Pschometrics: Panacea or Mumbo-Jumbo?

Does psychometric testing represent a viable proposition?

I wrote this article a few years ago and have been reminded of it by and updated it in light of recent conversations which are reminiscent of those that prompted it then. The range of options continues to grow and while this adds to choice, it also adds to complexity and confusion – there are, for example over a dozen that use colours to differentiate people, which sounds simple and easy to understand. However, they don’t use the same colour for the same trait!Pschobabble

I was horrified at the time, if secretly a little pleased, to hear a psychologist condemn all psychometric tests as a waste of time. His ensuing argument was a fair one, although I believe somewhat flawed, more of which later.
Most of us have some experience of psychometric tests; we will probably have completed one even if we haven’t administered any. My first exposure to them was during recruitment selection for the forces. I passed . . . well got in any way! Later I found myself required to administer tests with no training at all, an experience which could have put me off for good, but rather encouraged me to learn more. Even poorly administered the results were too insightful and useful to be ignored. I resolved to continue using them, but to learn how to do it properly.

The psychometric test or instrument is a varied species. Some are cobbled together in a back bedroom for a one-off use, while others are the result of years, even decades of research, validation and evaluation. They claim to measure everything from your sex drive to your suitability as the next company chairman. They have an equally mixed reputation and justifiably so, often compared to star signs and other folklore.

The value of any test, its credibility, validity and benefit to the user owes much to the administrator. Tests that are poorly presented or explained are liable to be less accurate, possibly worthless, or at worst false and potentially damaging. Just as the conditions and briefing for an academic examination should be the same for all participants, so should it be for anyone completing a psychometric test. My early concerns were aroused when I heard the different briefings given by fellow trainers from the same organisation administering the same test:

“Write down the first answer that comes to mind.”
“Consider each question carefully.”
“You have 20 minutes.”
“Take as long as you like.”
“Answer as quickly as you can.”
“You have 40 minutes.”

When delegates compare notes and discover such anomalies not only is the reliability of the test called into question, but also the ability and trustworthiness of the trainers.
There are other ethical considerations. How confidential will the results be? Have you told the delegates? Have you told their superiors? Doubts in this area will cause concerns and can affect the results.

Notwithstanding these potential problems the psychometric test does have its uses and I believe the better tests, the well-researched and validated ones, are worth more than the paper they are printed on. They can be a useful aid to the trainer, the consultant, the personnel officer and, most importantly, the trainee. It can provide data for training needs analysis, particularly using group results which are less sensitive. They can be an aid in team building, where I have found they can help delegates to understand differences and how to manage them.

The psychologist mentioned at the beginning claimed that the test can tell you nothing about someone that you can’t find out by talking to them. Sound and admirable sentiments, but not always practical. Some people don’t come over well in interviews, many others don’t conduct them very well! The test can give an alternative viewpoint, identify new facts, or reinforce interview impressions. I have found delegates grateful for a label to identify ideas or problems, and appreciative of a framework to help them understand the different ways some colleagues operate.

Dilbert MBTI

Interviews and tests are both valuable and fallible. They are best used to complement each other, and better still if used in conjunction with other data, such as past performance or assessment exercises. After testing, every participant should have a personal de-briefing of their results and be given the chance to comment.
One of the most sensible comments I have heard about any psychometric instrument was, in fact, about one of the most respected, but holds true for all: “Remember, the instrument does not tell you what you are like; you tell the instrument.” And, “Tests are like computers, only as accurate as the information fed to them. ‘Rubbish in, rubbish out’.

So, don’t condemn testing out of hand, but use it sensibly and professionally. Take particular care in the selection of tests and ensure you use them properly or find ‘someone who can’. It can be expensive to become a qualified practitioner or to hire one, but the cost of misuse is greater.