What are personality interviewing strategies for assessment?

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Various approaches to interviewing are used to determine a person’s personality; interviewing is valuable to assess both healthy and unhealthy personalities.
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The assessment of personality is an activity that occurs frequently and can be very important. On an informal level, people make decisions about someone’s personality based on their experiences with that person. If they have had positive experiences, they might say the person has a “nice personality.” Although these informal assessments have significant implications for friendships among people, more formal personality assessments may have a far-reaching impact on a person’s life. Formal personality assessments are commonly used in making employment decisions and decisions about the status of people’s mental health. Interview strategies used to assess personality usually are seen as either structured or unstructured. Interview questions are influenced by the theoretical orientation of the interviewer.

Fred Kerlinger’s discussion of the use of interviews in Foundations of Behavioral Research (1986) goes beyond using interviews to assess personality. In personality research, the interview is used to obtain information about the person’s thoughts, beliefs, behavior, and feelings to determine how they combine into what is called personality, as well as how they are influenced by or influence other life events. From the research perspective, the personality interview is an in-depth study of all facets of a person’s psychological and behavioral makeup.

Structured and Unstructured Interviews

Personality interviews may be placed on a continuum from highly structured at one extreme to highly unstructured at the other. In actuality, few interviews occupy extreme positions. Most interviews are designed to elicit as much useful information as possible from the person being interviewed. Therefore, there is a propensity to prefer one style over the other, although there is no rigid adherence to this tendency. Both structured and unstructured (or standardized and unstandardized) interviews are used in psychology to assess a number of things, including personality. As an approach to assessment, personality interview strategies must conform to expectations of reliability (the quality of delivering the same basic results after each of several interview sessions), validity (the quality of assessing the content that the interviewer intends to assess), and objectivity (the quality of being free of bias or prejudice).

Structured interviews are designed to obtain specific information about the person being interviewed. In the most highly structured type of interview, a list of questions is presented in its entirety to every person completing the interview. The questions are always presented in the same way and in the same order. The interviewer is not allowed the flexibility to pursue topics of interest; however, the structured interview is actually conducted with somewhat more flexibility in most applied settings. The interviewer is given a list of topics about which information is desired. In gathering the information, the interviewer is free to vary the order of the topics and is able to request elaboration of specific points as needed. This flexibility increases the likelihood that the desired information will be obtained, because the interviewer can vary the order of the interview to put the interviewee at ease while still covering all topics. Structured interviews are sometimes called "standardized interviews" because the interview topics and procedures are established in advance. Another name for the structured interview is the "directive interview" because the interviewee is directed into areas that interest the interviewer.

Unlike structured interviews, unstructured interviews, also called "nondirective" or "unstandardized" interviews, place control of the interview with the interviewee. Instead of asking “How many people are in your family?,” for example, interviewers using unstructured approaches use open-ended questions such as “Tell me about your family.” By using the open-ended question, the interviewer has the opportunity to learn more about the person’s family than with the structured interview. The unstructured interview may produce considerable information yet does not ensure that all topics are covered, as in the structured interview.

Regardless of the type of interview used, the interviewer is charged with observing and interpreting interviewee behavior. Changes in body posture, eye contact, and length of time between question and response are all suggestive of different emotional reactions to the interview. It is up to the interviewer to determine the accuracy of what is being reported by looking for patterns of consistency and inconsistency in the person’s behavior. Some determination must be made about whether the person is trying to minimize certain facets of his or her personality to save face or, conversely, is exaggerating facets for their inherent shock value. It is important for the interviewer to test various hypotheses about why the interviewee answers in a certain way if an accurate assessment of personality is to take place.


A number of common obstacles must be overcome in an interview. One of these is resistance, or the interviewee’s reluctance to talk about certain topics, perhaps because the topics are too painful or embarrassing. Resistance may be overcome by allowing the interviewee time to become more comfortable with the interviewer and time to broach the difficult topics in his or her own way. Other complications of the interview are interruptions from other people, distracting settings, and the interviewer’s emotional reactions to the person being interviewed.

Another approach to personality interviewing is the use of a computer-administered interview. When a computer is used to administer the interview, a branching program is used. Answering “yes” or “no” to a question may lead to additional questions on that topic or to entirely new topics. Some people have found that computerized interviewing leads to more complete answers. This may be especially true when the subject matter is intimate and potentially embarrassing.

Use in Clinical Settings

Typically, personality interviews are used in clinical settings or to make employment decisions; they are usually used in conjunction with formal psychological testing. Occasionally, they are used for research purposes; however, the training necessary to develop a skilled interviewer and the expense involved in the interview process usually limit the settings in which they are used to those where they are particularly significant.

In clinical settings, interviews are used for two reasons. First, they are used to gather information about the client or patient’s life and about the reason the person is seeking services. Second, the interview is the vehicle for intervention in most forms of psychotherapy. Gary Groth-Marnat discusses the role of the interview within the larger context of psychological assessment in his Handbook of Psychological Assessment (2003). In clinical settings, the interview is used to gather intake information (the intake interview) and to establish the person’s current emotional and cognitive state (the mental status examination). The intake interview is sometimes known as the initial interview, and it is the first significant contact with the interviewee. The purpose of the intake interview is to determine why the person has sought psychological services. This involves determining the person’s symptoms or chief complaint.

Once this information is obtained, the interviewer tries to learn more about the person’s life. In addition to asking about specific areas of one’s life—for example, educational experience and relationship history—the interviewer begins to assess the personality of the interviewee. The personality assessment requires careful observation and integration of both verbal and nonverbal behavior. The interviewer must be aware of how the person reacts to different questions or topics. Some people will always try to please the interviewer, while others may appear nervous, sad, or angry at different times during the interview. Integrating all this information helps the interviewer understand the personality and circumstances of the person being interviewed.

