I have a love/hate relationship with psychometric testing

A while ago, I had a bit of a rant in the post I Hate Personality Tests. Responding in this guest post, Maria Skarveli (who knows far more about psychology than I do) ponders personality testing phobia.

As a psychology student belonging to the faculty of health and behavioural sciences which also harbours biology, medical science and physiology, I was constantly hassled by my friends that were studying law, commerce and engineering and forever asking me “Can you read my mind?” or worse “Are you trying to analyse me?” as if I was Professor Xavier and I could distinguish mutants from humans. Of course I had to keep a straight face and stop myself from saying, “You’re an idiot, there you have it analysis complete” I just rolled my eyes and went with the flow. But deep down I was insulted. It was bad enough psychology had been branded as a “soft science”, which is apparently less intellectually stimulating than the “hard sciences” such as biology, physics and chemistry. But now the general view from all faculties was that psychology is akin to the paranormal, dare I say astrology!

In answer to those questions stated earlier, “No psychologists can not read your mind, contrary to what M Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense taught you and no we are not analysing you, for goodness sake you study engineering you can’t exactly be that interesting!

It seems not much has changed since my university days. As a recruitment consultant, clients and candidates are now asking me those annoying questions. But now I have to treat people with an ever-increasing anxiety that has nearly reached epidemic levels and that is, “Psychometric Testing Phobia”.  But phobia is a strong word; surely people are not scared of answering some questions to examine personality traits and cognitive performance? Surely the test results won’t be used against them and or utilised by employers as a sole decision making tool towards hiring? Well those questions were sufficiently answered after reading the Mule’s post I Hate Personality Tests and hearing countless case studies of candidates who had completed some sort of psychometric test of either intelligence or personality. And by the way the verdict wasn’t good. It seems that psychometric testing is no longer associated with the scientific method or regarded as an instrumental tool utilised by psychologists and psychiatrists to examine human behaviour for the purposes of diagnoses, outcomes measurement and empirical observation. It seems that now, at least in the corporate world, psychometric tests are no different to horoscope readings. A Cleo Magazine questionnaire probably has more merit than most tests that are given to candidates these days, namely Myers-Briggs, HBDI and Keisey Temperament Sorter.

In response to my clients and candidates experiences, the Mule’s commentary post and my boyfriend’s absolute disregard for psychometric testing I have outlined five key indicators which every person must contemplate when taking a test. These points will allow you to differentiate a valid, sound empirical test from a total sham created by con artists posing themselves as psychologists in a bid to create a shit-load of money by selling these tests to HR departments who know fuck-all about psychology. (Pardon the cursing but when I get passionate about something I tend to get to show my feelings in a rather unconventional manner)

  1. A test must possess adequate coverage of content domain. For example, a test that purports to measure personality needs to ensure that all major aspects of personality are covered. This can be difficult as personality is governed by an array of theories offering different viewpoints about the development and description of personality. However a test maker can make the distinction between good theories and bad ones. And besides, a test can examine personality from many different viewpoints offering a more holistic approach. As long as personality is measured from a variety of valid theoretical viewpoints, we will gain a better understanding of a person’s behaviour. Case in point: the Myers-Briggs test has its foundations in Carl Jung’s typological theory which characterises individuals on four dimensions of thinking, feeling, sensations and intuition, better known as introversion-extroversion, judgment-perception and sensing-intuition. The test has been constantly criticised as vague and general because nearly everyone can be characterised as either type. How many times have you come across a question, “Would you rather go out with your friends or stay at home and read a book?” Why the dichotomy? After all, can’t we do both and why should individuals have to be characterised by bipolar functions? The answer is we shouldn’t and the Myers-Briggs test offers little, if any, content domain on personality. For those of you who haven’t studied psychology, Carl Jung was one of Sigmund Freud’s students belonging to the school of psychodynamic theories, which has hardly any empirical justification. The fact that Myers-Briggs is still being utilised in the corporate world is nothing short of an enigma.
  2. Reliability – If I take the test at Time A will I get the same the result when I take it again at Time B. Simply put.
  3. Validity – If a test is measuring depression, will it relate to or be similar to other tests measuring depression? If it does we have something called convergent validity. Furthermore does the test differ from other tests measuring another construct such as psychosis? If so we have discriminate validity.
  4. Usefulness – If a psychometric test has no predictive power, it doesn’t matter if other criteria mentioned are satisfied. It is commonly agreed that most valid intelligence tests are pragmatic in their ability to distinguish between individuals in terms of cognitive capacity. The same goes with depression and anxiety measures and these tests are commonly used by practitioners for outcomes measurement. How the test results are utilised in the corporate world in terms of hiring is a different matter and belongs to work ethics. I should add that using the results of a psychometric test, as a SOLE MEANS of hiring someone is wrong and not acceptable.
  5. Falsification – The fundamental rule proposed by Karl Popper was that a theory or hypothesis must be subjected to disconfirmation if it is to attain scientific truth. The same goes with psychometric tests, especially personality measurement because these tests are fundamentally governed by theories. If the theories are constantly disconfirmed through experimentation then the tests should be scrapped or at least revised. Some of the best psychometric tools are constantly being revised due to the falsification of the hypotheses which they relied on. These are the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), Welsher Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS – IV) and Depression Anxiety and Stress Scale (DASS – 42) to name a few.

I do hope these points are taken into consideration and that psychology can be taken seriously under the same umbrella as the “hard sciences”. If so then I may realise my dream to never hear those bothersome words again, “Can you read my mind?”

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