It’s all about the profile, isn’t it?

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.

Published by

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.

5 thoughts on “It’s all about the profile, isn’t it?”

  1. When I had my first psychometric test done, the evaluator warned that it would be akin to me feeling as though I’m sitting naked in front of a stranger. And he was right to an extent…because my profile was eerily accurate. I felt as though this man had seen into my soul.

    A 100 years later when I went on to use those same tools to hire personnel, it would tend only to come up foul when the candidate attempted to ‘beat the system’ – so their results would be muddy and inconclusive. When we then advised them to relax and not try and second guess the system, the results were better.

    All of that to say what?

    That, be it horoscopes or psychometrics, the human need to be sure…to not make a mistake…to eliminate as much risk as possible in decision making is the common denominator here.

    I would tell my staff repeatedly…these tests cannot tell us the whole story. That there is still an element of risk in the decision.

    The day we seek to know everything for sure – 100% guarantee without risk – is the day we will cease to really live.

    Life and people should surprise us. That’s the beauty of our muddy world.

  2. It’s an interesting comparison and seems relatively easy for our post-industrial revolution educated brains to only consider the alluring “proven” approaches of psychometrics and to dismiss the apparent nonsense of horoscopes… yet perhaps it unwittingly creates some arrogance too…

    In a species that’s been around for a few hundred thousand years and now numbering over 7bln how much value do we place on varying psychometrics that have been developed in the last 100 years? What knowledge or understanding do they miss because of their recency? Can you usefully categorise the human species of 7bln into say 16 types? What does the apparent competition between psychometric tools tell us? I don’t know – but the awareness of context and bias must be important factors especially in terms of helping others.

    If we talk of “generalisms and the majority” for horoscopes (no matter what their validity) we must also consider the same for psychometrics, mustn’t we? Perhaps it reveals a deeper perspective as to why in corporate life such tools aren’t trusted?

    The real power of any of these “interventions” is I think much less about whether the “tool” is right or wrong. I don’t even think it’s about elimination of risk…

    The (perhaps timeless) challenge is a question of how do we best support individuals to have confidence to take action that is right for them. When that’s the focus, I think “reliability and validity” are given a very different perspective. Again, perhaps that in itself reveals a deeper perspective as to why in corporate life such tools aren’t trusted…

  3. I guess the acid test is trying to combine both approaches in an experiment and see what the results show. Over a decade ago, we looked at some 3,000 people’s personality profiles and also obtained records of their date of birth.

    Not a single aspect of personality correlated with any tendency to be one star sign or another. Even favourite colour worked better (people who preferred black, for example, tended to be less optimistic!) On the other hand, many aspects of personality correlated with successful job performance, though precisely which ones naturally depended on the job.

    Over ten years on, personality instruments like The Quest Profiler are normed on literally thousands of people (some 35,000 for the managerial and professional benchmark, over 65,000 for the composite group) and recorded validities are higher than ever because we have got better at breaking jobs down into separate competency areas and assessing each area separately.

    Alas, horoscopes still have no evidence of any validity at all, along with graphology, palmistry, phrenology, reading tea leaves, Tarot cards etc. Still, all these things are great fun at village fetes and on the ends of piers, aren’t they?

    And look how many people believe in ghosts, the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman.

    Even Danny Dyer believes in UFOs.

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