Psychology Testing
June 13, 2005 7:29 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend just took a professional psychology test for a potential employer...

...and for some of the questions asked, it seemed so obvious what the answer should be. For example, there were questions about fights in high-school, how many times drunk in the past 3 months, psychological disorders, sexual deviancy, etc, etc. The question is, why would anyone answer questions like this truthfully if they are trying to get a job? She was pretty honest, but felt that being too honest may have cost her getting the job. Should people just game these tests? Wouldn't employers realize that?

posted by eas98 to Work & Money (39 answers total)
These sorts of test often ask the same question (in slightly different forms) a number of times. The aim is internal consistency: they figure that if you keep your story straight throughout the ordeal, you're probably being truthful (enough). To the best of my knowledge, they aren't looking for a spotless record (that is, someone who gives the "right" answer to every question), but rather that the subject isn't obviously out-of-control/lying.

That said, what is wrong with the job market when employers can get away with such things? Maybe I'm just an arrogant prick, but I feel that if I take a job, I am doing the employer a favor, not the other way around. For an employer to think that he has the freedom to ask a potential employee to submit to such "tests" is patently absurd. I would run, not walk, away from such a company.
posted by uncleozzy at 7:41 AM on June 13, 2005 [1 favorite]

Also see this book by Annie Murphy Paul for a detailed account of how these tests evolved. Many of them were originally devised to diagnose psychological disorders not measure suitability for a particular job.
posted by cushie at 7:57 AM on June 13, 2005

Maybe I'm just an arrogant prick, but I feel that if I take a job, I am doing the employer a favor, not the other way around.

Or maybe you're just lucky in terms of what industry you work in, or how unusual your level of skill is, or many resources you have outside of next week's paycheck. For some people, getting a job is not "doing a favor" for someone; it's "getting food on the table". Sure, we should all try for jobs we actually want to do, and where we're appreciated and not exploited, but it's not always as simple as 'run, not walk, away'...

as for whether you can fake out a test like this, if it's being given by a psychiatrist, I imagine they're on the lookout for seemingly dishonest or inconsistent responses. However, seriously psychiatrically screwy people will very commonly not have it together enough to rationally work out just how honest or not to be, so it's probably less complicated than you think.

Also, if you're really a 'drunk every night' person, you might cut it down to 'drunk once a week', while if you get drunk once a week, you might think once a month is 'normal', while if you only get drunk on new year's eve, then that would sound excessive... in other words, it's all relative. To some extent you could think of them as asking, how often do you think it's normal to get drunk? Whether you actually match your target may be less important than what your target is.
posted by mdn at 8:04 AM on June 13, 2005

Sounds less like a real psychological profile, and more of a fishing expedition. Questions like the ones you've identified are checked against backgrounds, and discrepancies will lead to a decline, or later, termination for lying.
This stuff sucks, but uncleazy, we're not doing anybody favors by working for them - neither are they us.
posted by nj_subgenius at 8:14 AM on June 13, 2005

I took a test like this once for a job application. I had read about them beforehand, and I had read that some of the tests are designed to catch you lying, and it's best to just answer honestly.

So when I went to take the test, it had questions like, "When you watch a movie about a robbery or heist, do you find yourself hoping they get away with it?" and I would answer "yes", which I think would be a very common answer among people answering honestly.

Well, when I called back about the test, I was told that I wouldn't be getting an interview because "The test showed that you have problems with honesty."

So to answer one of your questions, eas98, yes, at least some of the tests should be gamed. This brings up the question of whether there really are tests you should NOT game, how common they are, and how to recognize them.
posted by agropyron at 8:40 AM on June 13, 2005

If the test is administered orally, there is certain body language you can look for that will confirm/will not confirm the truthfulness of the person's statements. Yes, it's not always accurate, that's why you wouldn't use it in a negative manner.

Things like where you place your hands, touching the face, where your gaze shifts to can be important.

