Oversold or fluffy personality tests vs the genuine personality X-ray

Posted on Jul 14, 2013

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For any person trying to find the right career or college choice, using a personality assessment measure is often a critical part of this process.  Finding a good personality test can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack for the layperson who is not a highly trained behavioral scientist. Why? Because most people have no idea how invalid most personality tests are. And they certainly don’t understand the voluminous research and testing undergirding a great or even decent measure.

In other words, the genuinely powerful behavioral science tools the security agencies like the FBI or Fortune 100 companies rely on to accurately assess character traits/preferences/habits are not found in Cosmopolitan, and are not generally sold on the internet to consumers.

The problem is while behavioral scientists coop themselves up in their laboratory caves, conducting rigorous research on promising tools, non-scientific market savvy entrepreneurs can exploit the inherent interest people have wanting to know the secrets of their own self or someone else’s personality. There are over a thousand personality tools on the internet, and a very minute percentage are decent, and a infinitesimal group are what we could call “gold standard” measures. Gold standard measures are those that are part of the best-in-class measures for whatever goal or functional is being served. A consultant worth their salt stays up on what is “best in class”.

Given the complexity of these measurement tools, industry leading testing companies like Pearson Assessments, Psychological Assessment Resources, or CPP ( limit the people who can administer and interpret these complex tools. Why? Because these tools are so easily misinterpreted and are often abused. It takes years of training in research methodology, statistics, research design, and graduate level psychological training to appreciate how hard it is to find a meaningful personality tool.

Let’s take one of the most commonly used and “abused” tools, the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator (MBTI) tool. You know someone does not know what they are talking about when they think the Myers Briggs could be used for anything, such as selecting an employee. The MBTI is designed for solving a variety of business dilemmas such as what kind of interpersonal needs a person has, but choosing an employee based on their typology is naïve and in fact harmful unfair to the applicant (there are actually Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws that apply to personality tests). Bottom line: whether someone has a particular typology is a very poor indicator of whether they will do well in a certain position, but it could be useful if you are assessing their ability to work on a team. And even typology itself must be viewed as something that can vary.  This is where the science and art of personality assessment must be masterfully integrated. 

Part of the value of using a genuine behavioral scientist to guide your selection of the right tool is they have “insider knowledge” of a whole host of tools from which you can choose, and can critically review the tools you are considering.  Naïve people select which tools they will use purely based on financial reasoning: “this one is $30.00 cheaper than the other one”.  Yes, but the cheaper one might just be as good as going to a circus psychic.

Every tool has multiple limitations, and you need a consultant who will use precise tools that could be argued as statistically sound.  The general public is mesmerized by a chance to x-ray themselves and they make a attribution error even psychics know about; if you make enough general statements then some insight will seem to be there and then the source will be validated. But the goal is not to learn something from a tool, the goal is to learn a significant amount more than what could be learned by chance.

The human personality is one of the most complex phenomena on our planet! Behavioral scientists to this day continue to argue vehemently about what are the best tools to use in any given situation. Even seemingly simple personality qualities like “emotional intelligence” are complex that accurate and functionally useful psychological profiling of this concept requites it be broken down into its facets. One good measure that does this is the Emotional Quotient Inventory, or “EQ-I”.

Ask yourself this anytime you are enchanted with a personality test: if the personality test you are considering is so great then wouldn’t researchers have enough interest in it test it out and take it for a test drive? Why is the test so cheap if significant research and design (R&D) went into it. High quality personality tests have years of R&D behind them while their vast majority of internet based tests have been created within a few hours.

In other words, shopping for a personality test is far different than should shopping for a standardized commodity such as a coffee maker. We can all agree that whether you get a coffee maker at Target, Macy’s, or Ace Hardware, that coffee maker is going to meet your goal of making coffee. Unfortunately, the personality testing industry is completely unregulated and all kinds of strange and even dangerous creatures have been produced in this exotic and compelling jungle that draws many visitors wanting insight into themselves. But just like the naïve person who visits the circus fortuneteller for five dollars, not only will you get what you pay for, you are likely to be dangerously misled in the process.

My prediction about the future of personality assessment: Those consumers, professionals and organizations that courageously strike out in a uniquely higher quality direction will define the next stage in personality testing and those making purely economic choices are “here today but will be gone tomorrow”. Why? Because college students and those seeking career guidance are beginning to become more savvy about just how fluffy personality testing can be, and so they will shop till they find something solid. Especially when what they want to know is so vital to their or their organization’s future.

Examples of earmarks of a quality personality assessment tool that you can look for:
-There is a peer-reviewed published research discussing the merits and limitations of the tool.
-The alpha coefficients are reported for each of the scales contained in this measure
-the measure does a reasonably good job distinguishing between temporary emotional states versus more stable personality traits
-the tool has “validity scales” to assess for concerning response style such as “faking good” or “malingering”

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Meet the Behavior Science Expert

Dr. Tom Brunner is a compassionate guidance counselor, behavioral science expert, and published research scientist. His main mission is to utilize the very best tools to give people uniquely hand tailored, impactful, and durable solutions to their pressing educational or career challenges. View the Overview of his college and career matching process. You may view his portfolio here. He has worked in-the-trenches with all walks of life, from mentoring struggling students to helping gifted/talented adolescents and adults professionals accelerate their development. He is an innovator who has received awards from the Early Career Psychologist Award (by the Arizona Psychological Foundation) as well the Society for Personality Assessment. Dr. Brunner is senior author of a behavioral science measurement tool adapted into 11 languages. He is author of numerous presentations and peer reviewed scientific articles, sometimes alongside leading experts. As a PhD Board Licensed Psychologist, he has served as an expert witness in the legal arena, and has been consulted by local (Tucson Electric Power) and nationwide organizations. To read his bio, click here, read his resume here.

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