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Donkin on Work - Psychometrics

February 2008 – Playing the part in personality testing

Some actors get jobs because they are well known. A strong body of TV or repertory work is sufficient to keep them in the frame when directors and producers are casting new productions. It helps to explain why you see so many familiar faces every time the BBC decides to create a classic serial.

The recipe goes something like this: take one Jane Austen adaptation, stir in a bit of Dench and Gambon, add a sprinkling of Sawalha and Atkins, bring to the boil and serve with a garnish of stately homes and cobbled streets.

The vast majority of actors, however, rely on their faces to fit the parts under review. The problem, according to Danny Richmond, the managing director of CastNet, a casting service for actors and directors, is that their photographs are often too neutral or natural to allow them to stand out from the crowd.

He makes the point in a recent blog that it’s important for actors to understand the parts to which they are best fitted. This will allow them to “play up” their character in their promotional photographs.

Outside the acting profession, our looks are supposed to be less important but we would be fooling ourselves to believe that the way we present ourselves at an interview is insignificant.

How is it that some actors can be chosen time and again to look like a business executive, while others might play murderers and yet others, aristocrats or tramps? We might not like to acknowledge this, but there is a “business look” and it’s not just about a suit and a briefcase.

Most of the male executives I have met recently have been nurturing a smart casual appearance, typically a black suit with an open plain shirt and cuff links. If they want to turn up the entrepreneurial image they go for a short hair cut, wear a chunky watch and possibly allow a touch of gold.

Invariably the women I meet will go for subdued tones and trouser suits but I have been noticing a greater variety of dress creating a much softer appearance in the past few years. Power dressing has been out for some time.

But dress is only part of the deal. The other thing to consider is the character we choose to adopt. This might seem superficial stuff compared to our qualifications, skills and experience. But it matters more than we care to believe.

Mr Richmond has produced a list of adjectives most used in casting descriptions. The top twenty are: attractive, confident, bitchy, arrogant, business type, beautiful, sexy, serious, pretty, charismatic, strong, authoritarian, aggressive, handsome, glamorous, ruthless, intellectual, neurotic, sophisticated and victim.

Most of these would probably fail discrimination tests for job advertisements. Apart from those which highlight the sex of the character it is noticeable how many of the descriptions outline strong features. In the theatre, at least, there is little demand for pale, limp characters.

The same may apply to other forms of work. In fact there is an argument for job candidates to go along to an interview “in character.” This goes against everything I have ever heard from occupational psychologists when making the case for personality testing.

The underpinning premise for personality testing is that some people have personality types better suited to some roles than others. The extrovert, for example, is likely to have an advantage over the introvert for a sales job that requires cold calling on the telephone. Equally a sunny disposition will count for nothing if your job requires a concentrated analysis of tables and figures.

Personality testing is most often recommended, alongside other selection methods, in working out how people may fit within a team or respond to some specialist function. Sometimes you can work out what is required and adapt your character to reflect the answers you give in the test.

I have “cheated” this way in the past when carrying out some tests, to prove to myself that personality questionnaires looking for your working style or preferences can be skewed by candidates. The response from psychologists has been to argue that, in the long term, those who adjust their behaviour in this way are only going to make themselves unhappy when they find themselves doing work to which they are not fitted.

This means that where personality tests are not used - and for initial candidate selection this is still the case across most sectors - all of us are risking the possibility of finding ourselves doing work that we might not enjoy. In reality – unless we are extremely fortunate - there are aspects to almost every job that we dislike. But most of us are prepared to take the rough with the smooth.

In a new book, Multiplicity,* the science writer Rita Carter argues that most people have multiple personalities. While conventional psychology underpinning the personality testing market in workplace selection and team building, assumes that everyone has a base personality informing their personal preferences, Ms Carter argues that each individual comprises a team of personalities and that people switch back and forth quite naturally, adopting different moods to meet specific demands.

If her theories are correct, it throws into question the worth of selecting people on the basis of their personality.

While few psychologists would reject the idea that people are capable of play-acting in certain circumstances, there would be less support for the notion that adopting different demeanours for prolonged periods is perfectly natural. Behaving out of character is usually regarded as a source of stress or, at the very least, unhappiness. The argument goes that an adopted personality is ultimately unsustainable.

The ability to assume different personalities explains why some comedians are nothing like the cheery people you see on stage if you meet them in the street. It explains why a boss can appear a tough autocrat in the office while behaving as a gentle parent at home.

If we do have Chameleon personalities, there may be a good argument after all for representing ourselves in personality tests in a way that assumes what we regard the right personality for a chosen roll. This means that we might dress for a job both outwardly and inwardly.

The Romans encouraged the study or rhetoric and oration, using the same word – actor – for both a legal prosecutor and a performer on stage. Indeed whether you were performing in the theatre or performing in a job, it was accepted that you were playing a part.

Just as Shakespeare argued that “one man in his time plays many parts” in a lifetime, the part-playing may extend to almost everything we do each day. And if we seek to land a particular part there may be little to lose in second-guessing our approach. If an actor can play an executive, so can the rest of us.

*Multiplicity, The new Science of Personality, by Rita Carter, is published by Little Brown, price £12.99.

See also: Faking personality tests

   
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