Sunday, July 22, 2007

Psychometrics, IQ and the Technocracy

I write about psychometrics in The Sunday Times today. I'd be interested to hear of the psychometric testing experiences of any readers. It's a weird world and, I think, a dangerous one.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I once took a psych test at a job agency and they escorted me out of the building as soon as they saw the results (which they wouldn't show me). A bit steep, I thought.

    Do employers ever check test results against the perceived 'personality' of people they retain, or follow up on the results of people they reject? Not that I've heard.

    Maybe a Corporate Shaman, or Wise Woman, would work just as well, and make for more exciting interviews.

  3. Ouch, Bryan. My husband is a psychometrician -- all it means is someone who makes and/or studies personality tests. Allan's specialty is actually validity -- testing tests to catch those who lie about their answers (as you did on some of yours) and designing ways to catch the liars (well, the less savvy ones). His tests have actually helped doctors treating drug users; he's also found lots of flaws in tests that are, as you say, sometimes revealing more about the tester than the tested.

    But it's silly to blame a field of knowledge for the use to which it's put. That's like blaming the technology the Chinese first used to make fireworks for its eventual use in weaponry. Guns don't kill people, people kills people -- or whatever the heck the slogan is.

    For about the last twenty years, there's been a new field of psychology called "Industrial Psychology." It's a spinoff from Social Psychology (my husband's field) and it deals with the tests given to people in the workplace. Obviously there's been abuse of power there, as you note. On the other hand, industrial psychologists have also been instrumental in correcting "sick" workplaces -- which often resemble neurotic families (overbearing bosses, passive-aggressive employees, an employee who is the scapegoat, etc., etc.).

    From all good things comes some bad outcomes; ditto from bad things come silver linings.

  4. In the comment I thought better of and deleted earlier, I mentioned that I'd taken one such test, in 1979. It was tedious and seemingly repetitive in an attempt to elicit more genuine answers, I assume. The results pegged me as being an "analytic expressive." That was probably about right. A friend was a "driving driver," and that made him quite happy, given that his surname was Driver as well. In the end, though, I think Susan sums up my attitude about the whole thing.

  5. I once wrote a feature about psycho-testing in the business world too and the thing that struck me was not just their use to select employees but their use to shape the careers employees took through organisations too.

    The positive spin on this is that large organisations have traditionally only rewarded careers that climb up hierarchies of management; but perhaps many people are not good at management and don't enjoy it though are nonetheless hugely valuable to the organisation - perhaps being brilliant technicians or trainers or creatives. So these psycho-tests are designed to identify such individuals, and their propensities, and help the organisation construct ways of remunerating them without insisting that they take on senior management roles.

    That sounded all very good. Until I asked about the information that is stored on individuals and how they are tested for their management abilities, or lack of them. This involved, amongst other things, asking questions about relationships with parents - how they dealt with father-figures/authority and so on. In other words, the tests built up a picture not just of your present fit for a particular role but your past personal life too with a view to that determining your future.

    Now, it may be that individuals are being saved the trials of management and being encouraged to flourish elsewhere. But it struck me as very worrisome: twenty somethings, barely out of university, being branded, as it were, with their semi-adolescent feelings about their family, as they start work for a company that in theory they could be with for decades. It's one thing to take a snap-shot of someone; but carving out a career path on the basis of that snap-shot is another thing entirely. Apart from the issue of privacy, are we not people, do we not change?

  6. i did one once which was superficially accuate; but i wasn't sure how much use it is to say that i'm usually solitary but can be occasionally stimulated by company, that i generally try to help people, that i can enjoy new sensations, etc. - it doesn't indicate the circumstances in which i am one or the other, the subterranean connections & influence.

    It seems to me part of the modern attempt to describe reality and then dispsense with reality and just deal with descriptions thereof. Fine for the 95% of people who fit into pigeonholes; not fine for the 5% who don't. Being in the 5% and therefore conventionally unemployable, i regard these tests with disfavour, rather selfishly. It may be that, as agencies & hundred of employers have decided, i shouldn't have a job because i'm in some way unspecified way an aberration, but i'd prefer to think they're just stupid. Ho hum.

  7. Susan:

    Your husband specializes in tests designed to catch out self-promoting lies on job applications? Does he get much work from sales managers or public relations outfits? How about the foreign service? Does he help them weed out the Type A smoothies with with their reassuring drivel in favour of all those mousy, rigorously-honest nose-pickers? The mind boggles. My inner psychometrician is asking whether he actually tests for folks who can lie with skill and aplomb.

  8. Hi, Peter B.-- He doesn't do the validity stuff anymore; nowadays he has his own business helping Ph.D. candidates in psychology and other social sciences run their studies and crunch their numbers for the best results. Interestingly, a number of his clients are from British universities (I'm never allowed to say anything about them, but I find this an interesting factoid).

    But, back in the day, he did improve several important personality tests to catch those who lie on them and he designed a way to elicit honesty from crack addicts (no small feat for those working with recovering substance abusers). In his academic days, he was awarded lots of grant money and spent it on research for the greater good (following up his earliest career as a social worker). He did, however, get sick of working with psychiatrists -- some of the looniest people you'll ever meet.

    And is he good at detecting liars? You bet. There are many ways to tell, though there are also fields where lying is de rigueur, a part of the profession, as it were. Example: Car salesman.

  9. I've had two. Once when I was bumming around Oz and the ever so nice people of the Scientologists invited me for a cup of tea, and once when I was on the dole and the benefit office insisted as part of my obligation to recieve back the money I paid into the system in the first place.
    Bonkers. I wouldn't say it wasn't fun, there's always that element of flattery what with being the centre of attention for 15 minutes - but bonkers nevertheless.

    Scientologists make awful tea!

  10. An excellent article that goes much further that your simplistic conclusion here that psychometrics are dangerous: as dangerous as guns, cars, bicycles in towns ...?
    They are misused, often stupidly: my partner has just completed an online Big5 type questionnaire for pre-selection for a part-time job at B&Q. It had so few questions that I doubt its validity, but they did at least provide a 'feedback' sheet thereby breaking one of our cardinal rules that all feedback must be given by a competent/qualified person, face to face.
    You're spot on in the article about using them for recruitment: it slows everything down and costs. It also only has real benefit to the organisation if the psychometric is being used as part of a complex process of job definition, skills requirements, job role objectives and - most importantly - the composition of the rest of the team. Used in this way - perhaps with the small group of short-listed candidates - they can, and do, provide an additional tool to effective selection.
    Finally, they can be hugely empowering. You said Types are not inside the mind, they are merely terms that allow us to describe a certain limited number of interactions between the mind and the world. That can allow a group/team/individual to use a language about aspects of themselves that can be quite revelatory. Just knowing why - and how - you might see the world differently from another can be hugely beneficial to the individual, their colleagues and employers.
    In this context we use Big5 as an enabler, and are happy to continue to do so.
    Peter D Cox, Managing director, TMPL Consultants (