Psychometric Testing - demystified


Dr. S. Sabesan
SCMS, Cochin

Psychometric tests are tools for measuring the mind ('metric' = measure; 'psycho' = mind). They are basically tools-that may be good or bad depending upon whether they are being used or abused. The use is related to the particular purpose on which they are being employed, what kind of information can it provide to the person or about the person , how results are skillfully interpreted and how they are meaningfully integrated into the data , leading to worthy action decisions. This article will through more light about psychometric testing.

Psychometric tests are designed to provide a consistent and effective measure of people's traits, abilities, skills, and interests. The ability to measure these characteristics enhances decision making during recruitment and selection, individual and team development, organizational change and career directions. Psychometric tests can be used to predict job performance, resolve conflict, improve communication, make career decisions and to identify training needs, so on and so forth.

Psychometrics, being concerned with the design and the measurement  of human characteristics, has enjoyed a history of significant growth and development since its origins with the work of Binet in France and Spearman in England, and the earlier efforts of Galton and his anthropometric laboratory. The field of psychometrics has been the genesis of intelligence testing, personality testing, and vocational testing, and has contributed to the emergence of new methods to psychological measurement based on the demands of society and the emergence of new technology.

Psychometrics dates back to the eminent Sir Francis Galton of England who in 1884 used a dictionary to demonstrate that the human personality comprises a specific number of groupable traits making happy and melancholy as different group clusters. Carnegie Institute of Technology developed a Bureau of Salesmanship Research during 1915 that selected salespeople through personality testing. In 1916, American Police department employed psychological tests in the hiring process.

The involvement of United States in World war I hastened the growth of psychological testing. John Otis and Robert Yerkes deserve special mention here. Army Alpha and Army Beta were the cognitive tests that were employed to recruit the army personnel during those times. Woodworth Test of emotional stability was also widely used as screening device for additional psychiatric evaluation to find out the tolerance level to stay with the army after the combat. The 1930's saw the use of Allport G.W 's Ascendance and Submission Test and the Bernreuter Personality inventory. The 1940's witnessed the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) that has emerged as a comprehensive test to diagnose the psycho pathological disorders found in the personality which runs to more than 500 statements. Guilford –Zimmerman Temparament Surveys, Abraham Maslow's Security –insecurity inventory Thematic Apperception Test, Rorschach inkblot test , Cattell's 16 PF questionnaire, MBTI are some of the tests that stand the test of time and popular even in this present millennium.

Tests would assess the differences between individuals or between the reactions of the same individuals under the different circumstances. In the beginning, the psychological tests were employed to identify and detect the intellectual deficiencies thereby children were classified on the basis slow learners or fast learners or average learners. Famous Binet tests on intelligent testing is a good example in this regard. Further, Tests have also been used in individual counseling related to all aspects of person's life inclusive of emotional well-being and effective interpersonal relations.

The selection of industrial personnel is another major application of psychometric testing. It is being increasing used right from assembly line operator or filing clerk up to top management in matters of hiring job assignment , transfer, promotion, or termination. A word of caution here. But these tests should be used as an adjunct to skillful interviewing.

Psychological tests vary in the way they are constructed in terms of constructs, in the way they are administered as it could be a individual testing by trained experimenter or group testing or the administration of tests by the computers. They also differ in the aspects of behavior they cover, some on cognitive traits or abilities or range of broad aptitudes or attitudes or interests, values or interpersonal behavior or personality variables.

A psychological test is essentially an objective and standardized measure of a sample of behavior. They are made on a small but carefully chosen sample of behaviour just like the biochemists test a patients blood. Here standardization implies uniformity of procedure in administering and scoring the test. If the scores obtained by different persons are to be comparable, testing conditions must obviously be the same for all. This is relevant when the tests are administered on all controlled conditions with the experimental group. The time limit, instructions by the experimenter, right materials to be given are all reckoned here.

The administration, scoring and interpretations of scores are to be objective which should be independent of the subjective judgment of the particular examiner. Any one test taker should theoretically obtain the identical score on a test regardless of who happens to be the examiner. Therefore, objectivity is the be all and end all of all test construction.

Reliability is the internal consistency of a test. The consistency of scores obtained by the same person when retested with the identical test or with an equivalent form of the test. It means accuracy. It shows "How good is this test?. Test-reliability is the consistency of scores obtained by the same person when retested with the identical test or an equivalent form of the test. Relatively high degree of reliability is required to make accurate predictions from the test about the individuals.

Validity refers to the degree to which the test actually measures what it purports to measure. It means purpose or truthfulness of the test. It provides a direct check on how well the test fulfills its function. The construction and use of test imply that the instrument has been evaluated against criteria regarded by experts as the best evidence of the traits to be measured by the test.

