Getting Personal

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

How good are you at reading other people’s personality traits from their writing? The answer gives you clues to your own personality. Does the author of the following score high or low for neuroticism (i.e., is he or she a worrier?).

“I love cross country. I ran all throughout high school doing cross country and track and field but cross country is where my passion is. I love getting a runner’s high and running large distances on tracks generally located in natural settings. Finishing a long run is amazing. I am empty but full at the same time”.

Now, the same question for the author of the following “letter to my mother”

“I’m so thankful to have you in my life, you are the reason why I try my hardest at school, work, and any situation I come across. If there’s one person I know I can count on, anywhere, anytime, it is you. Even when I am away from home. Despite all the mistakes I’ve made in my life so far, you still love me for who I am and I would be nowhere without you. Thank you Mama”.

The answers are “low” for both (these were passages written by volunteers who also took a standard personality test). But what does this mean for you? Well, in the study in question, people who were good at this task were themselves less neurotic, and also less dominant. They were also more agreeable (i.e., nicer people), more conscientious, more likely to read for pleasure (particularly fiction), and more likely to have a high vocabulary. Women slightly – but statistically significantly – outperformed men, with an average of 82% vs 79% correct judgments.

A fully referenced version of this article is available at Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at

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