Neo Personality Inventory – Test


NEO-PI-R is a popular psychometric self-test that is easy to administer and score, though it is a proprietary product and is not in the public domain. The test can be used to assess various personal attributes of individuals from all kinds of backgrounds. Speaking in relative terms, the test has proven remarkably effective in counseling, educational and organizational settings, but its efficacy in the clinical setting rests on shaky grounds. In this paper, we will describe the various facets of the Five Factor Model on which this test is based, trace the evolution of the model and the test, discuss the various considerations relevant to the test’s applicability in a clinical setting and conclude by suggesting some possibilities for the future evolution of the Five Factor Model.

NEO Personality Inventory


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Psychologists have for a long time sought to better classify and explain the various traits of human nature or personality. After decades of empirical research, a classification system emerged in which a vast number of human traits, though by no means all, were categorized under five broad heads, known as the Big Five factors of personality: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

The Big Five factors are derived from statistical analyses and are incorporated into a purely descriptive model of human personality, called the Five Factor Model (Srivastava 2010). A descriptive model is an empirically derived model, it only tries to make coherent and comprehensive observations but cannot by itself give an explanation of the internal dynamics involved, as, for example, Freudian or Jungian theories of psychoanalysis do. The NEO Personality Inventory is a simple 240-item questionnaire designed to measure the various traits of personality that are clustered under each of the Big Five factors in the Five Factor Model.

The Big Five

The Big Five structure captures, at a broad level of abstraction, the commonalities among the existing systems of personality description and thus provides an integrative descriptive taxonomy for personality research. (John et al., 2008) The NEO-PI-R is a measure of the Big Five factors of personality. The five factors of NEO-PI-R comprise six ‘aspects’ each. Therefore the test measures 30 traits of an individual personality in all, using 8 items/questions for each trait. The following is the terminology used to identify the thirty components of the five factors:

Openness to experience:

  •  Imagination
  • Artistic Interests
  • Emotionality
  • Adventurousness
  •  Intellect
  • Liberalism


  • Self-Efficacy
  • Orderliness
  • Dutifulness
  • Achievement-Striving
  •  Self-Discipline
  • Cautiousness


  • Friendliness
  • Gregariousness
  •  Assertiveness
  • Activity Level
  • Excitement-Seeking
  • Cheerfulness


  •  Trust
  • Morality
  • Altruism
  • Cooperation
  • Modesty
  •  Sympathy


  • Anxiety
  •  Anger
  • Depression
  • Self-consciousness
  • Immoderation
  •  Vulnerability

We will now see what each of these facets means specifically n  In Openness:

O1—‘Imagination / Fantasy’ refers to the tendency to find ways to move away from the humdrum world of everyday life (Chamorro-Premuzic, 2007).

O2— ‘Artistic Interests’ suggests a love for beauty both in art and nature. It means aesthetic sensitivity. High scorers need not be artists, but they have the potential.

O3—Emotionality is the capacity to feel and experience as well as the capacity to be aware of these feelings and be able to express them.
O4—Adventurousness means proclivity for new things, the desire to experience different things. People high on adventurousness are averse to boring routines.

O5—Intellect suggests being open-minded for new ideas, relishing the habit of exercising the mind with puzzles etc., or pondering over intricate problems, or discussing and debating philosophical and intellectual issues etc. People low on this score have little capacity for abstraction. Just in the way ‘artistic interests’ does not exactly indicate the level of artistic skills of a person, a higher degree of ‘intellect’ does not necessarily suggest high intelligence, though there is usually a good degree of correlation. Intellect and artistic interests are the two core components of the Openness factor.

O6—Liberalism suggests a tendency to challenge authority and established values. Those very high on liberalism tend to be iconoclasts and even anarchists. The conservatives, on the other hand, prefer security and stability.

n  In Conscientiousness:

C1—Self-efficacy suggests having confidence in one’s own intelligence and abilities. Low-scorers do not feel being in control of their lives.

C2—Orderliness means being well organized, living and working according to plans and schedules.

C3—Dutifulness corresponds to an individual’s sense of moral obligation, and also to the tendency to abide by rules and regulations.  Low scorers can be unreliable and irresponsible.

C4—Achievement-Striving signifies the drive to be successful. It means ambitiousness as well as pursuit of excellence. High scorers have a strong sense of direction in life.

