I’ve always been fascinated by horoscopes. That there is some power in being able to look at the stars, read some writing done about zodiac signs, and devise a short paragraph which is allegedly prophetic in nature. I mean it’s all complete nonsense, but fascinating all the same – and even more surprising is the industry that has been built up around it. That the likes of Russel Grant and Mystic Meg have made their fortunes through such activities is both a farce and a stark look at how susceptible people can be to suggestion.
And it’s not people who aren’t clever, it’s very regular people who have had a good education, with a critical media around them, with the likes of Derren Brown showing just how much is down to chance. But people want to believe. Regular Joe has a need to invest something of them into this tom foolery.
But to what end?
The attraction from these types of Barnum statements is that they can apply to anyone, but they’re couched in such ways that the person reading them thinks it’s only written for them. Forget the millions of others who share the same period of the year in which you were born, it’s all about you.
Which presents some real challenges and problems when it comes to trying to profile people using personality tests.
In the corporate world, psychometrics are used in a variety of ways from personal development, to recruitment and selection, to management and leadership development, to team development. They’re used because they’re designed to not fall foul of the Barnum effect.
A well developed and designed psychometric will have some core features which offer it a level of confidence that the profile produced can be trusted.
It will be a reliable test. That is, if you take one tomorrow, and then a year later, it should yield the same result.
It will be a valid test. The questions should produce a specific response every time – it measures what it’s meant to.
There will be a standardised set of instructions. This mitigates for personal influences you might have of, and biasing the results in a certain way.
There will be a set of normative data produced. That is, you can reliably look at your profile against a cross section of the population in different categories and have reasonably confidence about how you compare to them.
These things are important in giving a person confidence that the profile produced is as accurate as it can be.
The challenge with profiling is that people don’t like to be categorised as X or as Y. They want to be unique. They want to be Bob, not Bob Who Shares a Similar Profile as Millions of Other People. They want to know they can act and behave in ways that no one else does.
Except we all act and conform greatly. Pretty much every act we do in day to day life is an act of conformity and accepting a set of norms to adhere to.
So when those of us trained in these tools work with people in helping them to understand their profile, there’s a lot to contend with. In my experience I’d say it’s a 60:40 split – 60% will go along with what you’ve described, and what the profile suggests. The other 40% will need convincing.
And considering a lot of people buy in to horoscopes which is about generalisms and the majority, it’s interesting that in corporate life we don’t want to trust a set of tools which at their very heart are about helping an individual.