Why do we love psychometric tests?

EnneagramLast week, I was encouraged to take the Enneagram based on a recommendation by a friend who discovered it in a training program he just finished attending. He was so impressed by the test that I couldn’t help but feel amused. The cynic in me didn’t take the test for a while and with each passing day my friend grew more annoyed until I finally gave in. It reminded me of a tip a trainer once gave me. She had joked – ‘Throw in a psychometric test in any training and it will guarantee a high feedback score. People love it.’ It is true. Try comparing Kirk Patrick scores (level 1) of trainings that include psychometric tests (or the like) and those without. How about you consider it a little experiment and let me know the results?

There is another thing this little episode reminded me of and that is the Barnum effect. The Barnum effect, also called the Forer effect, is a common psychological phenomenon whereby individuals give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of their personality that supposedly are tailored specifically to them but that are, in fact, vague and general enough to apply to a wide range of people. Now, P.T. Barnum has been in the news for a while thanks to the flattering movie made on him. The Barnum Effect was named after him as he has supposedly made the statement that a “sucker” is born every minute (pardon the language).

The important part of the effect is that it is true. Psychometric tests have been criticized for their poor validity for decades and yet they continue to play a very prominent part in HR, both in hiring and classroom training. People continue to believe that they fit into the broad classifications created in these tests and that they can use it for personal growth. While it is a great tool in encouraging people to think about how to modify habits/traits/behavior for development, it is rather inappropriate to have them believe that these tools are widely accepted by the scientific community.

There are many interesting experiments that have been conducted in this space, the most famous being the one conducted by Bertram Forer in 1948. The professor gave a psychology test to his 39 student, disregarded their responses, handed out purportedly individualized sketch and asked each of them to rate it on how well it applied. Each student was handed an identical sketch and the students rated its accuracy as 4.26 on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent).The study has been repeated multiple times generating very similar responses. It is an easy experiment and one that I would encourage you to replicate in your next house party. In fact, in 1977, Ray Hyman published a paper that gives you thirteen tips on how to convince a stranger that you know all about them. It is an incredible read. Hop on to page 6 to become a successful palmist or crystal ball reader.

However, here is the beauty of the effect. Even after being aware of the Barnum effect and the poor validity, an individual is most likely to develop a personal connect to their results. The Barnum effect isn’t recent. It has been talked about since 1949. Yet, these tests are still be popular and will continue to be.

In P.T Barnum’s words – we (these tests) have something for everybody.


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