Of course, it's unlikely the employer is actually looking for these signals. :-D
posted by shepd at 9:48 AM on June 13, 2005

Some tests used to have special questions that seem totally obvious (e.g., "I never feel angry"), with the idea that anyone that the questions will flag anyone who tries to fake it out. I haven't looked at these tests for years, but back when I was a student it always seemed like these questions would only catch the most flagrant and clueless liars -- that a reasonably sophisticated person would treat the test as part of an interview and not disclose things that could be used against them. That said, there's a lot of controversy in the field about whether personality type tests have any business being used for job selection purposes.
posted by jasper411 at 9:53 AM on June 13, 2005

Ask the HR wonk for evidence that any score on the psych test is a predictor of job performance. Keep pressing the question.
posted by klarck at 10:11 AM on June 13, 2005

I had pretty much the same experience as agropyron. My question was if I've ever considered breaking the law... Well I thought about jaywalking on the way here, so game over. The kicker is that they told me they'd get back to me and didn't. Honesty? Hello?

What they're looking for is someone who can figure out what they want and fall in line without any ethical qualms. Answer all questions as if you were a saint. Someone who sticks to their principles on these tests and answers honestly would probably not be willing to lie to a customer to make a sale.

Can you tell I'm bitter?
posted by ODiV at 10:20 AM on June 13, 2005

I took a test like this on Saturday in an attempt to become a Police Officer. The questions were things like "How often have you broken the law (including traffic infractions) in the last six months?" WTF? We've all accidentally broke the law at some point or other in the last six months.
posted by dial-tone at 10:28 AM on June 13, 2005

Or "I am sometimes rude to people." Of course, almost everyone is.
posted by dial-tone at 10:30 AM on June 13, 2005

"How often have you broken the law (including traffic infractions) in the last six months?" WTF? We've all accidentally broke the law at some point or other in the last six months.

what? was there meant to be a question mark there?
If they're asking "how many times", then they're also assuming everyone has 'accidentally' (or inconsequentially, anyway) broken a minor law recently. Did you mean to suggest that that's an unfair assumption (as aside from jaywalking, there aren't necessarily that many laws that people regularly break, and a lot of people drive everywhere these days...)? Or that the question is dumb because everyone violates the law the same amount so why bother asking? Or what?
posted by mdn at 10:36 AM on June 13, 2005

One of the possible answers was never. It's possible that they only ask it to try to catch people who are obviously liars, but it's also possible that they want people who never break the law.
posted by dial-tone at 10:45 AM on June 13, 2005

I took a test like this to work at a lame cashier job. When I had an interview with the store manager, he actually told me I had been too honest on one question. The question was, "Are you too honest to steal?" I thought it would be arrogant to say no, and I could think of situations in which I would definitely steal (my child starving, etc.). Anyway, after I explained this, the manager said, "Well, I've never had anyone get that one wrong before". I got hired anyway. I think they just look at it as an intelligence test-are you smart enough to figure out which ones to lie about, and lie consistently.
posted by slimslowslider at 10:50 AM on June 13, 2005

as aside from jaywalking, there aren't necessarily that many laws that people regularly break,

I'd say there's plenty of these when you count traffic infractions. I mean, how many people drive 70 on the freeway (where it's marked 65)? If it's not marked, you're speeding. How many times do you come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign? How many times do you remember to stop BEFORE crossing the sidewalk when you're pulling out of a parking lot? Do you use your blinkers correctly ever single time you make a lane change? Make a lane change in the middle of an intersection? Hell, even if you're not in a car -- how many people stop at stoplights, stop-signs when they're on bikes? How many people ride bikes on the sidewalk? And then we've got the jaywalking (already mentioned) covering pedestrians.