Many of the psychological tests usually tend to have norms. A norm is an average, common, standard performance under experimental conditions. They have to be accurate. Norms are in the form of age, grade, percentile rank, sten scores, stanine scores. The norms should be meaningful with regard to purposes for which the test is intended and to the group of persons with whom it is to be used. Manual contains all these details

Typology of tests can be in the form of

1. Individual Vs Group tests
2. Paper-pencil Vs Performance tests
3. Language Vs Non language tests
4. Speed Vs Power Tests
5. Tests measuring different traits

In the hands of unscrupulous test administrators, test can cause severe damage. It is always important to ensure that the test is given by a qualified and competent test administrator and the scores are to be properly used. He should choose the right test judiciously, administer it professionally, score it procedurally, and interpret it skillfully. The thorough understanding of the test, the test taker and the testing conditions, test takers personal, emotional or physical state, the extent of test takers previous experience are also considered important too.

Advance preparation by way of familiarizing with items, keeping answer sheets ready, seating arrangements, stop clock if it is a timed test, rapport with the test user by arousing his interest, eliciting his cooperation are also to be kept in mind by the test administrator. One must maintain confidentiality with reference to the interpretation of results. Further requesting him to be frank and honest in giving his responses is also another imperative. One must convince that unless they are honest with their responses, the test cannot give valid results.

Faking has to be avoided by test users by all means. Social desirability may bias the responses of the respondent. They have to be reminded time and again that they should give their responses on what is applicable to them and what they feel at that that moment without prolonged thinking on those items in terms of socially desirable and accordingly give their candid responses alone will fetch reliable and valid results.

Test anxiety experienced by the test taker is another block wherein administrator has to take efforts to help the user to help himself in overcoming the same. The efforts of the examiner is to make the test user at ease and ensure the psychological comfort at all means through out the session. Doubts if any by the respondent, before the commencement of the test, are to be clarified by the test administrator.

Statistical knowledge is very much essential by the test administrator. He has to know the measures of central tendencies, measures of dispersion, correlation, Tests of significance and regressions. At any time, the administrator should never show off his expertise in statistics to the test taker when he is interpreting the test results as the test user need not have to know the statistical knowledge.

Labeling the respondent for instance as hypo maniac or neurotic based on the test results would be detrimental to the well being of the test taker. It is highly unethical and is against the canons of psychological testing. Therefore skillful interpretation by the administrator will enable the test taker to have more insights about his behavior. It is more a practice than the rules of thumb. Undergoing special apprenticeship with the trained and professional test administrator will enable one to know the nut and bolts of skillful interpretation and the subtleties of human behavior.

Psychological assessment in today's workplace is booming. The executives have found that testing is extremely important in knowing their personality in terms of their conscientiousness, anger proneness, stress coping abilities , aggressiveness, competitiveness, willingness to obey directives, interests, values and attitudes related to coworkers, customers and the general public. Major companies rely on testing for pre employment screening, staff development, teambuilding , management training and leadership training.

The emergence of computers has also made the assessment process user friendly and with hookup to the internet the profile of the candidate involving his proficiency in mathematical problems, comprehension or attitudes will be displayed instantly with specific recommendations: hire or do not hire or may be hire.

Electronic psychological screenings are often conducted in the applicant's own home –via push button phone or fax. Recently, Wall street Journal highlighted a Florida psychology company conducted honesty testing over phone. This phenomenon would be the wave of the future. The job applicants must call a toll-free number from home at a prearranged time and respond instantaneously in yes or no format to pre recorded questions that assess their integrity. The candidate has only 5 seconds to press either 1 for yes or 2 for no on items such as "should an employee be fired for taking home a small item like stapler?" or if you found a bag of money on the street, would you try to find the owner?" or. The Psychologist commented like this : "we won't take candidates who think long for each question and we are not looking for such persons at all. Here the longer reaction time is not encouraged by the administrator.

Managers are aware of the fact that there are indirect benefits to reap such as reducing the likelihood of litigation which may arise from recruiting the incompetent, dishonest or potentially violent workers. Plethora of cognitive and personality tests are being increasingly used for all job positions. MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ) has proven to be very popular in recent years in management training and team building. Like wise FIRO B and FIRO F are famous tools in the realm of interpersonal relationship.

Psychometricians have also worked collaboratively with those in the field of statistics and quantitative methods to develop improved ways to organize and analyze data. Of course the most obvious area in which psychometricians are employed is in psychological testing. Testing, whether it be of intelligence, personality, achievement, aptitudes, interests, or proficiency, is prevalent in our society. Testing is employed in schools, organizations, business, government, clinical settings and hospitals, as well as in the military. The impact of testing on individuals, organizations, and culture is significant and this reinforces the importance of high professional standards for the development.

