These days, however, we are as likely to be subjected to computer-age versions of such games in the workplace as in the parlour. A friend of mine was recently given a questionnaire by her employer and asked to agree or disagree with statements such as "Ienjoy fun-loving spontaneous people" and "I steer clear of subjective or ambiguous topics". It was concluded that she was a reasonably well-rounded individual but should strengthen her "activist" qualities by "doing something new, something y
o u have never done before at least once a week. Hitch a lift to work, wear something outrageous, select people at random from your internal telephone directory and go and talk to them."
Such lifestyle recommendations are all very well. But can the application of pop psychology be responsibly used to determine an individual's character and job suitability? Is it an adequate, fair means of assessment, or an interview short-cut riddled with inconsistencies and prejudices?
Psychometric testing - an objective, properly validated aptitude or personality assessment using multiple choice questions - is now being used by 60 to 70 per cent of the UK's top 1,000 companies, including the BBC, Open University and the Body Shop, according to the Test Agency, a leading test publisher and distributor. The results are being used in management training, team-building exercises, personnel selection and, most notoriously, in making redundancy selections. At the moment both Anglian Water and Southwark Council are facing industrial tribunals over their use of such tests as part of a reorganisation of their workforces.
Kareena Barry, one of 19 Southwark Council employees made redundant as a result of the reorganisation, was told in December 1993 that she had to take a psychometric test, among others, or go automatically into the redundancy pool. She was thus forced to give her views on religion, her relationship with her parents, and whether or not she was embarrassed by dirty jokes. The test made her feel vulnerable, she told BBC2's Money Programme in November last year, yet she received no explanation of how her employers used the test papers to reach their decision.
An occupational personality questionnaire produced by Saville & Holdsworth Ltd (SHL) was one of the tools used by Anglian Water in deciding whom to make redundant. According to Anne Vinden of Unison, representing the sacked employees, the test had been bought before the company had researched what competences were required in different sections of its workforce. This resulted in scientists being tested on their public relations skills.
Moreover, Roy Davies, of SHL, told me that his company did not believe any tests should be used for redundancy. "Tests and questionnaires can only predict, and there is no such thing as a perfect prediction. In a redundancy situation you will already have data on an employee's job performance; you don't need a prediction."
David Smith, an engineer who had returned to England after working abroad for 10 years, was asked to do the Kostick Personality Profile at a job interview.
"I was shortlisted, but didn't get the job. I feel convinced that the main reason was the personality test, which showed that I had a high need for closeness and affection from others, which implied that I wouldn't be able to sustain an independent viewpoint or take criticism. I felt very angry about it. The interviewer accepted the test conclusions without taking into account my circumstances, which were that I had enjoyed an active social life in a close-knit expatriate community and then returned to a country where I had few friends or contacts. I was feeling isolated, and it is hardly surprising that this showed through. However, this was an aspect of my personal life, and a transient one, and had no bearing on whether or not I could do the job."
The Myers Briggs test, based on the Jungian model of personality types, is considered one of the most sophisticated around. However, Richard Parker, a public servant who did the test on a management development course, scoffed at its 12-line summing-up of his character. "I am `logical to the point of hairsplitting. Interested mainly in ideas, with little liking for parties or small-talk'," he read. "I could have told them that. Going th rough the whole rigmarole is ridiculous for anyone with a modicum of self-knowledge."
Bernard Cullen, psychotherapist and professor of philosophy at Queen's University, Belfast, was subjected to a Myers Briggs test on a similar course.
"It might be useful in helping to promote a degree of fairly superficial self-knowledge, but has too much of the fairground booth to be used in appointing people to the right job," he said. "A whole person is not simply the sum of their parts. What make
s people individual are their internal conflicts and the ways in which they juggle with these conflicts. The Myers Briggs interpretation gives no account of that conflict."
Not all psychometric tests are personality tests; there are also aptitude tests, designed to assess the subject's general logical ability, verbal, numerical and technical reasoning. Although aptitude tests are thought to be more accurate in predicting job performance than personality tests, their use has none the less attracted a good deal of criticism.
In 1991, guards working for British Rail were invited to apply to become trainee drivers. The selection procedure included aptitude tests in which Asian candidates did disproportionately badly. Eight unselected Asian guards brought their case to an industrial tribunal. Again, the case was settled out of court.
Dr Steve Blinkhorn, a chartered occupational psychologist whom British Rail brought in as an expert witness, pointed out that the verbal and numerical skills on which the guards were being tested were not relevant to a driving job, and went on to say; "If English isn't your first language, and if, also, you are unused to native British ways, you are at a disadvantage; for example, with a multiple choice questionnaire. Indigenous Brits will cheerfully guess rather than leave any unanswered. People unfamiliar with the format might believe that points could be deducted for guessing."
Makbool Javaid, a solicitor for the Commission for Racial Equality, says that there are a number of employer practices that can indirectly discriminate against ethnic minorities. Research in the US shows that systems of performance-related pay are prone to disadvantage Asian employees, because their cultures tend to encourage modesty as a virtue, and they may be unlikely to draw attention to their own hard work or success, which would then go unrewarded.
Dr Donald McLeod, a former chairman of the British Pyschological Society's steering committee on psychometric testing, says there is a wealth of evidence which shows that, on average, it is the most effective way of predicting job performance. Problems arise, however, when tests are produced without adequate research and are then sold to people who have not received adequate training in how to administer them and interpret the results. Most companies I approached refused to send me samples of tests; the y would normally expect personnel to complete a training course before having access to them. There were, however, a couple of that were only too happy to send me samples of tests and made no mention of the necessity of training.
Dr Blinkhorn says there is a lot of silly use and abuse of psychometric tests. "The trouble is that lots of non-psychologists find the concept of a privileged window into other people's psyches sexy. People are disposed to believe in the results of such tests, as they are their horoscopes. A `scientific' device which touches on common insecurities is very powerful and as such is dangerous when used by people who do not understand its limitations."
Pruned of its scientific kudos, perhaps the limitations are more obvious than we think.
"What's your favourite animal?" I recently heard an eight-year-old ask her friend.
"Um ... a horse."
The little girl looked up from the page on which she'd been noting her friend's responses. "You know what you are then!" she concluded delightedly. "You're a blue, seven-year-old horse!"