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What Do Psychological Tests Measure?

September 7, 2022

As business psychologists, it’s no secret that we use psychological tests all the time.

Whether we’re training new users of our favourite tests, conducting team workshops based on our favourite tests, or preparing for one-to-one coaching with our favourite tests, we use them a lot.

But for those of you who don’t spend all day, every day thinking about, dreaming about or talking about psychological tests, they might feel like a bit of a mystery.

So, while we’ve spoken before about how to use psychological tests in HR, we thought it was about time we took a deeper look into the nuts-and-bolts of psychological tests: what they are, what they measure, and how they actually work.

What is a psychological test?

‘Psychological test’ is a broad term, covering an awful lot of stuff.

For us, as business psychologists, we’re largely talking about norm-referenced personality tests (more about that complicated-sounding term later) and aptitude tests - measuring someone’s personality traits or their contextual psychological abilities. But ‘psychological tests’ can be applied to a whole range of testing, including:

Neuropsychology tests, projective tests and intelligence tests don’t generally play a role in a business psychology context, but they’re widely used by clinical and educational psychologists working with both adults and children.

Some psychological tests are conducted in the way that we generally assume ‘tests’ are conducted in, i.e. question and answer format (either pen-and-pencil or digitally). But some, particularly projective tests, are conducted in an interview-style context and rely heavily on observational assessment of behaviour.

The common factor between all types of psychological tests, regardless of how they’re conducted, is that they’re designed to measure something happening in the brain - something that we can’t see in brain scans or other physical assessments, but something that is directly related to an individual’s behaviour in particular contexts.

What is the purpose of psychological testing?

The purpose of any psychological test is to improve our understanding of an individual’s behaviour and how their brain functions.

For clinical psychologists, the end goal is creating a treatment plan that helps resolve or manage a patient’s psychological symptoms.

For educational psychologists, the end goal is to create pathways for individuals (usually children) to succeed in their educational journeys.

For business psychologists (us!), the end goal is to understand an individual’s behaviour in the workplace, usually for hiring or development purposes.

For positive business psychologists (us again!), the end goal is to identify a person’s strengths and support them in better harnessing those strengths to achieve their work-based goals.

How do personality tests work?

As we mentioned before, one of the key tools in a business psychologist’s arsenal is psychometric personality testing. We use psychological tests that measure personality traits to give us insight into the strengths and blindspots of an individual and their likely behaviour or success in the workplace.

But how do they work?

Do we just ask people random questions that pop into our heads and then make a toss-of-the-coin decision about whether they’re introverted or extroverted or a ‘people person’ or not?

Surprisingly, no. It’s a little more complicated than that…

How personality tests are conducted

Like most ‘standard’ psychological tests, personality tests are usually conducted in the form of self-report questionnaires - an individual is presented with a set of questions that they answer about themselves, either via good old fashioned paper-and-pencil or via a digital computer system.

While aptitude/ability or intelligence tests are conducted under fairly strict ‘exam-like’ conditions to prevent cheating, personality tests measure an individual’s personality traits, where there are no right or wrong answers, so are generally advised to be taken in a quiet, undisturbed environment - but usually won’t be under timed or observed conditions.

The types of questions asked in personality tests depends largely on the test itself, but usually they are self-report scale-based questions. An individual may be presented with a statement and asked to measure their level of agreement or disagreement with that statement.

For example, a personality test question may look something like this:

‘Do you agree or disagree with the following statement:

Rules are meant to be broken.

  • Strongly agree
  • Agree
  • Neither agree nor disagree
  • Disagree
  • Strongly disagree’

Throughout a personality test there will be a range of questions designed to assess an individual’s alignment with a particular personality trait, e.g, conscientiousness - the combination of responses on those questions will result in positioning that individual on the conscientiousness scale.

How personality tests measure personality traits

Answers to individual questions on a personality tests give us some insight into the contextual workings of a person’s psychology, but on their own they don’t give us the whole picture.

Every personality test uses a number of different items to assess each scale of personality (depending on which personality model the test is based on, it might be The Big Five that most of us are familiar with or a model that focuses more on one specific area of personality, like the Risk Type Compass does with risk disposition). It’s the combination of the answers to a number of items that result in a real insight into someone’s personality - not the answer to a single question.

Most personality tests are norm-referenced tests, meaning that the results are standardised over a ‘norm’ set of other results so that all individuals are evaluated against the same standards, regardless of any irrelevant factors (like where they took the test, when they took it, etc.).

The personality tests we use as business psychologists are usually scored against a norm group of working-age professionals, as that’s generally who we’re assessing. Sometimes, alternative norm groups are available, such as a particular age group or gender or specific country norm groups. The choice of norm group usually makes slight differences to the final results of a test, as the comparison group results will be marginally different.

By relying on norm groups of a decent size (as an example, the PQ10 Personality Profile uses a norm group of 29,630 ‘international participants’), personality tests are able to provide reliable, trustworthy measures of a person’s psychology.

If, for example, someone scores in the 50th percentile on a scale measuring Openness to Experience, we can be fairly confident that their behaviour will reflect an ‘average’ level of Openness to Experience in the workplace.

If, for example, someone scores in the 10th percentile on a scale measuring Extraversion, we can be fairly confident that their behaviour in the workplace will reflect a stronger than usual level of introversion.

When choosing any psychological test to use in any context, it’s important to take into account the size and nature of the norm group being used and how reliable and valid the test is. Looking at an assessment’s technical manual can be particularly helpful, as (if the test is well-researched and backed by science!) it will usually provide data to prove reliability, test-retest validity and information on the composition of norm groups.

Are psychological tests infallible?

Nothing is ever entirely infallible in the world of psychological testing. And one of the most common questions we get asked about personality tests is whether they can be cheated or not - and it’s a reasonable question.

We’ve written at length about whether psychological tests can be cheated before, so for now we’ll just reassure you that the tests that we use here at KinchLyons are valid, reliable and as robust as they come. As tests go, they’re the best out there - but manipulation of the outcome is always possible.

That’s why it’s so important to see any psychological test as a single part of the jigsaw puzzle - not the whole picture. As business psychologists, we use psychological tests as a tool to inform our work, but we never rely solely on a single test to make decisions or inform outcomes in the workplace.

And that’s that, folks! Now you know the ins-and-outs of psychological tests - what they are, what their purpose is, and what they measure. If you’re ready to learn more about the psychological tests we use and get certified to use them yourself, head over here!

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