These are all traffic infractions, and you have broken the law, it's just that you haven't got caught -- supposedly, you're obliged to mark them down on the sheet if you're answering that question honestly. I think that's what the poster is complaining about.
posted by fishfucker at 10:54 AM on June 13, 2005

It probably depends on the industry that your girlfriend is trying to get into. Game it if it looks like it's just a standard HR hiring policy, but if it's for a position that may be sensitive (police, security etc.) then she may want to be honest to a certain degree.

As an aside, the powers that be where I work attempted this sort of thing for new hires and all their successful candidates were horrible. After 2 or 3 bad hires, I read over the questions and I couldn't believe they were using it as some sort of benchmark. It's junk psychology that's incredibly invasive, error prone due to it's lack of flexibility, and not really worth it. If they actually cared about you as a person, yes/no answers would never suffice. I've since hired a few staff myself (outside our HR standard policy) after actually getting to know them (through conversation and questions that I tiered toward the specific situations). They're still here, where all the other hires have either been fired, or left due to their inability to cope.

Personally, if someone handed me one of these questionnaires at an interview I'd tell them to go fuck themselves. Sexual deviancy? None of their damned business.

/derail - Sorry, I'm a little touchy about this.
posted by purephase at 11:07 AM on June 13, 2005

they told me they'd get back to me and didn't.

ODiV, they never do. Arrogant pricks like uncleozzy and me remember that sort of thing, when the shoe is on the other foot, and they're trying to convince you to work for them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:12 AM on June 13, 2005

My former mentor spent a long career in HR management. His advice about job interviews (which I think applies to this kind of quizzing too) is that your only objective should be to reassure to the employer that you know how to answer appropriately. Think of it as simply a test of your social/business skills.

On preview: what purphase said.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 11:14 AM on June 13, 2005

I took an asinine test like that when I applied for a job in retail.

Tell them what they want to hear. No, it's not ok to steal. No, not even for my friends. Yes, I love getting up at the asscrack of dawn. Blah blah blah. I tend to think of it as an idiot detector -- only real morons will say it's ok to steal "if you're my friend."
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:18 AM on June 13, 2005

The Skeptic's Dictionary has entries on Rorschach Inkblot Tests and Myers-Briggs tests.
posted by madman at 11:20 AM on June 13, 2005

Thanks for the replies. It was like a 3 hour test. Other dumb questions were:

Have you ever stolen from an employer? (Duh, no.)

Do you like to talk about sex? (Uh... Yes?)

I don't understand why a company would spend money on a test that only measures how well you can conform to an expectation.

How much do these tests cost a company anyway?
posted by eas98 at 11:23 AM on June 13, 2005

It's what fad the employer adopts in their hiring policy isn't it? Some go the psych profiling, some do the group teambuilding exercises, some have panel interviews and for others it's 1 or 2 people questioning the candidate.

You imply this was an oral test and you say that it was professional. In such case, the person conducting the test will note everything from tone of voice to body language and speed of response and they will provide the employer with their summation.

Game it? Yes, but not if you get nervous confabulating something. If you have a reasonably socially acceptable track record, best is to tell the truth or at least the version you want painted. Are they fair questions? NO. Not when they are related to personal details such as sex life &c, excepting medical problems which might interfere with the performance of the job. But as mentioned above, the prospective employee is in a virtually powerless position at such a time, unless they have other resources/job offers/money.
posted by peacay at 11:24 AM on June 13, 2005

I assume the questions about your sex life are to gauge whether you would be a liability to the company in terms of sexual harassment of coworkers.
posted by fourstar at 12:11 PM on June 13, 2005

klarck writes "Ask the HR wonk for evidence that any score on the psych test is a predictor of job performance"

Ya, That'll get you the job.

I've only been asked to to fill out these tests twice. Both times I've refused. Once the interview process continued and the second time it didn't. In neither case did I get the job however I usually have to interview dozens of times before getting an offer so that's not much of a datapoint.

