In November last year, Amanda Milling revealed that the Conservative Party had completely changed its assessment process for candidates, including the reintroduction of “psychometric testing”.
Already there are signs that candidates are being given advice on this process – the College Green Group, for instance, has suggested that the “Hogan Assessment Series is the gold standard” on its website. “If you want to be a Conservative MP, passing the assessment is the first step on that road”, it says of all the steps.
Disclaimer here: I have never done the Hogan Assessment Series, nor am privy to the internal assessment tools of CCHQ. I can only say that, as a psychology graduate, I think it’s a flawed idea to introduce psychometric assessments into the recruitment process – whichever field one is in.
What are psychometrics anyway? In broad terms, they are a form of psychological measurement that can be around attitudes, knowledge, personality, educational achievement and much more. Perhaps the most famous one is the IQ test, which is used to measure intelligence. Another famous psychometric test is the Big Five Personality Test, which scores people for traits including Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness to Experience and Agreeableness.
Whether these tests work is a whole new debate in itself. Personally, I think IQ takes too rigid a view of intelligence (it does not measure creative intelligence very well, for instance), whereas – on the other hand – I quite like the Big Five Personality Test. It doesn’t feel particularly judgemental – although no one wants a high score for neuroticism – and researchers have been able to use it for many interesting studies.
What I strongly disagree with is using psychometric tests in the recruitment process, which plenty of businesses now do. It’s understandable that some turn to such tools. Psychometrics simplify decision-making and can help organisations to whittle their applicants down. They can help them explain why someone has been rejected (“it was your score on X test”). And maybe businesses even think they’re “following the science” in deploying such tests.
But they are too reductive for multiple reasons. For one, there is no such thing as an “objective” psychological measure, however much time and effort researchers have put into developing these tools (and some are very good). That’s because their authors have to make decisions on what constitutes constructs such as “intelligence”, “extraversion”, and many other traits, which inevitably means their own subjective ideas go into the framework. Even the most objective-looking tool will have biases.
Another flawed premise of psychometric tests is that you can decide what (by way of score, or personality traits) would make someone a good fit for a job/ political candidacy. But we know that any number of people can inhabit a role, and bring something completely new to it. Furthermore, it means psychologists/ businesses have to decide what good traits are – which is no easy task.
One trait the Big Five Personality Test measures is “disagreeableness”, for example. On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like a very nice quality. It means you’re less bothered about people pleasing. Agreeable people, on the other hand, are more cooperative.
But the former trait still confers advantages. Disagreeableness is useful for things like negotiating and taking tough decisions, as you’re less concerned about what others think. Many MPs will be disagreeable; such is the nature of the job. But would a psychometric test take this into account? Or would these sorts of profiles be weeded out?
Lastly, I’m not convinced that psychometric tests can in any way predict how well a team will work together. The Hogan Assessment, for instance, says it will leave leaders “well-equipped to build high-performing teams and thriving organizations.” But skills cannot be slotted together so easily. Chemistry, in the workplace and otherwise, is mysterious and fluid. All relationships change throughout time, and, actually, a better predictor of how well people get along might be consistent proximity (see the number of people who get married on Strictly Come Dancing).
The aim of psychometric testing in recruitment is ultimately to quantify a person, as well as pairing them up with someone else in a “complementary” set of boxes. But we all know that life doesn’t work this way. There’s a fluidity and randomness to relationships, professional and otherwise, that data cannot capture.
Perhaps what’s most important in recruitment decisions is gut instinct, which Malcolm Gladwell famously devoted a whole book to, titled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. It describes how unconscious, fast mental processes can help us make better decisions than ones that are more planned. I fear in our data-obsessed world, however, we will seek to override intuition more and more with psychometric tools. But sometimes keeping things simple is the best route.