Anyone for a PINT? What I dislike about psychometrics

There is a scream here in New Zealand at the moment about the way psychometric testing is being used to select public servants and others for redundancy. And quite rightly, too. One aggrieved victim has already obtained a $15,000 settlement in the employment court over it.

As far as I am concerned psychometrics are pseudoscience. Some stranger gives you questions based on a pop-theory about human behaviours and characteristics. None of them fit how you think, but you fumble through anyhow.

Then this stranger, who has never met you before and is ignorant of you as a rounded person, informs you what sort of person you Really Are. You’re classified, pigeon-holed and put into your box. Or is that ‘place’?

1206563615670858090johnny_automatic_soldiers_heads_svg_medI recall, years ago, being told what sort of person I was after such a test. When I objected, I was told this was because I was the sort of person who would object. Quite. There are words to describe people who follow this particular tautology.

What I object to is the arbitrariness. Most of these systems are based on how some psychologists imagine people should be. Yes, it  fits some broad character archetypes. And people can usually see aspects of themselves in the results, once they’ve heard them (think about what that actually means).

But these tests are  framed by the mind-set of those who create them – something defined by time and culture. A lot of psychometrics harks back to thinking of the early-mid twentieth century, with its mechanistic ways of deconstructing and classifying complex systems, notions of uniformity, and its arbitrary way of handling shades of grey.

Early twentieth century psychology was relentlessly guided by the period need to reduce and systematise humanity, just as the wider world was being systematised. Hence Jung’s work on psychological types and classifications which eventually fed into the Myers-Briggs reduction of complex human reality to just sixteen slots.

Psychometric testing is also culture-centric. The classic example is the IQ test posed in the 1920s to European migrants hoping to enter the US. They were stopped at Ellis Island and tested. One of the questions was a drawing of a house without a chimney; add the missing item. To those brought up in Eastern Europe the missing item was a cross over the door. But that wasn’t the right answer, and they missed other culturally-framed questions the same way – ergo, they were morons, and sent away again. Some were killed by the Nazis, a few years later.

But the limits of psychometric testing hasn’t stopped adoption by corporates. Why? Because these tests classify people in ways that can be enumerated, like accounts. And it’s attracted a lot of pseudo-science – even from people with qualifications in psychology – who have filled the market with ingenious, glib and corporate-friendly systems for fitting people into trendy theory. ‘Hey, here’s a test for reducing the human condition to twenty questions and four character types arrayed in a polyhedron.’

I have put much of my adult life into trying to understand the human condition – how it has framed history, how it frames us now; and I think one of our faults is our ability to over-rationalise and lead ourselves down fantasy paths.

Psychometrics. Useful tool – or arbitrary systems for pigeon-holing people that we’ve inherited from an early-mid twentieth century that also brought us eugenics? Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013


14 thoughts on “Anyone for a PINT? What I dislike about psychometrics

  1. We now have compulsory psychometric and psychological testing annually due to the nature of my specialty in forensics. (A knee jerk reaction to a colleague sadly taking their own life). What was funny was I asked, after objecting to several of the questions, why we were using a 1972 canadian test paper (I recognised the coding at the bottom of the page having done a few of these tests over the years) and the answer was…… “Well, we interpret the answers differently to how we did then”. Funnily enough, most of my scores were out of the standard (no surprises) but the one on one interview that followed a few weeks later to ‘discuss the results’ did not pick up that I have been diagnosed as a high functioning autistic. Yet once I explained the real situation, the interviewing psychiatrist/psychologist reacted with “Oh….. that’s all right then”. Again. What is the point of the test?

    1. These tests are not designed to help or even validly analyse people, but to categorise them against arbitrary criteria that, to me, are a parody of the human reality. They fail to take into account people who – according to the test-setters – are not ‘normal’. That in turn is predicated on the supposition that there is a ‘normal’ to define in the first place. Yes, it’s possible to plot population distributions on a bell curve – be it ‘IQ’ (whatever that is) and so forth. But does that actually mean anything? All you have to do to alter the curve is to change the parameters by which you measure it, even when the input data remains the same – which makes a nonsense of the whole approach, philosophically. As they discovered, rather too late, about the migrants at Ellis Island.

      Part of what drives it, I think, is the supposition that there are absolute answers in this area – that we can in some way create an ‘absolute’ model of humanity that in some manner is divorced from culture and time prejudice. In reality, of course, we can’t – the situation is entirely relative. The obsession of early twentieth century psychiatry with repressed sexuality, for example, was wholly framed as a reaction to the context of the period with its tightening morality, a development further driven by the social effects of the First World War .

      That created serious distortions in the way psychologists of the day portrayed the nature of humanity. Freud was archetypal. Jung systematised it. And Freud’s other disciple, Wilhelm Reich, turned it into a complete and very dangerous pseudo-science – a set of asserted ideas so crazy that even the Nazis didn’t want him.

