Twelve myths about psychometric tests that you’ve fallen for

30 November 2017 -

Test ResultsThis is what you need to know about testing personality and performance of your team

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

The enthusiasm for using personality tests in selection and development waxes and wanes. It is a big industry. There are defenders and distractors who periodically “have a go at each other” on a number of repeated issues.

Having researched this area for 30 years, I’ve come across common criticisms of staff testing. Here are some common misunderstandings.

MYTH ONE: All tests are biased particularly with regard to sex and race

Some tests do show sex and race differences. These are well known: men score better on spatial visual tasks and women on verbal tasks; women score higher on measures of empathy and social intelligence than men.

There are more differences on ability tests than personality tests usually. Indeed, the test manuals say so.

Just because there may be some sex or race or age or culture differences does not mean they are invalid but rather that they need to be used in a very particular way checking against population norms. Any bias occurs in how they are used, not in what they measure. Many organisations like the Commission for Racial Equality have investigated and approved many tests.

MYTH TWO: All candidates fake responses, making answers worthless

If everyone faked a good/ideal answer, tests would have no validity. However, there are a number of techniques that test constructors have for caching those who give misleading answers. This includes looking at the answers of those whom they have deliberately asked to lie, so that they know what to look out for – such as socially desirable responses. Concerned? Tests of ability are likely to be more valid.

MYTH THREE: Testing is too costly in terms of time and money

Do your research: a surprising number of tests are free. Some tests can be too expensive for what they provide, but the majority very good value. If the cost of testing is taken into consideration compared to a candidate’s annual salary or the cost of poor performance of a new recruit, testing remains cost-efficient and beneficial.

Of course, in-house staff can be trained to use and deliver tests, which over the years can reduce outgoings.

MYTH FOUR: Mood, health and the setting influence test results

In fact, the opposite is true. Standardised tests are surprisingly robust. They yield very similar results, on different occasions, a long time apart. They are just as reliable as most medical tests and much more so than some (blood pressure measures).

However, there is an exception: the circumstances that are likely to yield the most unreliable results is where a person is doing an ability test while feeling very unwell.

MYTH FIVE: Tests do no not predict work performance

This is perhaps the most important issue. Of course, some tests are not used for selection: they may be used for team or personal development or coaching. Good tests have all the data in their manuals that dictate what they should be used for. It is the criteria by which tests should be selected in the workplace.

MYTH SIX: Most tests can’t measure important values such as integrity and motivation

In fact, there are over 50,000 tests of psychological factors in print. In some cases, consultants realise there is a demand for some sort of tests and they are willing to supply it, even though they quite often are not prepared to put in the time and effort to establish their validity. Therefore, use tests that have been used elsewhere over time.

MYTH SEVEN: People change

The data shows the opposite. IQ measured at aged 12 correlates positively with IQ measured on the same test in those over 80. The same is true of personality in studies where we have longitudinal data. We know that people become a little less extraverted and neurotic as they get older, and a little more conscientious and agreeable but the changes are relatively mild. After the mid-twenties there is surprisingly little change in personality to the mid-seventies.

Some people experience significant trauma that does change them but this is relatively rare. This means that test scores remain valid for long periods.

MYTH EIGHT: Tests that measure the same thing are the same

Tests trying to measure the same thing, like intelligence or personality, can be radically different. Many share an approach and for some traits or abilities look very much alike. Take for instance introversion-extraversion: many tests seem identical, but this trait can also be measured by weighing a person’s salivation after lemon is put on the tongue! The question is not what the test looks like but rather evidence of their validity or reliability.

MYTH NINE: Ignore results, you can teach anybody to be a great performer

The idea that anyone can become a brain surgeon or an airplane pilot with enough practice and training is still very popular. It is called the ‘1,000 rule’ and has been applied to athletes.

Even the most radical of those that dismiss innate talent are forced to agree that you need a set of certain characteristics to succeed at certain jobs. In other words, you simply cannot teach just anyone to be good at serious technical and managerial jobs however hard they try.

MYTH TEN: Tests don’t spot “problem people” well enough

There are numerous clinical tests that set out to do just this. However, the data suggest that many personal staffing issues are the result of the way an employee is managed.

This is not to suggest that selectors should not look for evidence of pathology and dark side traits, but rather that they should not always blame the individual or the selector if people become problematic.

MYTH ELEVEN: Attitude, knowledge and skill are more important than intelligence and personality at work

If by attitude you mean motivation then this is partly true. No matter how bright an individual or how suited they are to a job if they are not sufficiently intrinsically motivated very little can be done.

Knowledge and skill can be taught, but this is affected by personality and intelligence. Brighter people learn faster. Some studies show that certain personality types pick up skills faster than others.

MYTH TWELVE: The “old trio” (application form, interviews and references) work well enough in a selection process

Again, this is partly true if: the application form collects biodata that is important and relevant to the job; the interview is planned and structured; the references are collected from people who know the candidate and are prepared to tell the truth. This, however, is rarely done and the old trio is woefully inadequate.

The accurate and reliable assessment of people at work is essential for many decisions around selection, development, promotion and redundancy. It is a complex area but one clearly related to the health and success of any organisation.

Testing and assessment is a specialised field and may require an expert to ensure the test is used appropriately and effectively. There remains a lot of ignorance and myths about assessment methods that can have significant problems for HR managers in particular organisations.

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