C5—Self-discipline can have a broad meaning which can encompass all the traits of this domain, but used in the narrow sense as an individual trait, it means some kind of will power — the ability to persist and complete tasks by overcoming obstacles and distractions.

C6—Cautiousness reflects the adage “think before you leap.” High scorers are wont to explore alternatives and contemplate consequences.

n  In Extraversion:

E1—Friendliness implies the ability to reach out to others, instead of being distant and reserved. Low scorers need not be cold and hostile, they could be just neutral.

E2—Gregariousness means to like and enjoy the company of others. High scorers enjoy large crowds, low scorers do not. The latter have a greater need for privacy and time for themselves.

E3—Assertiveness is the leadership quotient.

E4—Activity Level. High scorers lead fast-paced lives and enjoy it. Low scorers tend to move about at a leisurely and relaxed pace.

E5—Excitement-seeking implies the need for constantly high levels of stimulation. High scorers are willing to take risks to get their thrills. Low scorers, on the other hand, prefer to be away from hustle and bustle and may even feel overwhelmed by the commotion.
E6—Cheerfulness makes people bubbly. Cheerful people have a natural tendency to brim with happiness, enthusiasm, and optimism.

n  In Agreeableness:

A1—Trust refers to the tendency of a person to assume that most people tend to be fair and honest. Low scorers have an innate distrust of other people, and believe that people are generally selfish and devious by nature.

A2—Morality suggests beings frank and honest without a tendency to engage in cheating and deception. Low-scorers are not necessarily immoral, but they are less straightforward, and are most of the time on their guard.

A3—Altruism is exactly what it means in the English language, a tendency to help others. However, in the context of the Big Five, people high on altruism do not feel they are being too much self-sacrificing when they are helping others, and may even feel positively rewarded in doing so. Low-scorers may also come forward when there is a need for their help, but they would think of it as a necessary burden. Altruism therefore suggests a tendency to share.

A4—Cooperation suggests compliance and the willingness to compromise. Low scorers can get things done even by resorting to intimidation.

A5—Modesty may suggest low self-esteem or low self-confidence, though even persons with high self-esteem may tend to be modest. Low scorers can be individuals generally perceived as being egoistic or arrogant by other people.
A6—Sympathy means being tenderhearted and compassionate. High scorers have high degree of empathy, low scorers can be callous, or simply ‘rational and objective’, i.e., impartial.

n  In Neuroticism:

N1—Anxiety refers to a tendency to often feel threatened, as if something dangerous is likely to happen very soon. Low in anxiety implies a tendency to be calm and unflappable.

N2—Anger is sensitivity about being treated fairly, either by other people or by fate / circumstances. High scorers would get angry when things do not go their way, but they may or may not express it, depending on their Agreeableness scores.

N3—Depression is the tendency to feel sad, and discouraged. High scorers lack energy to take initiative.

N4—Self-Consciousness is a person’s sensitivity about what others may think about him or her. Self-conscious individuals are excessively concerned about others’ comments. They may feel nervous or uncomfortable in social gatherings.

N5—Immoderateness is a marker for impulsiveness. Impulsive individuals have difficulty in resisting their cravings and urges. Low scorers do not experience these irresistible cravings, neither are they tempted to indulge inappropriately.

N6—Vulnerability is the tendency to experience panic and confusion in stressful situations. Low scorers have less susceptibility to stress and feel poised even when facing adverse circumstances.

As we can see, the high and low scales in the Neuroticism and other factors are adjusted for the range seen commonly in normal people. The NEO-PI-R is therefore not particularly useful in differentiating the normal degree and the abnormal degree of neuroticism. While the NEO questionnaire can be useful as a diagnostic tool in clinical settings, its use is limited.

History of NEO-PI-R

In 1936, Gordon Allport and H.S. Odbert collected thousands of personality-describing words in the English language and reduced the list to over 4,000 adjectives which denoted clearly identifiable personal traits. In the 1940s Raymond Cattell reduced this list to 171 terms, and tested his subjects by making them rate themselves against these adjectives. Cattell further reduced the number of these traits to 35 and devised personality tests based on them.

