On the Dangers of Psychometric Testing

Rachel wrote compellingly (below) about our three selves, and how the things we believe about ourselves can help us and limit us. I agree, but as an occupational psychologist this presents  me with a dilemma.

Psychologists are very keen to put people into boxes.  We like to label people –  ‘schizophrenic’, ‘depressed’, ‘anxious’.  For occupational psychologists we like labels such as ‘ENFP’, ‘conscientious’, ’emotionally intelligent’ and even ‘resource investigator’.  Of course, most of these labels are useful because they have good reliability and validity.  For example, if you are recruiting, the most powerful predictors of performance in the job are:

  • Cognitive ability
  • Integrity
  • Conscientiousness
Source: Robertson & Smith (2001).

Clearly, objective measurement of knowledge, skills and personality preferences such as these is preferable to the far more subjective unstructured interview of old.  (And certainly preferable to graphology – apparently still used extensively in France!).

However, when we use labels such as these on ourselves we must also be mindful that we are creating a reality as much as describing one.  And, particularly in the field of career decision making, I think there’s a danger when thinking of ourselves as being a certain way that we are reinforcing ideas which reduce psychological flexibility.  By extension, this reduces our capacity to notice and take advantage of opportunities to change.

As Freedman and Combs (1996) write: “Speaking isn’t neutral or passive.  Every time we speak, we bring forth a reality [which] gives legitimacy to the distinctions that those words bring forth.”

Anyone who’s seen the TfL advert will know we tend to see things that confirm what we look for.  In career decision making, we tend to see behaviours or judgments which confirm our existing views of ourselves.  We tend to believe psychometric tests, yet these are only modified versions of what we have told ourselves in the first place.

That’s why even very good psychometric tests (and there are lots of very bad ones) need to be held lightly.  The unquestioned use of labels and categories can consolidate problems that the client is experiencing   and reify something which perhaps did not exist – or half existed in the messy, ambiguous reality of being a human.

2 thoughts on “On the Dangers of Psychometric Testing

  1. Great to see Freedman & Combs mentioned, here. Their book has been inspirational for me. Soo, let me add the title: “Narrative Therapy: The Social Construction of Preferred Realities”

    I think that aspects of their work can be very well used from within an ACT model (eg elaborating a narrative on moments where a person lived according to his values).

    1. Hi Maarten,

      thanks for that, very interesting. I haven’t read the book actually, so with your recommendation I will now add it to my huge, burgeoning wish list!

      all the best, Rob

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