Psychometricians are not limited to working within the testing industry alone. Many psychometricians are employed in industrial and organizational settings performing job analyses, consumer surveys, developing and validating personnel selection procedures, and performing market research. Positions in private and public consulting agencies, clinical research positions, and positions in managerial and administrative roles are also open to graduates of psychometric programs. The field of psychometrics has made and continues to make important contributions to psychology which in turn provide lot of insights to the field of HR in the are of selection, promotion, transfer, training, performance management, career planning etc. With the help of results of psychometric test, we can get an in-depth psychological profiles of individuals covering both personality and intellectual ability from the most senior managerial and executive level positions to graduate and more junior roles.

Psychometric testing generally falls into three main types: 1. Ability testing 2. Aptitude testing and
3 Personality assessment.

Ability testing

Ability tests measure a persons skills needed for a new job or to cope with the demands of a training course. Ability tests are not the same thing as tests of achievement or tests of attainment. Tests of attainment assess specifically what people have learnt e.g. mathematical ability or typing skills. The major difference between tests of ability and tests of attainment is in the way the scores from both types of test are used. Many ability test items look identical to those on attainment tests but attainment tests are different in one crucial respect - they are retrospective: they focus on what has been learnt and on what a person knows and can do now. Ability tests are prospective: they focus on what the person is capable of achieving in the future or their potential to learn. It has be borne in mind, that some attainment is required before certain abilities are measured, for instance, we need a certain knowledge of mathematics before our numerical ability can be measured. In addition a test of attainment cannot be used to directly infer ability. School examinations are one example of measures of achievement or attainment. 

General ability is usually divided up into specific abilities. So a general ability test might be composed of specific numerical, verbal and spatial ability scales brought together as a test battery. They can then be scored and interpreted individually as a specific ability, or together as part of a general ability measure. 

Aptitude testing

There is no widely accepted definition of the difference between ability and aptitude. Most people would agree that to some extent the two terms refer to the same thing: aptitude referring to specific ability or an inborn potential or a capacity to learn. We could probably view ability as underlying aptitude, and aptitude as being more job related than ability.

Aptitude tests tend to be job related and have names that include job titles such as the Programmers Aptitude Series (SHL). Ability tests on the other hand are designed to measure the abilities or mental processes that underlie aptitude and are named after them e.g. Spatial Ability - GAT (ASE). We have famous DAT (Differential Aptitude Test) standardized by George Bennet, Harold Seashore, and Alexander Wesman that contains a battery of tests which include 1. Verbal reasoning 2. Numerical Ability 3. Mechanical Reasoning 4. Abstract reasoning 5. Space Relations 6. Language Usage and 7. Clerical speed and accuracy. These tests are widely employed and stood the test of time.

Personality Assessment

Personality is a term which is commonly used in everyday language but which has been given a particular technical meaning by psychologists. When we discuss personality we must remember that it is not a single independent mechanism but closely related to other human cognitive and emotional systems. 

Even if one scores well in aptitude tests it doest not mean that one will be suited to a job. One can be good at doing something but may hate to do a job which depends on one's personal characteristics and qualities. Personality Inventories can assess items on a variety of personality aspects such as:

--How you relate to other people 
--Your work style 
--Your ability to deal with emotions (your own and other people's) 
--Your motivation, determination and general outlook 
--Your ability to handle stressful situations 

Unlike aptitude tests, there are no right and wrong answers, in personality inventories and occasionally there is a time limit. Selectors will be looking for a particular type of profile but certain special characteristics which are suited to a job.

To sum up and conclude, many employers want candidates with a balance of personal qualities, for instance, being able to work independently and interdependently, get along with peers, take charge of situations , proactive, organise, and being focused on achievement etc. There are always checks within inventories to detect whether the respondent is giving a false picture by way of inflating one's self. Once this is detected employers wont be happy in hiring that candidate.

Employers can use psychometric tests at any point during the selection process. Sometimes they are used  at the beginning, as a way of screening out unsuitable candidates. Other employers prefer to use  them towards the end of a selection process. Psychometric tests are almost always used in conjunction with more traditional  selection methods, such as a one-to-one interview. This means that even one does not do brilliantly  with psychometric tests, one can still impress the selectors in other ways. Many employers believe that psychometric tests give an accurate prediction of whether you are able to do the job and whether your character is suited to the work. Research consistently shows that psychometric tests are one of the most reliable forms whether or not a candidate is suitable for a job. All HR managers now, tend to have faith in the utility of psychometric tests and they employ them scrupulously for various purposes


1. Anne Anastasi & Susana Urbina , Psychological Testing, Prentice-Hall of India, 7th edn, 2003.
2. Edward Hoffman, Psychological Testing at Work, Tata McGraw – Hill, 2004.
3. Dalip Singh, Emotional Intelligence at work-A professional Guide, Response Books-a division of Sage publications, 2nd edition, 2004.
4. Stephanie Jones, Psychological Testing for Managers, Piatkus, 1st edition, 1993.

Dr. S. Sabesan
SCMS, Cochin

Source: E-mail March 21, 2006


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