By Prof Hew Gill, Associate Provost, Sunway University
Many companies are now using psychological and psychometric testing as part of their recruitment and selection processes, and also for internal development and talent identification. These types of psychological test are often called occupational or vocational tests, and they are designed to assess your capacities to show what makes you unique. That means psychological testing is never about passing or failing, it is about understanding you better.
The word “psychometric” literally means “mind measurement” and to be strictly accurate psychometric assessments are a type of psychological test primarily concerned with abilities and aptitudes. Abilities are innate capacities that every human is born with, and probably the best known of these abilities is intelligence, but other abilities include colour vision, memory capacity and manual dexterity. Closely related to ability tests are aptitude and achievement tests that measure skills, all of which rely upon underlying abilities. So, for example, being able to touch type or play the piano relies upon the abilities of vision, memory and dexterity which enable us to see and recognise the letters or musical notes, then move our hands and fingers in a coordinated way. However, typing and piano playing are aptitudes because the necessary skills can only be developed through learning and practice. In occupational testing the most commonly tested aptitudes are those relating to language and numeracy because employers want to check a person’s fluency, vocabulary, knowledge of grammar, etc, and their capacity to deal with numbers and data. The key thing about any aptitude is that it can be developed and improved – nobody is born being able to type or play a musical instrument, speak a language, or do sums, so any aptitude can be enhanced through further education and practice. This also means that the boundary between ability and aptitude can be blurred and there is much debate about how far abilities like intelligence can also be developed through practice in the same ways as skills.
The third big area of psychological testing is around personality and temperament. These tests assess an individual’s character often using the big five personality factors of Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability and Openness-to-Experience. These assessments are designed to give insights into how people tend to behave in particular situations, how they may interact with work colleagues and how they are likely to approach particular types of work.
The last area of vocational testing is around job interests and motivations. These kinds of tests are generally useful for identifying the careers that people will enjoy and the things that are likely to motivate them to perform well. That makes these tests a great way to match people to occupations they are likely to find fulfilling.
To provide useful results psychological tests must be reliable which means they must assess people consistently across different times and situations. Reliability is not itself enough and every psychological test must also be a valid measure of what it aims to measure. It would be pointless to have a psychometric test which aims to measure numerical skills, but which didn’t have any items requiring mathematical aptitude so it’s very important that tests are designed to measure area being assessed. It’s also important that the test results tell us something about another factor or feature and in occupational testing the external criterion of interest is usually job performance.
Most psychological tests are normative which means that the results for an individual are compared to a very large sample of other people, often the general population of a particular country. This puts individuals’ results in context by showing how a particular score compares with everybody else and how similar or different that person is compared to most people. This means psychological testing results are never ‘good’ or ‘bad’ because testing is about making comparisons to assess how well someone is likely to perform in any particular job or career. Occupational testing is like being measured for new shoes or clothes because it measures how closely someone has the right mix of abilities, skills, temperament and motivations to be good at a particular job. Nobody likes wearing shoes or clothes that don’t fit properly and psychological testing tells us how closely you and the unique characteristics that make you an individual match with those of other individuals who are successful in a particular career. Psychological testing also identifies those characteristics that might not be such a good fit so it can also give you an opportunity to discover what kinds of jobs may not be best for you and to identify careers where you are much more likely to succeed. If you encounter psychological testing for recruitment and selection, or for training and development in your current job, always remember that the objective is to help you find the best fit between your abilities, aptitudes, personality and interests and your work. Never think of psychological testing as a barrier, instead see it as helpful guide that shows you the careers in which you will be happy, productive, and successful.