Through this, it’s possible to have a representative reference to evaluate the proportion of the results. Therefore, the respondent usually observes his scores through percentiles, which indicates where he is located within the distribution. An example of this would be: “Your score puts you on the 95th percentile for Extraversion so, out of 100 people in a room, you would be more extrovert then 95 of them, and less extrovert than 4”. However, this comparison depends on the nature of the sample. If it’s a probabilistic (random) and representative sample, this comparison could be generalized to some extent. But in a specific sample, the comparison is only for the targeted population (BARBETTA, 2014).

 “Will this test show if I’m a bad person? It will be possible to classify me colleagues or myself based on personality qualities?”

The test results only presents the portrait painted by the personality traits that represents the respondent’s tendencies to feelings, thoughts and behaviors. Among the results, there is no basis for assessing the quality of a personality, generally speaking. Therefore, it is not possible to state that the participant has a bad personality, or a worse personality than his colleagues. It’s recommended that the respondent don’t interpret the test’s results in a punitive or judgemental way, but as a opportunity to improvement, according to his own personal goals.

Neuroticism is an example of this, since it represents emotional instability. Usually, respondents tend to interpret a high score as something negative, a personal flaw. However, this result expresses a wide range of tendencies to negative emotions, which have multiple and complex roots. Therefore, a strictly negative interpretation of this personality factor becomes inaccurate. To find some accuracy, high Neuroticism can be interpreted as an opportunity to reflect on your emotional instability. It’s recommended to reflect about the possible cause of these negative emotions, it’ possible manifestations and it’s effects in the respondents personal goals.

 “Do the results of this test serve to anything in practice?”

Personality traits are important because they influence the way individuals interact with specific environments. Based on this, personality tests are widely used in the field of social research. Several authors have conducted studies to identify which traits tend to predict healthy behaviors, disorders, good relationships, academic outcomes, and job performance (JOHN; NAUMANN; SOTO, 2008). An example of the benefits generated by this kind of research was the identification of traits that may be associated with disorders in children and adolescents. Through them, it’s possible to identify those who are at risk, and provide appropriate interventions (JOHN et al., 1994).

For the respondents, the test may provide an opportunity for acquiring self-knowledge. Through the simplified and broad analysis of their own traits, the respondents will be able to align them with their personal goals. For example, if the person has an interest in working in various types of formal organizations, according to Barrick and Mount’s (1994) study, Conscientiousness must be stimulated. In the same research, it’s possible to see traits that tend to predict good performance, depending on the area of work. This type of analysis can help the respondent to understand which personality traits could predict success, given their goals, so that they can be stimulated.

It is noteworthy that the discussion about benefits of personality test at the individual level is complex and extensive. Therefore, this text will not deepen this theme. The only thing that can be mentioned at this level of broad analysis, is that personality tests provide opportunities for the respondent, and the main benefit is self-knowledge.

Final Considerations

This text tried to answer the main questions that may arise when the respondents try to interpret the results of the Big Five Aspect Scale (BFAS) questionnaire. It is emphasized that there are limitations in the explanations presented, because they don’t provide deep analysis. However, all of them were based on scientific studies from the personality field (exposed in the references). For deeper analysis of the Big Five, we recommend John, Naumann and Soto’s (2008) work. Also, to see this subject in Brazilian research, we suggest Laros (2014) article.

Another study recommendation is the recently launched “Discovering Personality” course by professor Jordan B. Peterson, which specifically addresses this subject. An expert in the field, Peterson has many publications on the study of personality. Therefore, for those who wish to go deeper in a didactic way, with quality, it is suggested to buy the course.


BARBETTA, P. A. Estatística Aplicada às Ciências Sociais. Ed. da UFSC, 9 ed. Florianópolis, 2014.

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COHEN, T. R.; MORSE, L. Moral character: What it is and what it does. Research in organizational behavior, v. 34, p. 43-61, 2014.

DEYOUNG, C. G.; QUILTY, L. C.; PETERSON, J. B. Between facets and domains: 10 aspects of the Big Five. Journal of personality and social psychology, v. 93, n. 5, p. 880, 2007.

JOHN, O. P. et al. The “little five”: Exploring the nomological network of the five‐factor model of personality in adolescent boys. Child development, v. 65, n. 1, p. 160-178, 1994.

JOHN, O. P.; NAUMANN, Laura P.; SOTO, Christopher J. Paradigm shift to the integrative big five trait taxonomy. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, v. 3, n. 2, p. 114-158, 2008.

JOHN, O. P.; SRIVASTAVA, S. The Big Five trait taxonomy: History, measurement, and theoretical perspectives. Handbook of personality: Theory and research, v. 2, n. 1999, p. 102-138, 1999.

PASSOS, M. F.; LAROS, J. A.. O modelo dos cinco grandes fatores de personalidade: Revisão de literatura. CEP, v. 70910, p. 900, 2014.

PIEDMONT, R. L. The revised NEO Personality Inventory: Clinical and research applications. Springer Science & Business Media, 2013.

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