Mind reader: do personality tests pick out bad apples? by Tim Beardsley For years, employe
Mind reader: do personality tests pick out bad apples?
by Tim Beardsley
For years, employers have given job applicants paper-and-pencil tests
to assess basic skills such as reading and arithmetic. These days,
candidates may be confronted with a different type of exam as well: a
personality test that asks about their attitudes toward a variety of
stituations. Answers are often run through a computer to produce a
profile that rates the applicant on scales, or "personality
constructs," as they are called in the jargon of the trade, with names
like "gregarious" and "tough-minded."
But widespread screening worries some psychologists and personality
researchers. The tests, marketed in the U.S. by such companies as the
Institute for Personality and Ability Testing in Champaign, Ill.,
Consulting Psychologists Press in Palo Alto, calif., and the
Psychological Corporation in San Antonio, Tex., are being used by
employers to exclude those not suited for sensitive jobs, in police
departments and nuclear power plants, for example. They are also a
means of selecting candidates with desirable traits, such as
extroversion, for marketing positions.
Rodney L. Lowman, a psychologist at Duke University Medical center and
author of a book about testing, offers some words of caution: "There
is far more practice than there is research literature to support the
proactive use of these tests." Lowman believes that "mistakes are
being made by screening services that may be overly aggressive at
weeding people out." And the desirable characteristics used for
screening applicants "often read like a Boy Scout list of virtues, and
the specific job relevancy has yet to be demonstrated." Lowman points
out that one commonly used test--the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality
Inventory, published by the University of Minnesota Press-was designed
for clinical patients rather than job applicants.
In addition, few commercial personality tests have been validated in
published studies. The confirming studies that have appeared, charge
Steve Blinkhorn and Charles Johnson, industrial psychologists at
Psychometric Research and Development Ltd. in England, are so full of
statistical errors that it is doubtful whether most of the constructs
predict anything. The two fired a broadside at preemployment
personality testing in the December 20-27, 1990, issue of Nature,
where they accused psychologists of adopting "an approach to
correlation that would have left its inventor Karl Pearson gasping."
Usually, the British critics suggests, developers of tests have
identified apparently significant associations by sifting through
thousands of combinations of response patterns and job performance
measures. But such trawls throw up spurious correlatios by blind
chance, a complication that test marketers tend to overlook. Nor have
the test services often checked their claimed correlations against new
data. Blinkhorn and Johnson found that for three well-known
commercial tests, most of the supposed correlations between] scoores
and job performance were likely to be the result of pure chance.
Other critics are concerned about tests that purport to measure
honesty or integrity, which have become increasingly popular since
polygraph testing by businesses was banned in 1988. More than five
million people in the U.S. take honesty tests each year, accordnig to
one estimate. These tests attempt to flag job candidates who are
likely to steal property or company time by asking about their past
behavior and their attitudes to variouis types of theft.
Despite the obvious possibilities for cheating, some sellers claim the
tests can predict subsequent inventory disappearances or detect
previous criminal behavior. But validating such tests is difficult
because employee-thieves are seldom caught. In addition, publishers
of honesty tests "intentionally err on the side of lenience" to avoid
making false accusations, contends Richard E. Clingenpeel, who runs
Personnel Selection International, a job agency in Milford, Mich.
According to a draft report on honesty tests by the American
Psychological Acsociation, "a few firms have made public a number of
reports of studies having to do with the reliability and validity of
their instruments, but most firms have produced nothing of this sort."
The congressional Office of Technology Assessment concluded recently
that published validations of integrity tests are flawed and
Still, basic personality tests have their proponents, who argue that
they can be a useful screening tool. "I agree there's plenty of very
bad research using personality tests, but I wouldn't characterize the
whole field that way," says Paul R. Sackett, a psychologist at the
University of Minnesota.
Since the mid-1980s a consensus has emerged that there are five or six
robust personality dimensions out of the many more that have been
proposed. Michael K. Mount, an organizational psychologist at the
University of Iowa, groups personality constructs into one or other of
what he calls the Big Five categories (extroversion, emotional
stability, agreeableness, conscientousness and openness to
Mount and some other psychologists say they are finding modest
correlations between such personality traits and job performance.
Using the emerging technique of meta-analysis, which rigorously
compares data collected in different studies, Mount and his colleague
Murray R. Barrick surveyed 117 studies of personality traits and job
performance for a paper that will be published shortly in Personnel
Psychology. "In a nutshell, personality indicators were not good
predictors," Mount says. One measure, conscientiousness, did show a
persistent correlation with job performance. But the correlation is
about half as strong as that achieved by mental ability tests.
The U.S. Army has for some years been conducting an exercise, known
cryptically as Project A, to develop personality tests. Long-term
validation studies with large numbers of subjects are under way.
Leaetta M. Hought of the Personnel Decisions Research Institute in
Minneapolis, the principal contractor for Project A, has also used
meta-analysis to show that some aggregated personality constructs may
predict something about job performance. One of these, called
dependability, is similar to Mount's conscientiousness construct.
Ivan Robertson, a psychologist at the University of Manchester in
England, agrees that meta-analysis shows that "there's a definite
effect of personality--but it's small." Properly constructed
personality tests seem to give unique information that could be useful
to employers if used with other forms of screening, Robertson says.
So will meta-analysis bring validated personality tests that are the
answer to a corporate recruiter's prayer? Blinkhorn doubts it because
of the difficulty in training testers. Moreover, he points out that
if Hough's results are typical, a test would have to be used very
stringently to hire noticeably better workers. If only the
best-scoring 10 percent of candidates were hired, the proportion of
above-average workers in a group would rise from 50 percent to only 59
percent, and many good workers would be wrongly rejected.
The suspicion that personality tests unjustly reject some applicants
is probably why they are unpopular, admits Scott Martin, a
psychologist at London House, a test publisher in Park Ridge, Ill.
"Once you make it objective, it gives people something to criticize."
But Martin argues that even a poor test will erroneously turn away
fewer good candidates than selecting at random.
Martin's argument may be irrelevant in the real world. Although some
pre-employment test publishers say their tests should accompany other
forms of assessment, such as an interview, in practice personality and
honesty tests are often used instead of other forms of assessment. So
they could be a step backward. Lou Maltby of the American Civil
Liberties Union fears that tests may create an unemployable group who
"test dishonest" or otherwise prove unsuitable. If Maltby is right,
pseudopsychology will hurt employers as well as employees.
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