When the data obtained was analyzed by using the statistical method of factor analysis, 16 major personality factors were found. Accordingly, Cattell devised the 16PF questionnaire. Then in the 1960s and 70s multiple groups of researchers, basing their work on Cattell’s 16 factors, independently found that all the important personality traits fell into five categories. This finding was further corroborated in the early 80’s, and the five factor model began to gain wide acceptance (Kaplan, Saccuzzo, 2009).

Meanwhile, in the late 1970’s Paul T. Costa and Robert R McCrae discovered three dominant personality traits in the factor analysis studies of personality tests they were conducting and devised a new inventory (questionnaire) based on their findings. These three super-class traits were Neuroticism, Extraversion, and Openness to Experience (N, E, O). And these three factors happened to correspond to three of the five factors in the five factor model.

In 1985, Costa and McCrae included the remaining two factors into their inventory and brought out the NEO Personality Inventory based on the Five Factor Model. In this version, the original three factors had six facets each, but the newly added two did not any facets. In 1992, Costa and McCrae released the new, revised NEO-PI-R, which included six facets for all the five factors. Two subsequent developments on this were the shortened version, the NEO-FFI (Five Factor Inventory) which consisted only of 60 items, and secondly the observer rating version of the NEO-PI-R. The NEO-FFI is given preference over the NEO-PI-R only when there are serious time constraints in administration of the test.

Reliability and Validity of NEO-PI-R

Domain-level reliabilities for NEO-PI-R are strong, ranging from .86 to .95, while facet level reliabilities are slightly lagging behind with a range starting from .56 and going up to .90 (Botwin, Juni, 1992). A good degree of reliability has been established for short-term test-retesting of both NEO-PI-R and NEO-FFI, while long-term validity has been established so far only for the original three factors N, E, & O.

A number of studies have been conducted — as described in the NEO-PI-R test manual and elsewhere — which dealt with the validity of NEO-PI and NEO-PI-R. In general, these studies support the validity of the 5 domain scales and 30 facet scales, though the domain scales are better validated in terms of content, criterion, and construct validities (Domino, Domino, 2006).

In the book, “A Guide to Assessments that Work,” Widgier (2008) — after issuing a caveat that “None of the self-report inventories can be said to be highly recommended” within a clinical setting — has listed the ratings of various instruments used for case conceptualization and treatment planning for personality disorders. The ratings range from ‘less than adequate’ to ‘adequate’ to ‘good’ to ‘excellent’. NEO-PI-R has consistently scored excellent for all the psychometric properties considered, while the other listed instruments, such as IIP (Inventory of Interpersonal Problems) and TCI (Temperament and Character Inventory), showed fluctuations. The following is the parameter listing for NEO-PI-R:

  • Instrument: NEO-PI-R
  • Norms: Excellent
  • Internal Consistency: Excellent
  • Inter-Rater Reliability: Not Applicable
  • Test-Retest Reliability: Excellent
  • Content Validity: Excellent
  • Construct Validity: Excellent
  • Validity Generalization: Excellent
  • Clinical Utility: Unavailable.

Using NEO-PI-R in a clinical setting

The NEO-PI-R is one of the leading measures of human personality available today. However, this test was primarily devised for more or less normal subjects, and not for patients suffering from some form of marked psychological illness. The NEO scales are good at measuring the degree of various personality traits manifested in the human character, but they are based on the assumption that the subject being tested does not have overt psychopathology.

Nevertheless, the authors of the test, McCrae and Costa, claim that while the NEO-PI-R accounts for major dimensions of a normal human personality, it can address at least some dimensions of the abnormal personality. In general, NEO-PI-R has been successfully applied in various settings — it has yielded particularly good results that could predict job performance and job satisfaction in organizational settings — but use of the NEO-PI-R to make clinical assessments is tinged with controversy. Therefore, in a clinical setting, the NEO-PI-R may be used only in a supportive mode, to provide the clinician a better picture of his or her patients’ basic emotional, attitudinal and other characteristics, and not as a major diagnostic tool (Links 1995).

