Costa, P. T. & McCrae, R. R. (2008): The Neo Inventories


Characteristics of the NEO-PI-R



  • A questionnaire measure of general personality traits (the Five-Factor Model/The Big Five)
  • 240 items, assessing 30 specific traits, which define the five factors:
    • Neuroticism (N)
    • Extraversion (E)
    • Openness to experience (O)
    • Agreeableness (A)
    • Conscientiousness (C)
  • A shorter version, the NEO-FFI (NEO Five-Factor-Inventory) consists of 60 items, that assess only the five factors
  • Uses a 5-point Likert scale (from strongly disagree à strongly agree)
  • 2 versions: Self-report (Form S) and observer rating (Form R)




Is primarily used for research on personality structure and development, but the authors (Costa & McCrae) argue for it’s clinical utility also, ex to understand a client’s strengths and weaknesses, aid in diagnosis, selecting form of treatment etc.


Basic questions of the article



  • The scientific basis of the inventories?
  • Appropriate populations?
  • Most effective use in a clinical setting?

Theory and development



Throughout the 20th century questions about the structure of personality have concerned what to measure, ie. needs, traits, temperament, characteristics etc., and how the units are structured, ie. Guilford’s 10 factors, Cattell’s 16 factors, Eysenck’s 2-3 factors.


Today it is clear that the five factors are more or less sufficient to encompass the trait descriptive terms fx in English and German languages. The Five Factor Model has become the most dominant model in personality research.

Studies have shown that:

  • the FFM (Five-Factor-Model) incorporates both normal and abnormal personality traits
  • it is a universal feature of the human species, grounded in the human genome.

Development of the NEO inventories:

  • Not based on any single theory.
  • The selection of traits was based on literature reviews of personality litterature as a whole. At first only 3 factors (NEO) were identified, but after working with the natural (layman) language of personality traits, two more were added.
  • Later the five factors were related to Murray’s needs, Jung’s types, Gough’s folk concepts etc. and were thereby grounded in theory.
  • Scales were developed using a combination of rational and factor analytic methods.
  • Simple trial items were written and analysed in samples of adult volunteers.
  • Targeted factor analysis were used to select items with the best convergent and discriminant validity with respect to the five traits.

Basic psychometrics




–        Internal consistencies/coefficient alphas for N, E, O, A and C are high (for adults from 0,88 to 0,92).

–        Coefficient alphas for the 8-item facet scales are understandably lower, from 0,51 to 0,86.

–        2-week test-retest reliabilities of 0,86 to 0,90 for NEO-FFI scales.

–        2-year test-retest reliabilities for factors (N, E, O, A, C) ranging from 0,83 to 0,91.

–        The factor structure of the NEO-PI-R has been succesfully replicated in adults, children > 12, college students, in men and women and across 50 different cultures.

–        Cross-observer agreement (the correlation between self-report and observer) is usually in the range of 0,4 to 0,6.



–        NEO scales have been meaningfully correlated with scales from the MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), the MCMI (Millon Clinical Multiaxial Inventory), the PAI (Personality Assessment Inventory) and the BPA (Basic Personality Inventory).

–        NEO scales have proven useful in prediciting work interests, ego development, attachment styles and psychiatric diagnoses of personality disorder.


Administration and scoring



Can be administered individually and in groups. Is intended for ages 18+, although NEO-PI-3 (where hard to read/understand item have been removed) has been used for children down to age 12. It is also possible for the administrator to read the items out loud and provide further explanations to the respondent.

The most important requirement of the administrator is that he/she engages the cooperation of the respondent, ensures a comfortable setting and ample time, assures privacy and offers feedback.





The NEO Software System administers, scores and interprets the NEO-PI-R or FFI.


Applications and limitations



The NEO inventories can be used for many purposes in a wide variety of settings, ex clinical practice, medical settings, can be mailed to respondents, used for selecting police in New Zealand, documenting personality changes in Alzheimer’s disease, used for school counselling.

A relatively new addition to the NEO inventories is an emphasis on feedback.



The NEO inventories cover many aspects of personality, but not all. NEO does not adress cognitive abilities and distortions. They can be used for, but do not assess directly, psychopathology or living problems.

Inappropriate use incl. when respondents have very low intellectual competence or are demented, delirious or psychotic.

NEO inventories do not include validity scales intended to detects lying, defensiveness or malingering. NEO is dependent on the respondents honesty and motivation when completing the inventory.


Contributions to psychotherapy planning



Clinically the NEO inventories have been linked to a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses, and is can be used as a guide towards diagnoses, ex a person very low in A and C is thought to be prone to psychopathy and substance abuse, while a person high on N and low on E is prone to depression.

The computer Interpretive Report for NEO-PI-R includes a Clinical Hypothese section, in which prototype profiles for the personality disorders are compared to client profiles.

Information from the NEO-PI-R can be useful in understanding the patient and in anticipating problems in therapy.


Research findings


Diagnostic utility

–        The NEO inventories are clinician friendly and are more useful in describing and differentiating a person’s pathology than ex the DSM-IV categories or an MMPI. Also better in prediciting disability than the diagnostic status on its own.


Treatment planning

–        Several studies have shown that NEO can be helpful in anticipating the course of therapy and predicting outcomes. Ex E has been shown to be related to the formation of the therapeutic alliance (but in the long run A may be more important for the treatment alliance), an examination of manic and depressive symptoms in bipolar patients showed that high N was associated with depressive symptoms while high C predicted manic symptoms.


Treatment progress evaluation

–        Administration of NEO can help determine/register any change in personality trait levels before, during and after treatment, ex among depressed patients who are treated pharmacologically. However the traits assessed by NEO have been shown to be relatively stable, and sometimes the focus of treatment should not be personality trait change, but on how traits are manifested in concrete problems in living.


Cross-cultural considerations

–        NEO exists in over 40 languages.

–        When translating a psychological measure and using it in a new cultural setting, it cannot be assumed that the meaning has been retained. In the case of NEO the most straight-forward criterion of construct validity is found in factor replicability.

–        It is more controversial when comparing scores across cultures, but the authors suggest that this is still possible, if one only remembers the norms that the scores are being compared to.


Current controversies



The role of validity scales

–        Concerns the variety of sources of error, that can affect a personality measures validity, incl. response styles (acquienscence, nay-saying, extreme responding), faking (to give a more positive or negative impression of oneself) and random responding (mixed pattern of answers, a single repeated response).

–        Most clinical instruments (incl. MMPI and PAI) have extensive validity scales to detect and correct for these biases.

–        The NEO inventories do not have any validity scales, but tries to make up for this by checking protocol validity, ex protocols are not scored if 40+ questions are unanswered, if strings of repetitive responses are noted (ex 6 consecutive strongly disagree).



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