True or false, both right

True or false, both right

Amy Byrne

Psychometric testing is widely used as part of a selection process for jobs.

I am just a few questions into a personality test and already I’m stumped. Faced with the simple statement, “I am in control of my life”, to which I must answer true or false, I can’t decide which way to go.

As I prevaricate, I reason that I’m largely in control of my life: I don’t have gambling debts, a mortgage I can’t service, or a job I hate. But I’m a mother and that modifies my behaviour and choices: I need employment that ensures work/life balance, I have to provide my offspring with food, clothing and taxi services, and I can’t fly off to Rio if the whim takes me.

There is another problem I have with the question, too, I later tell Gavin Didsbury, the psychologist who has offered to assess the test I have volunteered to take to get a first-hand taste of the kind of psychometric assessment commonly used to screen job applicants.

Who in their right mind, I wonder, would admit to a prospective employer that they were not in control of their life?

Didsbury, who heads up Psych Press, a Melbourne-based firm that provides workplace psychometric testing, assures me no single answer in a personality questionnaire is enough to see a job application instantly torn up. Some questions are there to test how candid a respondent is being.

For instance, a person who indicates they never talk about people behind their backs might be giving what they think is the socially desirable response to the question, rather than one that is strictly true. “The main thing about a personality test is try not to second-guess it,” he says. “Because you present a false picture of yourself to an employer, and that may have unfortunate consequences.”

Didsbury describes psychometric testing as “the process of putting numbers to psychological data” to measure aptitudes, abilities and personalities. “[As a psychologist] I can’t compete with your Aunty Maisie, who has known you since birth; she’s got you pegged as far as qualitative information,” he says. “But what I can do is look at the quantitative information and tell you how you compare with everyone else.”

Psychometric testing is widely used in the corporate world, from graduate level to management. Surveys show more than three-quarters of the companies listed in the US Fortune 500 and UK Times Top 100 use them, and the Australian business sector is estimated to be similar. They are also part of the recruitment process for government organisations such as the police and defence forces.

An assessment typically involves tests for both personality and cognitive abilities such as verbal and numerical reasoning. Personality tests are generally multiple-choice and designed to assess a candidate’s motivations, values and interests. A typical question might pose a statement such as “I feel comfortable negotiating with people”, to which the candidate must choose a true/false or agree/disagree response. Ability or aptitude tests assess reasoning capacity and a candidate’s competencies with words and numbers rather than their factual knowledge of a particular job or topic.

There are thousands of psychometric assessments, ranging from well-known global tests such as Myers Briggs and the Occupational Personality Questionnaire to those custom-made for particular companies or industries. But despite their widespread use, many would-be employees remain wary of them.

Didsbury maintains that people should embrace psychometric tests as an opportunity to discover their strengths, pointing out that personality tests have no right or wrong answers.

“Usually the concern about doing the test is that people think they won’t do well enough, but we deal every day with people who are really talented in various ways and have abilities for particular tasks and interpersonal skills that they simply are not aware of,” he says. “People should be relaxed about it. It is an opportunity to show their skills in a fair way.”

An argument used in favour of psychometric testing is that it gives a more balanced view of ability than does an interview or resume.

“Interviews, especially unstructured ones, have very little validity,” says Chris Jackson, a professor of business psychology at the University of NSW’s Australian School of Business.

“People find it very easy to fake an interview. In half an hour they can demonstrate enthusiasm, motivation, honesty and integrity, calmness – and not necessarily have any of them. And interviewers often select on the wrong criteria, such as first impressions. Personality and ability tests are more systematic and objective, and people tend not to fake as much as you think they would.”

Jackson says psychometric testing is most effectively used as one part of a selection process, backed up by other tools such as interviews and role plays. A good test, he says, predicts something about the person as well as outlining their personality. At the very least it should provide a framework for discussion between the prospective employer and employee.

Vodafone’s director of brand and people, Wendy Lenton, agrees that psychometric testing can assist the interview process and help “create a bigger picture” of the candidate. “Occasionally you will see something in a test assessment that stands out about a person, but you wouldn’t exclude them from a position on that basis alone,” she says. “What it means is that when you come back to interview, you might question a little harder around that particular area.”

Vodafone uses psychometric testing in some executive-level appointments, but finds it more useful in career development.

“It’s about helping people to meet their potential,” Lenton says. “A test might demonstrate that you are only using one leadership style and you could be more effective if you used several. It can show up something that may have been someone’s blind spot, and that can be very useful to them.”

But not everyone is a fan of psychometric testing and among its most vocal critics is professor Robert Spillane from Sydney’s Macquarie School of Graduate Management, who describes it as “psychological tyranny”. He claims that research proves it can’t predict performance, and says making people do tests against their will is unethical.

“You may as well use a fortune teller,” he says. “I take the stance that there is no such thing as personality – there are no little people inside us pulling strings that tell us how to act – so what are they measuring anyway? Yet career decisions are made, sometimes negatively, on the basis of these tests.”

Spillane says the lie scales and checks don’t work, and he teaches his students how to
“fake” their answers. “Not that I really need to,” he adds. “If you are applying for a job in sales and they ask whether you’d rather stay at home with a good book on a Saturday night or go to a party, clearly you are going to go to the party.”

Even advocates of psychological testing admit that there are good and bad tests, and all have their limitations. Jackson says the danger is in regarding the power of personality testing as absolute.

“One thing we always have to take into account is that people are very complex,” he says. “People have something like 10 to the power of 27 brain cells and if you try and represent that in terms of 100 questions, you can never, ever catch the complexity of them.”


* Doing practice tests before taking a psychometric ability or aptitude assessment will give you an idea of the sort of questions that will be asked and the test format. These tests are often timed, so practice will help eliminate nerves that can lead to mistakes.
* Personality tests are harder to prepare for but practice tests will familiarise a candidate with the style of test. Experts advise answering honestly and not trying to second-guess the best response. Don’t spend too much time deliberating on a question – your first response is often the best.,,,

The Weekend Australian, July 19-20, 2008

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