How Does The DiSC® Personality Test Work?

Assessing Behavior

The DiSC Personality Test is a very powerful tool to assess behavior.  It was developed following the theories of William Moulton Marston, psychologist.  Marston suggested that there are four specific personality traits, which are Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance.  Walter Vernon Clarke took this theory and developed it further, using it as a personality assessment tool.

Marston studied the emotions and behavior of normal people and their interaction with their environment.  The research conducted by his contemporaries Jung and Freud had centered on the emotions of abnormal people.  Marston developed the theory to explain model of human behavior and people’s emotional responses to various stimuli; but he did not create an assessment tool.

Walter V. Clarke, an industrial psychologist, was the first person to develop an assessment using Marston’s theories.   The Activity Vector Analysis was developed by Walter V. Clarke in 1940s.   It measured how one perceived oneself and how one thought others perceived them. Participants took it twice with these two response focuses. The combination from these two focused responses described behavior with these four dimensions or vectors: Aggressive, Sociable, Stable and Avoidant which were based on Marston’s model.  The tool used by Clarke was intended for personnel selection by businesses.

In 1950 John Cleaver, who worked for Walter Clarke, created a 24 question forced-choice instrument from the Activity Vector Analysis.  This instrument required the participant to select two words from four choices — the word that was the MOST and LEAST like them.  Factor analysis of this assessment added to the support of a DISC-based instrument.

Building on the works of Marston, Cleaver and Clark, in 1970 John Geier and Dorothy Downey, two professors from the University of Minnesota created the DiSC® Personal Profile System, which took the responses from Cleaver’s 24-question forced-choice instrument and identified a total of 15 classical patterns that emerged.  They created a company called Performax Systems International to promote this assessment and to market the materials to the business community.  In 1984, Curt Carlson, also a graduate of the University of Minnesota, purchased Performax Systems International and created Carlson Learning Company.

Today, we use an updated version from this original, designed by John Geier.  He made sure that the test was simplified, providing clear and concise results.  One of the changes that has taken place since Marston’s original work is what the letters DiSC stand for, which is now Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness.  Now, nearly a century after it was first developed, it is recognized as one of the most reliable personality assessments in existence.

“What test instrument can quickly assess a candidate’s personality preferences; is cheap; available to almost everyone; marketed by dozens of vendors under a variety of names; and, is recommended “unreliable and untrustworthy” by most testing professionals?  Yes, there are others, but I was referring to the DiSC..”  Dissecting The DiSC

How It Works

By asking a user a series of questions, the DiSC Assessment calculates how high someone scores on each of the four dimensions of behavior.  However, it isn’t just about knowing whether they are a D, i, S or C, which is the classical pattern, but also which style they are.  They can be fully one style, being a pure style, but they can also have one of the 15 combination styles, where they score more or less towards another style as well.  These are each completely unique.  It is precisely this element that makes the DiSC test so very different. Many other personality tests offer very rigid results.  For instance, one of the most famous tests determines whether someone is a type A or type B personality.

“Type A and type B personality theory was created by a pair of cardiologists. In the 1950s, Meyer Friedman and RH Rosenman were researching the possible causes of coronary disease.  After a nine-year study of over 3,000 healthy men aged 35-59, Friedman and Rosenman speculated that certain patterns of behaviour carried a higher risk, and devised a method for categorising patients as either type A, type B or type AB (for those who defied easy categorisation).”  Type A and B Personalities

Interestingly, although this test is one of the better known personality tests, it was actually devised to find out whether or not someone was more or less likely to develop a heart attack.  What matters in terms of the DiSC Profile, however, is that Friedman and Rosenman’s theory of types A and B seems incredibly limiting.  It seems hard to believe that people can be either one or the other when it comes to personalities.  We know very well that there is more to life than black and white, and that between them lie the proverbial 50 shades of grey.  It is exactly this that the tries to address.

“You will see the DISC model often represented as DiSC®, which reflects the ownership of this particular logoform by the US Inscape Publishing company.  Inscape has extensively researched and developed its own DiSC systems, which according to the company’s publicity have been used by over 40 million people since the early 1970s, which are used with the intention of enabling people to “…gain the insight they need to be more successful, productive, and fulfilled at work…” Inscape also say, “… DiSC® instruments are based on a simple idea – that the foundation of personal and professional success lies in knowing yourself, understanding others, and realizing the impact of your actions and attitudes on other people…”  DISC

Why it Matters

So why is any of this important?  Many people enjoy doing a little test to learn more about themselves, but DiSC is about a lot more than that.  What matters so much with DiSC is that it can teach someone how to interact with others.  Each of the 15 unique styles has stressors and motivators.  This means that there are certain things that they have particular difficulties with, as well as certain things that they respond particularly well to.  Understanding these traits, not just of yourself, but also of other people you deal with, both at work and in private, can greatly increase communication and thereby productivity.

For instance, if you have to speak to a “D” personality there are certain things you can do to make sure this communication works very well.

“Focus on facts and ideas rather than the people.”  DiSC Types

You could also talk about how certain problems may stand in the way of accomplishment.  Anything you try to argue should be supported by real evidence as well.  Another thing to think about with a D type is that they like to tell you what is happening, not how something is happening.

Similar pointers exist for each of the types.  Influential people like it if you are friendly and sociable and don’t pick too much on details.  Those who score high on Steadiness prefer not to be pressured or hurried and need some time to be able to deal with change.  People who are Conscientious want to follow logic and data and they need diplomacy and patience.

How to Score Well on a DiSC Personality Test

There is no way to score “well” on a DiSC Personality Test.  There are no right or wrong answers, but only insights into yourself.  It is for this reason that many psychologists and industry experts prefer to refer to these tests as “assessments,” as this is a better way of explaining that there is no pass or fail score system.  The reality is that there is only one way to fail a DiSC test, and that is by lying, rather than being honest about yourself.

It is about understanding the value of these tests and how they will help managers in dealing with you.  It will also give you an insight into yourself, teaching you why you respond in certain ways to certain situations.  Furthermore, if you are a manager yourself, knowing the DiSC Profile of those in your team will help you to be a better manager.  Once you get involved in DiSC, it is likely you will want to assess all your friends and family members too, just to make sure you communicate appropriately with them as well.


Co-owner/Co-founder of Intesi! Resources. Educated as an architect I transitioned to technology during my career in architecture. Intesi! Resources was founded in 2004 and my focus is everything Web/eCommerce related from the design and development of our site to all the marketing activities involved. I also provide significant support for our clients on all our products and how they are used to deliver assessment-driven learning solutions that develop self-awareness and interpersonal skills.

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