May | 2013
Oversold and fluffy personality tests vs the genuine personality x-ray (Part One of a Three Part series on Personality Science)
Finding a good personality test can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack for the layperson who is not a highly trained behavioral scientist. Why? Because most people have no idea how trashy most personality tests are. And they certainly don’t understand the voluminous research and testing undergirding a great or even decent measure.
In other words, the genuinely powerful behavioral science tools the FBI or Fortune 500 companies rely on to accurately assess character traits/preferences/habits are not found in Cosmopolitan, and are not generally sold on the internet to the general consumer.
Rather, industry leading companies that sell quality tests like Pearson Assessments or CPP (www.cpp.com) limit the people who can administer and interpret these complex tools. Why? Because these tools are so easily misinterpreted and are often abused. It takes years of training in research methodology, statistics, research design, and graduate level psychological training to appreciate how hard it is to find a meaningful personality tool.
Let’s take one of the most commonly used and “abused” tools, the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI) tool. You know someone does not know what they are talking about when they think the Myers Briggs could be used for anything, such as selecting an employee. The MBTI is designed for solving a variety of business dilemmas but, but choosing an employee based on their typology is naïve and in fact harmful unfair to the applicant (there are actually Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws that apply to personality tests). Whether someone has a particular typology is a very poor indicator of whether they will do well in a certain position, but it could be useful if you are assessing their ability to work on a team.
Part of the value of using a genuine behavioral scientist to guide your selection of the right tool is they have “insider knowledge” of a whole host of tools from which you can choose, and can critically review the tools you are considering. Naïve companies select which tools they will use purely based on financial reasoning: “this one is $30.00 cheaper than the other one”. Yes, but the cheaper one might just be as good as going to a circus psychic.
You are legally liable in a court of law for the tools you professionally use, and lawsuits have been lodged against companies by savvy applicants who research the limitations of tools. Each tool has multiple limitations, and you need a consultant who will use precise tools that could be argued as statistically sound in a court of law. Case law has begun to be developed around what it means to have a statistically sound tool, i.e., a tool that is not prone to the numerous errors or weaknesses that 98% of tools are prone to have.
Meanwhile, this has not stopped hundreds of companies from offering cheap or free tools, because having the chance to learn more about yourself or someone else is compelling and even enchanting. Isn’t this why so many people go to the circus psychic? The general public is mesmerized by a chance to x-ray themselves and they make a attribution error even psychics know about; if you make enough general statements then some insight will seem to be there and then the source will be validated. But the goal is not to learn something from a tool, the goal is to learn a significant amount more than what could be learned by chance.
The problem is while behavioral scientists coop themselves up conducting rigorous research on promising tools, non-scientific market savvy entrepreneurs exploit the inherent interest people have wanting to know the secrets of their own self or someone else’s personality. There are over a thousand personality tools on the internet, and a very minute percentage are decent, and a infinitesimal group are what we could call “gold standard” measures. Gold standard measures are those that are part of the best-in-class measures for whatever goal or functional is being served. A consultant worth your-pharmacies.com their salt stays up on what is best in class.
The human personality is one of the most complex phenomena on our planet! Behavioral scientists to this day continue to argue vehemently about what are the best tools to use in any given situation. Even seemingly simple personality qualities like “emotional intelligence” (whose importance I wrote about here:) are complex that accurate and functionally useful psychological profiling of this concept requites it be broken down into its facets. One great measure that does this is the Emotional Quotient Inventory, or “EQ-I”.
Of course, anyone can create a so-called “personality test”. You do not need a degree, you could even be an astrologer and many personality test makers are. So how can you as a layperson prudently use a scientific machete to cut through the overgrown jungle of personality tests?
Let’s use a practical example to address this $64,000 question by talking about the personality testing of au pairs and nannies. As a behavioral scientist, I have done a Google search to determine what the level of quality is among these caregiver firms. I have even had professionals in this field refer me to personality testing that is being trusted by many firms and apparently, the parents hiring these nannies. A very troubling reality starkly hits me between the eyes! Almost all of these tests used by supposedly credible nanny firms have not been rigorously tested. You know a test is trashy when it does not even report any statistical qualities, because every quality tool takes pride in its scientific prowess which is proven through these qualities, such as reliability, validity, construct validity, and alpha scores.
Ask yourself this anytime you are enchanted with a personality test: if the personality test you are considering is so great then wouldn’t researchers have enough interest in it test it out and take it for a test drive? Why is the test so cheap if significant research and design (R&D) went into it. High quality personality tests have years of R&D behind them while their vast majority of internet based tests have been created within a few hours.
In other words, shopping for a personality test is far different than should shopping for a standardized commodity such as a coffee maker. We can all agree that whether you get a coffee maker at Target, Macy’s, or Ace Hardware, that coffee maker is going to meet your goal of making coffee. Unfortunately, the personality testing industry is completely unregulated and all kinds of strange and even dangerous creatures have been produced in this exotic and compelling jungle that draws many visitors wanting insight into themselves. But just like the naïve person who visits the circus fortuneteller for five dollars, not only will you get what you pay for, you are likely to be dangerously misled in the process.
My prediction about the future of personality assessment: Those consumers, professionals and organizations that courageously strike out in a uniquely higher quality direction will define the next stage in personality testing and those making purely economic choices are “here today but will be gone tomorrow”. Why? Because consumers and business influencers are beginning to become more savvy about just how fluffy personality testing can be, and so they will shop till they find something solid. Especially when what they want to know is so vital to their or their organization’s future.
My next article in this three part series will discuss one example of a very good personality science tool.
Examples of earmarks of a quality personality assessment tool
-There is a peer-reviewed published research discussing the merits and limitations of the tool.
-The alpha coefficients are reported for each of the scales contained in this measure
-the measure does a reasonably good job distinguishing between temporary emotional states versus more stable personality traits
-the tool has “validity scales” to assess for concerning response style such as “faking good” or “malingering”
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