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May 2, 2012
Scratch an employment consultant or someone in HR and the subject of psychological or aptitude testing often comes up. I spent some years at university studying psychology and the way it can be used so this has been a matter of interest to me for some time, especially as it is applied in the management of businesses. Here is something I wrote as part of an article about recruitment practices for the Sydney Business Review newspaper in October 1995.
Another shortcut in employee selection is psychological testing. This provides a whole new list of boxes to tick. Before I get attacked by psychologists claiming that I am defaming them, I would like to say that, firstly, I actually know something about testing and, secondly, my objection is not to testing per se but to the inappropriate use of testing. If a proper profile can be developed for the job, and an appropriate test can be found, and it is assumed that the person will never move into any other position within the employing organisation, then testing is justified. I have just too often seen testing used as a crutch.
As an example, I have taken one particular set of tests at least three times. In all cases the comments made about me by the testers indicated that they were not even aware of principles and theories taught as part of any first year university psychology course. One supposed psychologist told me that this test could predict exactly how people would behave in any given set of circumstances. He had no answer when I asked him why it was not applied to all 10-year-olds to weed out those who were going to become murderers and rapists. By the way, the validation for this test (the proof that it works, if you like) was that it had, with hindsight, reasonably accurately predicted the promotion prospects of a group of 70 Los Angeles firemen, yet it was being used by high-priced consultancies to select candidates for sales, management and software development positions.
It's probably just a coincidence that I revisited this matter exactly ten years later in this article in the October 2005 edition of Australasian Science magazine.
Every so often the matter of psychological testing comes up in discussion among skeptics, with opinions varying on where such tests fit on the spectrum of scientific activity. Usually the majority think that psychological testing is about as scientific as the study of alien abductions or the memory of water, but there are sometimes a couple of people prepared to defend the tests. I topped my class at university in the course about the design and interpretation of psychological tests, and my take on them is that they may be very useful if used appropriately, but they are also a very good way of illustrating the meaning of the terms "reliability" and "validity". "Validity" is the relationship of the findings to the real world, and "reliability" is the reproducibility of the results. It is possible for something to be reliable but not valid, but it is impossible for the opposite to be true.
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