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Online Dating Magazine > Columns > Office Hours with Dr. Jim > Personality Testing

Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.


Personality Testing - Unreliable?

In this edition of Office Hours with Dr. Jim, Dr. James Houran takes a closer look at personality testing.

What makes “personality testing” so unreliable for finding a “soul mate?”

There are many questionable methods of compatibility matching on the market today ranging from birth order to astrological signs and even matching people based on their “DNA.” If you are trying to be matched with someone purely for entertainment, then these types of approaches offer no harm. That said, sometimes services based on those approaches can cost quite a bit of money. However, you are looking for a method of filtering matches based on sound, scientific principles, then you must be better educated in choosing a more sound matching method.

One of the most prevalent, yet unsophisticated methods, is matching people purely on “personality.”  Personality refers to innate and relatively stable mental structures that provide general direction for individuals’ choices and behavior1. One of the most popular models of personality in academia is called the Big Five. The Big Five dimensions — Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Extraversion, and Openness to Experience — represent broad traits believed to encompass the range of normal personality. Individuals high in agreeableness tend to be altruistic, warm, generous, trusting and cooperative. Those high in conscientiousness are typically efficient, punctual, well-organized and dependable. Emotionally stable individuals are usually calm, relaxed and generally free from worry. Individuals high in extraversion are typically highly sociable, assertive, active, energetic and talkative. Finally, people high in Openness to Experience are imaginative, original, unconventional and independent. You may see many self-styled “authorities” argue that the Big Five model is inferior to other personality theories, but the truth is that the Big Five model is one of the most well-respected and validated theories of personality in the field of psychology.  And, we can measure the five traits inherent to the model in very reliable and valid ways.

Despite the power of the Big Five model and advances in personality testing, this approach does not predict romantic compatibility as well as you might think. The fact is that romantic partners tend to show strong similarity in age, political, and religious attitudes; moderate similarity in education, general intelligence, and values; and little or no similarity in personality characteristics (3,4). Read that last part again: the personality traits of stable and satisfied couples often show little to no similarity. For example, one study (2) found that individuals in complementary partnerships (submissive people with dominant partners, dominant people with submissive partners) reported more satisfaction than did those with partners whose styles were similar. Moreover, individuals complementing their partner’s behavior were more satisfied with couple interactions than were those whose goals were not complementary. Then again, we all know couples who have very similar dispositions, attitudes and personalities. In short, personality is an inconsistent – and hence poor – predictor of romantic compatibility.

Now that you know this, it’s easy to understand why personality tests fail to provide sufficient measurements or insights to give you an accurate appraisal of the degree of compatibility you might have with other people. There are more important factors that significantly influence long-standing romantic compatibility, such as lifestyle preferences, money management and conflict resolution style. Personality tests simply don't measure those things. It doesn’t matter how accurate a given questionnaire measures personality traits or how “precise” the matching algorithm of the system is, compatibility tools based solely on personality traits are too fundamentally flawed in their theoretical foundation to work properly.

Let me put it this way, relying on a personality test to guide your selection of a romantic partner is much like relying on a basic road map to guide specific vacation choices. It might be better than nothing, but it provides terribly incomplete information. Without weather forecasts, resort reviews, activity guides and price data, a long-wished-for pampering rest and relaxation trip could end up at a wilderness boot camp. In terms of online dating, this equates to a string of heartaches and headaches. On the other hand, well-constructed compatibility assessments can provide the critical information woefully left out by the simple personality tests so often touted by some online dating sites as the golden keys to great relationships. I urge you to read my past articles on compatibility testing and how to recognize and choose the most  reliable and scientifically valid approach available.

It’s true that compatibility science is more or less in its infancy, but there is a wealth of high quality studies that provide key insights that can help online daters. To be sure, social scientists know a great deal about the variables associated with stable and satisfying romantic relationships. We’re not totally in the dark. But it takes a critical eye to properly vet the methods used by online dating sites to match you with other singles. If you ever have a question about the legitimacy of a particular approach, please email me. You can count on me and to give you candid answers.



1Cattell, R. B. (1943). Personality and motivation structure and measurement. Younkerson-Hudson, NY: World.

2Dryer, D. C., & Horowitz, L. M. (1997). When do opposites attract? interpersonal  complementarity versus similarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 72, 592-603.

3Klohnen, E. C., & Mendelsohn, G. A. (1998). Partner selection for personality characteristics: a couple-centered approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 268-278.

4Watson, D., Klohnen, E. C., Casillas, A., Nus Simms, E., Haig, J., & Berry, D. S. (2004). Match makers and deal breakers: analyses of assortative mating in newlywed couples. Journal of Personality, 72, 1029-1068.


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