I'm of the opinion that a lot of what they are testing is your ability/temperment to be a good little worker bee.
posted by Mitheral at 12:29 PM on June 13, 2005

They also really are testing you on those questions that seem to have incredibly obvious answers. There are people who would answer 'yes' to the question about stealing from an employer, and who would get confused about why that might be a bad idea. So, in addition to all of the other reasons for giving the tests listed here, weeding out those people is also a reason.

(I don't support the tests at all, I think they're hooey.)
posted by OmieWise at 12:42 PM on June 13, 2005

It was probably the MMPI-2. Most personality measures contain lie scales for validity and consistency purposes. If you answer questions like "I am always happy" yes, then you're probably lying. If you're tired of taking the test, you might starting answering true all the time just to finish. These internal consistency items will pick up these patterns.
posted by abbyladybug at 12:54 PM on June 13, 2005

abbyladybug's right- sounds like the MMPI (especially since it took three hours to write!) It's more than just a personality/ethics test- it's looking for psychological issues/disorders. The way this test is scored is quite complex, and a question here or there shouldn't throw you too far off. (Though there are some that seem like red-flaggers- "Sometimes I travel independent of my body" and things such at that). Anyway, if it's done right, it should be followed up with an interview to explain/defend any anomolies. It was surprisingly accurate for me, though.

And yes, if you try to fake it, it will catch you. I know of a guy that "failed" it six times, trying to pass off for normal. He eventually enrolled in a Psych Testing class to learn how to beat it. No dice. Sometimes nuts is nuts.
posted by wallaby at 1:21 PM on June 13, 2005

I can never get through these things. My answer to damn near every single question is "it depends." Because, um, I think through the possible ramifications of any particular judgement. Luckily, this serves me well in my current job.

If asked to fill one out for employment, I'd a) be offended and b) provide a many-page essay version of my answers.
posted by desuetude at 1:34 PM on June 13, 2005

There was a joke vaguely along the lines of an employer interviewing someone and asking what his/her religion was, to which the interviewee replied "Thanks for hiring me!".
The point being that, having asked this question, if the employer refused the job, s/he could sue for illegal discrimination.

Anyway, I'm curious why asking questions on subjects it is illegal to discriminate on, suddenly becomes seemingly ok if you do under the guise of a personality test. What gives? You're still discriminating based on aspects of people you are prohibited from using in your evaluation. Is is just that it's an easier practise to defend in court than verbally asking "Do you have gay sex?"
posted by -harlequin- at 2:16 PM on June 13, 2005

The way I understand these tests is that you are SUPPOSED to game them. It's a test by the HR department to make sure you're a good worker and are willing to do whatever they want including filling out dumb forms and telling obvious lies (i.e. Have you ever lied?) They don't care to know anything about you really, they just want to see you jump through the hoops.
posted by pwb503 at 2:28 PM on June 13, 2005

Harlequin, you're quite incorrect to suggest that personality tests go after illegal information. They are designed to expose the dishonest (not a protected class) and select for the assertive, optimistic, open-minded, and cooperative, all of which it is entirely legal to look to hire.

To the extent that employment screening reveals actual mental illness -- which is rare, as employment screenings generally don't target illness -- it is going to be mental illnesses for which there is no reasonable accomodation in a professional job, i.e., disabilities in respect of which discrimination is entirely lawful.

PWB503 -- a well-designed and -administered screening will generally be quite hard to game to a full extent. Basic screens (like those cited above, "have you ever told a lie," "are you ever angry at other people") weed out the most hapless of bullshitters. More sophisticated screens do the rest -- constantly reworking them same master list of ranked characteristics/answers/self-descriptions so that if you're dishonest on one answer it's revealed ten questions later, with not enough time in the test to make yourself consistent.

