1997 - Testing the tests
I discovered this week that I
was an INFJ, or I might have been an INFP. It
was such a close call. After some further investigation
it turned out that I was really an INTP.
These seemingly baffling initials
are all recognised shorthand for personality types
that emerged from a session filling out a personality
questionnaire. Some may go through their whole
careers without ever encountering such ratings
but the chances of doing so are decreasing with
every generation as psychometric tests increase
in popularity among recruiters.
Having survived 22 years and
five career moves plus a few internal moves without
confronting a personality test I thought it was
time I put myself through one, partly out of interest
and partly out of a feeling of self-indulgence.
Would the test reveal the real
me as I saw myself or as others saw me? The test
was provided by Recruitment and Assessment Services,
the recently privatised former recruitment arm
of the civil service. Over the years RAS testers
have been responsible for advising on some of
the most senior civil service appointments.
Rachel Frost, a principal psychologist
at RAS brought along two well-known personality
tests - the 16 personality factor questionnaire
(16PF) and the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).
Both are among the most widely used personality
tests, along with the Occupational Personality
Questionnaire (OPQ) and the California Psychological
Inventory (CPI). All profess to determine your
particular personality traits - that is how you
see yourself reacting to certain circumstances.
The 16PF, devised by Raymond
Cattell and originally published in 1949, was
the first to be developed for commercial use.
It has some 186 questions which take about 40
minutes to complete. The questions seek agreement
or otherwise to various proposals such as whether
you would prefer to go to a party or read a book
at home. You answer by using a tick box indicator
to one of three options - either true, false or
questionable. The questionable category enables
the candidate to indicate that to answer true
or false would depend on the circumstances.
The final 10 questions measure
reasoning ability as something of an added extra
since this is outside the scope of personality
tests. Ms Frost chose additionally to use the
Myers Briggs test just to make sure of her findings.
She says that RAS no longer uses the test by itself
in recruitment but it is sometimes used as a back-up
to check out various findings.
She explained that normally before
testing someone for a specific job she would first
compile a list of traits or qualities that would
be desired for the job by talking with either
managers or the previous incumbents. The findings
of the test are then compared with these traits
and tested against statements in an interview
or, for some jobs, in a work simulation exercise.
A few findings in my tests - a strong leaning
towards non-conformity and autonomy and a tendency
to follow urges without much self-restraint, she
said, might not have gone down too well in the
On the other hand, she found
a lot of evidence of what she called flexible
thinking which would be a help for the job I was
doing. Although these tests are recognised for
their validity in uncovering people's personality
traits I could not help thinking that some of
the descriptions seemed rather like those you
would get from Gipsy Rose Lee when she reads your
palm. But then the test had indicated that I was
the sort of person who would make that kind of
The 16PF test suggested my personality
was somewhere between an INFJ or INFP - both introverted
intuitive types, as was the INTP type which the
Myers Briggs test indicated. All the letters stand
for elements of personality - I is for introversion,
N stands for intuition, F is for feeling, T for
thinking, P for perceiving, and J is for judging.
There are eight elements. The two that did not
show up in my tests were E for extraversion and
S for sensing. Sensing types tend to be practical
It mattered little which personality
box Ms Frost read from, they all seemed to induce
a warm glow of approval. The INFJs, for example,
"succeed by perseverance, originality, and
desire to do whatever is needed or wanted. They
put their best efforts into their work and are
quietly forceful, conscientious and concerned
This all seemed good stuff. The
INFP type, however, looked equally promising -
"Full of enthusiasm and loyalties, but seldom
talk of these until they know you well. They care
about learning, ideas, language and independent
projects of their own." But perhaps the Myers
Briggs outcome of INTP was preferable. These people,
it says are, "Quiet and reserved. They especially
enjoy theoretical or scientific pursuits."
Ms Frost said this was in fact her own type so
we settled for that one. So that's what I am.
Returning home, I read the results
from the 16PF feedback sheet to my wife who agreed
they all just about had my personality right.
Unfortunately I was reading from the wrong boxes.
She disagreed with the boxes which had actually
been crossed but then she's only known me 20 years.
Personality testing is an expensive
option in recruitment. I have no doubt that it
is useful in reassuring interviewers that they
are concentrating on the traits they might be
looking for. I did not try to fake the result
but I feel sure that if someone wanted to do so
they could produce different findings. It would
probably be a waste of time to do so, however,
because it would be difficult to engineer the
sort of results that you might expect the recruiters
to be looking for.
Testing can also provide a uniform
approach where scrupulous fairness might be an
issue. Whether such tests are really necessary,
however, in a properly structured interview -
for a top executive post for example - when certain
questions could be posed to search for reactions
that betray personality traits, is debatable.
It was notable that each of the
16 personality boxes stressed positive aspects
of character. Not one suggested that the individual
was a lazy, good-for-nothing type, yet we all
know such people exist. As the Myers Briggs paper
stated: "Type is not an excuse for doing
or not doing anything."
© 1997 Financial Times Ltd.
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