Mental Status Examination

The mental status examination is an extension and elaboration of information necessary to understand the personality of the interviewee. Although some of the information included in the mental status examination is acquired through direct questioning, much of it is learned through careful listening and observation of the person during the intake interview. Kaplan and Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry (2009) provides a detailed description of the mental status examination. Typically, this examination includes information in the following areas: physical appearance and how the person is dressed; attitude toward the interviewer and others; any unusual motor behavior or movements; oddities of speech and language, including accents, speech impediments, and unusual words; disturbances in thought content and process such as delusional beliefs or difficulties expressing thoughts; perceptual problems in the form of hallucinations or illusions; changes in cognition, which may include memory impairments and other intellectual changes; disturbances in orientation and sensorium, which refers to the person’s knowledge of who and where he or she is, as well as to a determination of the level of alertness; the current affective or emotional state; and the degree of insight into the person’s current circumstances.

Each aspect of the mental status examination contributes information that helps in the understanding of a person’s personality. Information obtained through this part of the interview is also valuable in the diagnosis of psychological disorders. Certain deviations from the norm that may be revealed by the mental status examination are associated with disorders such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Thus, the intake interview and the mental status examination used together provide the foundation for understanding a person’s personality and psychological disorders.

Use in Employment Settings

Personality interviewing is also an integral part of employment interviews. One important area in which personality interviews are used to help make employment decisions is in the selection of law-enforcement officers. The goals of the interview are twofold. First, it is used to identify those candidates who, because of their personality, are likely to make good or effective police officers. These are people with good coping skills, well-developed intellectual abilities, and good observational abilities. Second, the personality interview is used to identify candidates who are likely to make poor law-enforcement officers. In the area of law enforcement, it is crucial to consider liability issues and the protection of the public in making hiring decisions. Personality interviews provide information that can help to improve the quality of the hiring decisions and ultimately the quality of law-enforcement agencies.

Personality interviewing is also used in other employment settings. The interview is a significant part of the application process; used either informally or formally, it yields important information about the applicant’s motivation and suitability for the position. Information from the interview helps an employer decide whether the applicant’s personality will mesh or clash with coworkers, will convey the appropriate image for the position, or will satisfy other considerations salient to the job. As in clinical settings, the use of the personality interview in employment decisions is frequently combined with formal psychological testing. In both employment and clinical uses, it is important to note areas of similarity and difference between the interview and the testing.

Role in Therapeutic Process

The use of interviewing, in various guises, has been central to psychological investigations of personality as well as to psychotherapeutic approaches to helping patients or clients. Sigmund Freud called one of the central aspects of psychoanalytic interviewing “free association”—a highly unstructured effort to obtain information that is as uncensored as possible. The interviewee is told to talk about whatever comes to mind without concern for its relevance or appropriateness. Following this uncensored revelation by the interviewee, the interviewer eventually makes interpretations about personality and unconscious conflicts. Although personality interviewing and free association remain hallmarks of psychoanalysis, the interview has also been important to others in psychology and psychotherapy.

Carl R. Rogers, the founder of person-centered therapy (or nondirective therapy), considered the interview critical to the therapeutic process. He and his followers believed that, without controlling the direction of the interview, they could learn more about the person that would be useful in resolving the person’s problems. Rogerian psychologists are firm believers in the nondirective approach because it allows the client to discover, independent of someone else’s opinion, the solution to the problem.

Behavioral psychologists, as exemplified by Kenneth P. Morganstern, place their emphasis on a person’s observable behavior. Personality is not defined as something a person has but rather as the perceptions of other people based on the person’s behavior. Thus, personality interviewing from a behavioral perspective focuses heavily on observations of the person’s behavior in different situations. Many behavioral psychologists believe that a person’s personality is modifiable if his or her prior learning experiences can be identified and if it is possible to ensure that specifiable consequences can follow behaviors that the client is trying to change.

Many psychologists, including Groth-Marnat, believe that computers are likely to be used more frequently to administer interviews. Assessment interviews will be more important in determining accountability for treatment decisions and therefore are likely to become more structured. As interviews become increasingly structured, it is also likely that they will represent an integration of different theoretical positions rather than the parallel interview styles that have been developing among psychologists adhering to different theories.


Cormer, Sherry, Paula S. Nurius, and Cynthia J. Osborn. Interviewing and Change Strategies for Helpers. 7th ed. Belmont: Brooks/Cole, 2013. Print.

Groth-Marnat, Gary. Handbook of Psychological Assessment. 5th ed. New York: Wiley, 2009. Print.

Kerlinger, Fred N., and Howard B. Lee. Foundations of Behavioral Research. 4th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2000. Print.

Kirschenbaum, Howard. The Life and Work of Carl Rogers. Alexandria: Amer. Counseling Assn., 2009. Print.

Morrison, James. The First Interview. 4th ed. New York: Guilford, 2014. Print.

Pheister, Maria. "Psychiatric Interviewing: What to Do, What Not to Do." International Handbook of Psychiatry: A Concise Guide for Medical Students, Residents, and Medical Practitioners. Ed. Laura Weiss Roberts, Joseph B. Layde, and Richard Balon. Hackensack: World Scientific, 2013. 78–101. Print.

Sadock, Benjamin J., Virginia Sadock, and Pedro Ruiz, eds. Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. 9th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 2009. Print.

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