Back to Stories
A case of cultural difference: Developing the Chinese “personality test”

While Prof Fanny Cheung had a lot to share regarding her 40 years of “extra-curricular activities”, her “day job” is equally eventful and potentially a good business – clinical-grade personality assessment is her research expertise.

As she returned to Hong Kong for work in the 1970s, Fanny found clinical psychologists at large employ the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a test developed at her alma mater that measures the mental and behavioural states of patients. Back then, there was no Chinese version, “Practitioners would translate on the spot, but how each of them spelt it out could be vastly different. That impinged on the accuracy,” which was why she took it to her hands and started standardising the translation.

Prof Fanny Cheung invented the first personality assessment tailored for the Chinese, breaking new grounds for personality research with a cultural perspective. (Photo: ORKTS)

Are CUHK students more depressed?

She commenced her “venture” to localise MMPI post-joining CUHK, yet it was no easy task. After translating over 500 questions into Chinese, the Institute of Psychology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences invited her to collaborate on nation-wide research on standardisation. To prove its efficacy, they had to do multiple studies on their “product”. When Fanny enlisted help from a sample of CUHK students, she realised they scored higher on average than US students on scales as depression and schizophrenia. Could this mean our local students were suffering from extra-poor mental states?

“That would have been the conclusion were you only looking at the scores, but doing research takes a deeper analysis of the reasons underlying such deviation.” So Fanny extracted the items in question (i.e. those which locals got particularly high scores for), then analysing and probing them one by one. She eventually showed that some behaviours considered depressive in the USA could be seen as pretty “normal” for the Hong Kong Chinese – a manifestation of the East-West cultural variation indeed. “We tend to be more reserved.”

The results alerted Fanny to the blind spots of Western psychology: tools invented elsewhere shouldn’t be “dragged and dropped” onto Chinese society. She was thus inspired to co-develop Cross-cultural (Chinese) Personality Assessment Inventory (CPAI) with the Institute of Psychology, essentially the Chinese equivalent and enhanced version of MMPI. “The Chinese make up one-fifth of the global population; makes sense to scientifically fashion a tool best suited for them.”

Questionable tests in the market

The process of designing CPAI turned out to be a journey of discovering the Chinese view towards “personality”. “We looked up traditional novels on how characters were described; we interviewed people in the street on how they described themselves and others; we did questionnaires to find out how bosses described their subordinates, how teachers described their students and all that.” Following rounds of statistical tests and national investigations, Fanny’s team formulated a representative norm and eventually, the tool. A series of validity studies ensued to demonstrate its applicable scope.

Her research on CPAI unearthed personality traits crucial to the Chinese neglected by Western tools; it underlined the importance of cultural perspectives to personality research. Fanny won multiple international psychological awards for her scholarly achievements, including the American Psychological Association Award for Distinguished Contributions to the International Advancement of Psychology, and International Association of Applied Psychology Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions to International Advancement of Applied Psychology.

MMPI and CPAI are both evidence-based tools that have undergone rigorous evaluation; what about the popular Enneagram or Myers-Briggs Type Indicator? Straight from the shoulder, Fanny commented that those are not deemed scientifically valid to psychological experts. Without a research basis or proper adaptation, these commercial tests are not science – at most a helpful way to break the ice. She suggested interested readers check out The personality brokers: the strange history of Myers-Briggs and the birth of personality testing by Merve Emre for an in-depth explanation.

Knowing thyself is of value to many, and personality tests certainly got a market – sounds like CPAI has enormous potential to be commercialised. “While I champion an entrepreneurial spirit across CUHK, I am not keen to do business myself,” Fanny admitted, “let alone marketing my own products.” This does seem to coincide with a typical scholar personality. Regardless, the Assessment and Training Centre under the CUHK Department of Psychology is already offering staff screening and training with CPAI to multiple organisations, transforming this research output into societal benefits.

By Kary Wong@ORKTS
English translation by Cathy Wong@ORKTS