Attacking the Myth That Personality Tests Don’t Add Value

For this month’s myth, the last on the topic of psychometrics, I have chosen a slightly different approach. I’m coming out in defence of personality tools; when they are used correctly and understood in the right context. Rather than reinvent the wheel in this regard, I have chosen to highlight what I believe to be a very reasoned article on the topic in Forbes by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic.

Before posting a direct link to the article, I want to set the context for the value in psychometrics. For me, it is based on 5 key points:

  1. Predicting human behaviour is difficult: The psychometric industry often oversteps the mark with the levels of prediction it claims to have. Assessments are not crystal balls and the search for the greatest predictive tool which is easily generalizable across multiple contexts is futile. The corollary, however, is not true that due to human complexity assessments have no application and understanding a little more about a person’s behavioural preference, and understanding a framework of personality, has no value. On the contrary, it is valuable for the very reason that human beings are complex and more information on individual differences and frameworks to help us conceptualise behavioural patterns does add value to the people decisions we need to make. Psychometric tools provide a framework for understanding personality and provides a simple, relative measurement model to assist decision-making.
  1. Human beings have free-will: It never ceases to amaze me when I meet people who are sycophantic with respect to their devotion to a particular assessment tool. It is as if they choose to ignore the concept of free-will. Behaviour will inevitably change across situations and with different reinforces, and this is so inherent that it needs no further explanation. What psychometric tools can do however is estimate the likelihood of behavioural change and the preference for behaviour. The assessment does not supersede free-will but rather helps us to understand how free-will be displayed a little bit better.
  1. Lying, or distortion, is a problem for any assessment method: Lying is something humans often do! A common argument against personality tools is that people may present themselves in an overly positive light. It should be noted that the same criticism can reside in any assessment methodology, from interviews to CVs.  It affects many dimensions of life, from employment to those hoping to meet Mr or Ms Right via an online dating site. Quality personality tools attempt to mitigate this issue with response style indicators such as measures of social desirability, central tendency and infrequency.
  1. Behaviour is an indication between the situation and preference: Much like the comment on free-will, the situation should never be ignored when attempting to understand behaviour. Personality tests provide us with part of the puzzle, and in doing so they help us understand how someone is likely to behave. The keyword in that sentence is ‘likely’, and how ‘likely’ depends on the strength of the behavioural preference and the situation.
  1. Personality assessments are a simple, coherent and quick method for shedding light on human complexity: The bulk of personality tools are used for recruitment. When recruiting a person, we need to make an expensive decision on limited information and in a short timeframe. This necessitates the need to look at all the feasible ways of making an informed judgment. At its most basic, the instrument is: a collection of items that have been clustered along psychometric principles, resulting in a degree of reliability over time and internal consistency thus giving meaning to a wider trait. A person’s responses are then compared to others who have taken the tests. Assuming the norm is relevant and up-to-date, and with spread, it gives us an indication of the person’s relative behavioural preference against a comparison group of interest. The information is used to make inferences on likely behaviour together with other information collected. That is the sum total of the process. For argument’s sake, the alternative would be to say that human behaviour is all too complex and we should operate without asking any questions at all. That is equally untenable.

The problem is not that personality tests have no value, but that practitioners overestimate their value and predictive power. Psychometric test providers may also confuse the issue by over promoting their assessment, marketing their uniqueness; and extolling the magical powers of their special item set. When understood in the right context, personality assessment can add value.

When used as part of a complete system, interlinking recruitment to training to performance management, a deeper understanding of how personality impacts company performance can result. I agree that there are some tools that do not meet minimum psychometric standards and as such their usefulness is limited, but for those assessments that attempt to simply ‘do as they say on the tin’ the problem lies not with the assessment but the practice of the users and unrealistic expectations.

I strongly encourage you to read this short piece on the seven common, but irrational, reasons for hating personality tests.