Applications of NEO-PI-R in a clinical setting

In terms of conceptualization, the NEO-PI-R can support and augment a personality disorder diagnosis. The FFM instrument can provide a more comprehensive description of the patient’s general personality orientation. An interesting fact here is that much more empirical information is available concerning the developmental antecedents, the course, the outcome and even the genetic basis of the FFM general personality structure than is available for DSM-IV-TR personality disorders. The etiology, course, and life outcomes in various dimensions such as occupational, personal, social, and marital, that have been associated with the domains and the facets of FFM can enhance the clinician’s understanding of the personality order being considered.

The information obtained through NEO-PI-R testing as regards both adaptive and maladaptive personality traits can be of some use in treatment as well. High scores on each of the domains can have rather specific implications for treatment and responsivity.

Furthermore, the fact that the DSM-IV-TR diagnostic categories involve considerable overlapping of clusters of maladaptive personality traits can cause some confusion. Since the FFM has a more coherent and clear-cut structure it could function as a good supplement in diagnosis and treatment.

Personally, as a clinician, I would note too high or too low scores in any of the five domains as a possible sign of a personality disorder. Too high scores in Openness might suggest some underlying cognitive perceptual aberrations, while too low scores can suggest a pathological rigidness and closed-minded stubbornness. In Conscientiousness, too high scores can suggest obsessive perfectionism and workaholism, while too low scores can suggest not only a severe lack of self-discipline, but a lack of proper self-concept. Scores in Neuroticism of course can point to various modes of emotional dyscontrol, while Extraversion and Agreeableness scores may facilitate some crucial insights as regards the patient or corroborate the conclusions already drawn regarding his or her pathological tendencies. In my experience, NEO-PI-R has been particularly helpful in PTSD cases, such as a rape victim.

Critical assessment of NEO-PI-R

As a major review pointed out — soon after the emergence of the revised version — the NEO-PI-R manual explicitly states that the instrument is not intended to diagnose psychopathology, and at the same time goes on to present comparative data regarding the instrument’s applicability in over 100 personality disorders (Botwin, Juni, 1992). This dual stand has confused the reviewers then and continues to confuse many even now.

While it is true that, as has been discussed here so far, the FFM instrument has a considerable role to play both in the assessment and treatment of numerous personality disorders, the basic ambivalence of the tests’ authors and promoters regarding its clinical use can be discouraging and disconcerting to clinical practitioners who might be considering administering NEO-PI-R to their patients. Moreover, even after nearly two decades of existence and extensive research conducted in this area, definitive studies have not been made to ascertain the degree of clinical utility of the FFM instrument.

Interestingly, although the FFM evolved from the 16PF model, the latter’s originator, Cattell, had been strongly opposed to FFM and NEO-PI-R all his life. Despite its enormous success, the FFM instrument has attracted a good deal of criticism from many quarters. Juni, for example, has persistently attacked the cross-cultural validity of the instrument.

The fundamental problem with the test, though, is that it does not have a reliable way of detecting intentional or unintentional falsification of the responses by the subjects. Some methods and criteria have been devised to detect lying, random answers, positive presentation, negative presentation, etc., but these are not adequate. In clinical and forensic settings, particularly, negative presentation is a major problem. Indeed, to expect mentally ill persons to reliably fill in questionnaires that demand a high degree of introspection could be tantamount to folly.


NEO-PI-R is a simple and remarkable tool to map out clusters of major traits that mark an individual personality.  However it is seriously limited by the fact that the Five Factor Model does not have any kind of robust theoretical underpinnings. The Five Factor Theory seeking to explain the Five Factor Model, as has been propounded by Costa and McCrae, is a good attempt at formulating a theory to explain the observations, but it is only an attempt. What is needed is a groundbreaking new theory that is startling in its comprehensiveness and predictive power. Simply ascribing different sets of characteristics in varying degrees to different persons without any rationale or insight associated with it is rather primitive.

Today, after about 120 years of existence, psychology seems to be at a stage where physics was in the 16th century. Empirical observations are only the first step, formulation of a theory to explain the observations is the next. In the 16th century, Tycho Brahe made beautiful and extensive observations of planets and constellations, but it fell upon Kepler and Copernicus to incorporate those observations into an elegant theoretical model of reality and further our fundamental understanding of the world. A full-fledged theory is needed not only to promote our understanding but also to let us develop technologies that will enable us to change things in the way we want them. In the future, NEO-PI-R could and should lead to the development of technologies that would allow us change things for the better, and not just observe and record them passively.


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