The wonderful world of psychometrics

Aug 06 2007 by Charles Helliwell Print This Article

An article by Brian Appleyard in The Sunday Times last month took a look at the weird and wonderful world of psychometric testing.

Psychometric testing - there's two words guaranteed to send a shiver down the spine of many an executive and turn their minds to mush and their legs to jelly in the process.

Apparently more and more businesses are turning to psychometrics as a means of verifying the quality of candidates - primarily because of the growing inconsistency of graduate qualifications - coupled with a need to understand their real motivational desires.

In the blue corner, you have the Big Four as represented by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the Cattell 16PF (16 Personality Factor) model, the Occupational Personality Questionnaire and Hogan, who between them dominate the market in testing.

In the red corner you have the sceptics, mounting a spirited defence in favour of individualism, led by Annie Murphy Paul and Malcolm Gladwell.

Annie Murphy Paul's book, The Cult of Personality, sets out to undermine the entire intellectual credibility of psychometrics. She argues that these allegedly neutral instruments are in fact shaped by the agendas of industry and government.

Personality tests, she contends, produce descriptions of people that are nothing like human beings as they actually are: complicated, contradictory, changeable across time and place - a view that Malcolm Gladwell has endorsed.

On reflection, there is little to choose between any of the factions in the blue corner. Their arguments are equally as valid as they are flawed - because what, after all, is the purpose of psychometrics and who does it really benefit ?

Not the candidate, that's for sure. Their purpose, even before they are asked to sit a psychometric assessment, is to secure a promotion or a new position. Consequently, their behavioural setting is strongly skewed into 'selling mode', as they attempt to ensure that they put the best possible gloss they can on the package they are selling; namely themselves.

So, what price accuracy in these artificial conditions? Candidates who are chameleon selling and companies who are conventional buying. The only result a psychometric assessment will provide is the one both parties expect.

So is it any wonder that organisations are so enamoured with them and why the Big Four continue to steamroller their way through the public and private sectors like some sort of unstoppable leviathan ?

So does the red corner have a better alternative? Well not really. Personalities are complex, Brian Appleyard argues in his article; yes I get that. The industry is full of snake-oil salesmen and hucksters, he adds. Yes, I get that too. So what else ?

Aha, I get it now; it all goes back to the origins and foundation of the IQ Test in 1905, from which the concept of psychometrics was derived in 1915.

Nice try Brian, but think again. Actually, the origins of behavioural understanding have their foundations in the writings of Hippocrates and Herodicus in 4th century BC Greece and even before this in 5th century BC China through Confucius and other Chinese philosophers from the Hundred Schools of Thought.

It's kind of tough to outthink that kind of heavyweight talent; although hoodwink might be a more appropriate term. No, you might have expected something new and original to have emerged in that last two and half thousand years, but it hasn't. The peddlers are still peddling their same old wares and the detractors have yet to find anything new and original counter with.

Granted, the same old wares now have different names and different packaging, but they are still selling the same old promise. We've all become hoodwinked to believe that this is IT !

But wait, I spot something on the horizon; a light, no. A glimmer, perhaps. Yes, a definite glimmer. Let's call it face-to-face interpretation and assessment, just to keep the buzz words going; although another term for it might be simply meeting people and assessing for ourselves what 'stuff' they are really made of.

Is it just possible that we might actually possess the tools within ourselves to assess the suitability of people we meet ? Isn't this a judgement we make each and every day in every aspect of our lives ? Wow, hold the front page, this might just be a truly original thought. Now there's something to make Confucius and Hippocrates sit up and take notice.


About The Author

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.