The science of… Psychometrics

Yesterday I started a series of posts on: The science of… Occupational Psychology. Today I continue with talking about psychometrics.

You mention psychometrics and people immediately think about profiling, being boxed in, being classed as unsuitable, and a host of other negative associations. It’s all hogwash of course. These things are spouted by those who have zero concept about how psychometrics should be used, their value and the insight they provide.<

Personality Theory

Where do we start? Well the first thing to understand is that psychometric tests are all about providing an easy to understand frame of reference for personality. This frame of reference is often steeped in two schools of thought. They are either based in trait theory or type theory.

Trait theory is about a scale of behaviour. The theory argues that we all have a range of behaviours, and we will exhibit various strengths of those behaviours. For example, we all have the capacity for ‘social boldness’ but we may differ the extent to which we display that behaviour. We can have a strength in this behaviour or it can be a weakness. The most popular psychometric that uses trait theory is the 16PF personality questionnaire – distributed by OPP Ltd in the UK.

Type theory is about either exhibiting a behaviour, or not. The theory argues that we will all have preferences for behaviour, and this is the place we will default to in any given situation. We might be able to learn the opposite behaviour, but this does not mean we can do both at the same time. It means that we develop a maturity in our understanding of behaviours and are able to exhibit both types. Thus, we may be extrovert by preference, but equally able to exhibit introvert behaviours when appropriate. The most popular psychometric tool that uses type theory is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator – distributed again by OPP Ltd in the UK.

Types of Psychometrics

As well as personality based psychometrics, there are also other types of psychometrics which are very commonplace – the biggest distributor of which is SHL in the UK.

Aptitude tests and ability tests measure your ability to do a certain task e.g. analytical skills, inference skills, deduction skills, critical reasoning.

Verbal reasoning tests measure your ability to understand verbal instruction.
Numerical reasoning tests measure your ability to understand mathematical problems

Construction of Psychometrics

The key thing that sets psychometrics apart from other questionnaires such as Belbin team roles or the Honey and Mumford Learning Styles, is that there is rigorous construction of the questionnaires. Every psychometric developed goes through a process of being validated.

This means it has to show to be reliable. That is, if you retake the questionnaire, your answers will be consistent.

It has to also show to be valid. That is, a set of or bank of questions measure what it purports to measure.

A set of norms is produced to enable a benchmark from the results. That is, whatever your results may show from a psychometric, you are measured against an appropriate norm group, and as such your results interpreted appropriately.

Standardised administration is a key part of psychometrics. Instructions on how to complete a questionnaire must be understood by anyone undertaking the test.

Feedback and Interpretation

The most important part of completing the questionnaires is receiving feedback from a fully qualified person. Qualification means they have attended a training programme where they learn about all the things I’ve mentioned above. Any person claiming they are qualified will have 2 certificates to prove this. One is the ability to administer and feedback results – a Level A qualification in occupational competence. The second is the ability to use, administer and interpret a specific personality tool. This is the Level B qualification in occupational competence.

A qualified person will be able to take your results and provide insight to you based on the answers you’ve provided. At no point should this be judgemental or profiling. Instead it should be only about feedback and insight.

Once you’ve received feedback you should always receive a report that explains the results.

Myths about Psychometrics

There are those who will tell you that you can fake a test, or answer it in your favour. The likelihood of you being able to do this is seriously slim. The construction of psychometrics means that the questions are designed to not be faked. that’s why you’ll often find that the same question seems to be asked several times in different ways. That’s done so you answer consistently. You might be clever, and you might think you can fake it, but you can’t. Trust me.

There are those who will tell you that you can’t change once you’ve been profiled. Oh that’s just nonsense. First you’re not being profiled. You’ve provided a set of answers and based on the information you’ve provided a set of results are produced. It’s totally based on the information you’ve given. Second – and importantly – you can change your behaviours. Significant life changing events can have profound impacts on us and they do. Death, birth, job change, redundancy, divorce, marriage, all have profound effects on our condition. And they can influence and change your behaviour. It does normally have to be something quite significant though in order for your behaviour to change.

There are those who will claim they can exhibit all behaviours all times of the day. Idiots. As I’ve explained above, you can learn behaviours, but that takes time and you will default to a way of being in most situations. You can and will learn how to act differently, but this will often be in relation to and dependent on the situation you are in.

Posts in this series:

The science of… Assessment Centres
The science of… Competency Frameworks
The science of… Ergonomics
The science of… Appraisals
The science of… Learning and Development
The science of… Occupational Psychology


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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