After it was revealed that shamed 'crystal Methodist' Co-op boss Paul Flowers scored top marks, we ask: Does psychometric testing actually work?
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; twice commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigative journalism. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 31 January 2014
Paul Flowers, the disgraced former chairman of the Co-operative Bank who is being investigated by the police for allegedly buying illegal drugs, can thank a type of psychological profiling, rather than his knowledge of high finance, for his once-exalted banking career, we were told this week.
We learnt that Mr Flowers, a Methodist minister who had been caught in a newspaper sting allegedly trying to buy cocaine and crystal meth, had got the top position in the bank after performing well in psychometric tests, a kind of touchy-feely version of traditional IQ tests with a bit of personality profiling thrown in.
“He was a clear winner,” said David Davis, a former deputy chairman of the bank who was also on the shortlist. Mr Davis told the House of Commons’ Treasury Select Committee that the Co-op decided to use the tests after top banker Sir David Walker, now chairman of Barclays, recommended that finance institutions employ more “objective” methods of analysing job candidates.
The perceived objectivity of psychometric testing is perhaps the main reason why it has become so ubiquitous throughout the private and public sectors. Its popularity has also grown as companies and institutions find they have to weed out thousands of applicants for what may be just a handful of positions.
Online psychometric tests automate the task of assessing job applicants and what better way can there be to use a “scientifically assessed” questionnaire that can be filled in by candidates by computer before they even set foot into the interview room?
Psychologists divide psychometric testing into two broad categories. One measures personality features, such as drive and motivation, which could give a future employer some insight into whether someone is likely to fit in with the work environment.
The other is supposed to measure raw mental or intellectual ability. These questionnaires tend to focus on questions that are either right or wrong, true or false, or tasks that can be performed more or less well. This type of psychometric testing includes the kind of standard IQ tests that have been used for decades to measure general intelligence.
But the fact that Mr Flowers, a man with no experience of banking and with a seriously flawed personality, could do so well in psychometric testing was something of a revelation. As the Treasury committee chairman Andrew Tyrie MP said: Mr Flowers proved to be “psychologically unbalance but psychometrically brilliant”.
So how does the psychometric testing industry respond to the revelation that such a flawed man with no direct experience of running a bank could be given one of the most important posts in British finance?
“One of the issues is how psychometric tests are used. So often they are misused as a smoke-screen to justify a decision based on something else,” said Alan Redman, director of Criterion Partnership and a former chair of the division of occupational psychology within the British Psychological Society.
“What we occasionally see is that an employer wants a particular candidate for some reason and they use psychometric testing to justify their decision. It’s a misuse because psychometric testing is meant to be used alongside other ways of assessing a job applicant,” Mr Redman said.
“You might get someone who is clever enough to talk their way into a job with no experience, but the employer should still check out the required skills. Psychometric tests need to be used in conjunction with other evidence, and not just on their own,” he explained.
Psychometrics, which literally means to measure mental states or abilities, goes back to Francis Galton, the 19th Century geneticist and cousin of Charles Darwin who pioneered the idea of counting and measuring physical and intellectual traits within the population.
But the real growth of psychometric testing occurred after the Second World War, especially in Britain where it was carefully regulated by the British Psychological Society to give it some kind of scientific authority – although it still has its share of scientific detractors.
“It’s fair to say that psychology doesn’t have the certainties of physics but that because we are dealing with people. But psychometrics are one of the best way of assessing individuals and dealing with the problem of these uncertainties,” Mr Redman said.
“Job interviews tend to be less consistent and precise compared to a psychometric test. You might want to know a candidate’s raw mental firepower or to know about their values and motivation, or their emotional state, which becomes possible with a properly conducted test,” he said.
In the past, psychometric tests were usually confined to very senior executive positions. Not every board appointment may use psychometrics but when they are used, it is because a company needs to know about the “additional depth” of a candidate that may not come out in an interview, Mr Redman said.
But of course, like any competitive situation, the process can be undermined by cheats, or simply by people such as Paul Flowers who are just very good at answering psychometric tests.
- 1 Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?
- 2 Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
- 3 Satellite full of sexually experimental geckos adrift in space, Russia loses control of mission
MH17 crash: Investigators discover more human remains and 'huge section of plane'
US patient Johnny Lee Banks sues doctors over circumcision that ended up as amputation
Susan Sarandon on David Bowie romance: 'He's worth idolising'
Students offered grants if they tweet pro-Israeli propaganda
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
The 'scroungers’ fight back: The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
A day in the life of Vladimir Putin: The dictator in his labyrinth
Arizona execution lasts two hours as killer Joseph Wood left 'snorting and gasping' for air
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Ukrainian military jet was flying close to passenger plane before it was shot down, says Russian officer
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: Massive rise in sale of British arms to Russia
Malaysia Airlines MH17 crash: victims’ bodies bundled in black bags and loaded onto trains
Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...
£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...
Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...
£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...