Modest gaming, however, is possible, if you bear in mind the cardinal rule of psych test interpretation: projection. Any way you characterize other people is taken to be a characterization of you. Be honest, but with your rose-colored humanitarian glasses fixed firmly on your nose....
posted by MattD at 3:04 PM on June 13, 2005

I'm not saying they go after illegal information, I'm saying they use it, because many have not been greatly altered from their non-HR origins. Since (some of) the tests use illegal information, and make conclusions from that information (along with the rest), then I don't understand how they can be legal. I wonder if they have been tested in court.

There is no reason a test could not be written (and I assume many/most are), that do not touch on illegal information - the illegal information is not necessary for the personality testing (which is part of why it's illegal), however HR tests that do touch on these matters - what gives? Why don't people challenge them in court?
posted by -harlequin- at 3:09 PM on June 13, 2005

The applicant shouldn't have to game it. Body language can be a telltale sign of dishonesty. Without knowing the industry your g/f applied in, the questions you described shouldn't be asked at all, they don't relate to skills, qualifications and experience to determine potential job performance.

If honesty questions are required to be asked, for example in positions where the applicant is required to work with children, and make decisions on behalf of the greater community etc, the applicant should be made aware that the application could be subject to a probity check from the onset ie newspaper/internet ad. This removes any surprises in interviews which could leave the company exposed to discrimination actions.

Medical questions can be relevant if their is risk to the applicant or if it impacts in their ability to do the job. Code of Conduct in the workplace should be transparent prior to a job offer/acceptance.
posted by Chimp at 6:45 PM on June 13, 2005

I've taken the MMPI twice and have been through the Myers-Briggs process. But those two excellent tests aside, generally you'll seeing idiotic tests that the mouthbreathing pinks are using to make themselves feel better about their choice -- or cut out some of the candidates and accelerate that choice process.

Of course you should game the test. You're smart, they're stupid. Next question.
posted by intermod at 7:21 PM on June 13, 2005

They are designed to expose the dishonest (not a protected class) and select for the assertive, optimistic, open-minded, and cooperative, all of which it is entirely legal to look to hire.

Are there any well-controlled large-number statistical studies on whether these things actually work? They seem creepily akin to psuedoscience (like polygraph tests, which the NAS recently concluded were useless for employment screening).
posted by mr_roboto at 7:23 PM on June 13, 2005

Wow, *very* interesting thread with awesome answers...

Personally I've never had to take one of these damned thingers to get a job (thankfully) but because of... administrative... problem(s) at undergrad I've had to undergo similar "psychological" regimens.

I "failed" every single last one of them (except for the last-last one) because my answer was "it depends." (The boards, or whatever just tended to give up on requiring it from me.)

For the last one I had to do, my appointed psychiatrist eventually just told me to "answer the test as the test wants you to answer."

Consistency is the key to these braindead questionaires, it seems. No nuance is permitted at all, hell, nuance is considered a perversion (imh-experienced-o).
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:01 PM on June 13, 2005

Funny thing about these tests as I understand. The MMPI, for example, asks questions about your spiritual beliefs. These are illegal questions in the US. These tests may also be ordered by a judge. Why is this legal?

The MMPI I simply will not take because of its length. I will terminate an interview and withdraw my application. That hasn't come up in many years.

Of course, the MMPI assures me I am a sociopath. Thanks! My college psych instructor assures me that is a compliment, and according to her, most any intelligent and thoughtful person is in fact a sociopath. She said that simply means I don't accept everyone else's standards, and that certainly is true!
posted by Goofyy at 12:09 AM on June 14, 2005

The MMPI (I think it's MMPI-2 now) is enormously long and complicated, and the scores must be interpreted by a skilled person. If I were ever forced to take it for employment (which I wouldn't do anyway, but for the sake of the argument) and happened to be denied employment, I'd take it to the mat unless they could prove that they had a trained, licensed, and otherwise qualified psych professional evaluate the thing. It's a monster.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:39 AM on June 14, 2005

I would like to thank everyone who replied to this thread. Very interesting indeed!
posted by eas98 at 8:13 AM on June 14, 2005

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