  2. I couldn’t agree more. Psychometric tests are dangerous and often highly inaccurate. I can give you a good example. Many years ago, my Dad was asked to drive down to London (about a 5 hour drive at the time), which was very stressful and he was very tired. He expected to be allowed to rest and get a cup of tea but instead, was taken into a room by a company nerd to do a psychometric test. Needless to say, the results were not flattering. Years later, my Dad bumped into the man who had ‘tested him’ and the guy was amazed at how different his personality was (friendly and chatty). He couldn’t understand how he was so different.

    People also are not stupid, they can ‘manipulate’ tests (if they can be bothered to), by answering questions by second guessing what the answer that they think that testers want to receive). My Dad was ‘tested’ in a bad and stressful context too. My conclusion therefore, is that means that all tests (all contexts) are variable and can also be ‘altered’ if the subject can be bothered to do that, so these types of tests are useless and their results are both unreliable and invalid.

    1. I once did this with a ‘twenty questions’ type psychometric test that reduced character to just four archetypes, as part of a ‘teambuilding’ exercise. First time I did it, I came out as a mix of two of them – let’s call them ‘Blue’ and ‘Red’. But mostly Red. For the whole of the rest of the exercise, the moderator kept saying to me ‘That’s just so Red!’ whenever I did or said anything.

      By curious coincidence I ended up repeating the test, a little later. It hadn’t been hard to analyse what the questions were pointing at, so I deliberately answered them in a manner designed to give a totally different answer – let’s say the ‘Green’ character type. For the whole of the rest of THAT session, the moderator kept saying ‘Oh, that’s just SO green of you!’.

      Total nonsense, of course. But the moderator got paid and I keep wondering whether instead of complaining I shouldn’t jump on the bandwagon and make up some plausible-sounding psychometric system of my own. 🙂

  3. Psychology graduate myself, but not a fan of these tests. One problem is that individuals behave differently in different contexts and situations. For example, an Australian or Kiwi travelling abroad might adopt stereotypes of Australians and Kiwis travelling abroad and become different.

    Another problem, as you pointed out, is that it assumes psychologists know why people behave why they do. They don’t. Not only is there very little agreement about anything in psychology, but some of the mixed up, confused people you will ever encounter are psychologists.

    1. I agree. We don’t learn a lot about human repression as a general phenomenon from studying Freud, but we learn a lot about Freud’s own repression. Archetypal but perhaps par for the course with the field.

  4. I think it is useful for the initial creation of fictional characters and that’s about it. I recently took one such test and scored exactly in the middle on two of the four categories. Does that mean I’m well-rounded or that I can’t make up my mind who I am?

    1. The testers can’t make up their minds who you are 🙂

      I agree – these systems can make a pretty good character base – something to inspire and springboard from. I suspect the AD&D die-roll system would work pretty well too, to the same end, though I’ve never actually done that myself.

      1. I have a software character generator designed for RPG’s that is great for cranking out secondary characters quickly. It works well and I can generate a detail sheet for each one to go back and reference is necessary.

  5. Psychometrics, et al, is the kind of babble that promotes martini drinking in me for then, and only then, can I enjoy such nonsense. As usual, your post is spot-on and thoughtful. I do understand what these attempts at “pigeonholing” human nature are trying to achieve, even as they turn themselves inside out in a futile attempt at logic, but I am always at a loss as to why anyone could take these kinds of “tests” seriously. Yet, I am well aware that many do, and many suffer serious consequences as a result. As you so aptly note, this is not the better side of human nature.

    Great post, Matthew; I toast you, martini to pint.


    1. Thank you! Yes, to me these systems are very much symptomatic of the western mania for pigeonholing – which has a purpose; but I think it also has an ability to create and perpetuate misconceptions and, eventually, injustices. I suspect much of the power attributes to these tests derives from the uses to which they are put as tools for cheaply achieving corporate ends, suitably shrouded in a veneer of intellectualism. I may sound a bit cynical, but I guess there’s a psychometric test out there that says I WOULD think that way. 🙂


  6. I do a simplified psychometric test with high school kids when I do leadership camps with them. It’s a useful tool to get them talking about their strengths and weaknesses, but I always take pains to point out that each one is unique, that no person fits completely into a specific category, and that the weaknesses pointed out in yours are really areas you should focus on improving so that those weaknesses can be turned into strengths. It always leads to great discussions and we have a lot of fun teasing each other with our stereotypes. There it has value.

    But I do not agree basing an appointment or promotion on someone’s test scores. Those scores are no guarantee that someone is able to do the job or not, or even that someone will fit in with his co-workers or not. I think many companies (and non-profits are also crazy about them) that use these tests simply don’t want to take the time to actually get to know the person. If you can keep him a number and a category, there’s no personal investment and you don’t have to treat him like a human being, e.g. caring for and listening to him.

    1. Absolutely. To me it’s all to do with the way psychologists frame their views of humanity – something that is going to be a product of their own persona, their own culture, and their own time. Mixed, in the case of most psychometric testing today, with corporate needs.

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