Why Personality Inventories Don’t Tell the Whole Story

Self Check - Personality Inventories

The vast majority of personality inventories rely on “self report” for their input. Quite simply, individuals assess themselves on what I’ll call the “first level.” Since I refer to a “first level,” there obviously must be at least one more level. There is, and it’s a level of assessment that individuals can NOT provide by themselves no matter how good the inventory nor how “truthfully” the individuals respond to it. Therefore, personality assessments don’t tell the whole story.

You don't know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better?

This doesn’t mean personality assessments aren’t useful (or ‘valid’ in scientific terms), it simply means that there’s more to a person’s story than they can reveal via any series of questions in a personality inventory. This goes for ALL personality inventories, some, more than others, but none can overcome the limitations of self-assessment. In short, you don’t know yourself as well as you think you do. How can we assume that even the best personality inventory completed by oneself would know you any better? This is where an expert in psychology comes in handy. To get the best understanding of an individual, an expert in psychology and psychological assessment can help to ‘fill in the gaps’ that we ALL leave in our own account of our personality.

Although many psychologists would agree and offer varying degrees of scientific proof, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of personality that serves my point. Freud’s theory is grounded in the way he described the structure of the human psyche. This structure includes three components; the Id, Ego and Superego. Without going into the details of each of these components, Freud also developed the concepts of Consciousness and Unconsciousness (although he wasn’t the first to describe them). Almost everyone has some familiarity with these terms – even if not exactly in the way that Freud defined them.

Consciousness has to do with one’s direct awareness of their thoughts, feelings and behaviors. We can fairly accurately describe things that we experience while we are in a conscious state. Unconsciousness is the other ‘side’ of ourselves; the side to which we do not have direct access and therefore do not readily understand nor recognize. As such, we are unable to describe things that exist in our unconscious mind – even though it is constantly at work.

I could stop here and have a pretty good case for why self-report assessments don’t tell the whole story. They don’t include our unconscious self and our unconscious self has a big impact on who we are.

But there’s more.

Freud also described how the conscious and unconscious aspects of our personality work together. I’m not going to go into great detail here except to say that the unconscious mind significantly influences our thinking, feeling and behavior. And it's far more influential than most think.

Here’s a simple example of how unconscious behavior reveals itself in our daily lives: Tying your shoes. This is an activity that we perform virtually every day – but odds are you can’t tell me how you do it. We’ve done it so much that it’s become “automatic.” Basically, we do it without thinking. There are many other examples. Sticking with the shoe example, behaviors that we do repetitively oftentimes become “automatic.” Automatic behaviors require very little (if any) thought, and true to unconscious behavior, we have a hard time recalling or describing them. (A nice benefit to automatic behavior is that it uses almost no mental resources. This means that we have plenty of resources to attend to other matters – aka, multi-tasking.)

Automatic behavior is just one way in which unconsciousness affects who we are. Unconsciousness also affects our thinking and feeling. In short, we are very significantly influenced by psychological processes that we aren’t even aware of. Others may note these influences (or outcomes in our behavior) but we don’t. Things we say may be very apparent to others, but pass completely unnoticed by ourselves. For example, some individuals have a habit of repeating various phrases (usually “filler” words) without any awareness. You may know someone who repeatedly says, “at the end of the day”, or “you know what I mean?”, “um”, “actually”, or any of a cast of phrases that are “thrown in” to the conversation but add no value. Even if they are partially aware that they say these things, they have no idea how frequently they do it – unless you record them and show it back to them. In addition, people are very poor judges of how much they talk (vs. listen). You can test this with a friend, but I must warn that you this is almost never appreciated. Test at your own risk.

These are some simple ways in which our unconscious mind affects our behavior without our awareness. But that’s not all. There are even more “active” ways that our unconscious mind affects us that can be very confusing, or even misleading to an accurate assessment of ourselves (as actors) AND others (as observers).

Freud also developed the concept of “defense mechanisms.” In short, these are ways of thinking and behaving that counteract a thought or memory that is bothering us at an unconscious level. One such example is called, “reaction formation.”

Reaction formation is the term Freud used to describe the unconscious -- and extreme -- change of thought and behavior resulting from one’s unconscious need to (over)compensate for previous behavior that the individual now considers offensive. By way of “reaction formation” the individual unconsciously undergoes a radical transformation wherein the behavior or attitude they once held, suddenly becomes hyper offensive and disgustingly deplorable -- in others! Smoking is often given as an example. Former smokers sometimes become the loudest and most assertive critics of those who smoke. Freud’s theorizing is that by engaging in overcompensating behavior, one is clearing up or avoiding the unconscious tension they experience by virtue of having been a former transgressor.

Other forms of defense mechanisms include denial (unwilling or unable to accept the truth because of the psychological harm it causes), projection (attributing one’s own intolerable thoughts or problems to another so as to ‘shift blame’), repression (a less extreme variant of denial that involves pushing one’s hurtful thoughts or feelings into the unconscious self so as not to deal with them directly). And there are others.

Scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal.

The point is, not only are we largely unaware of our most frequent behaviors (automatic behavior), but our psyche is constantly at work trying to protect ourselves from threatening thoughts, feelings or behaviors (defense mechanisms). As a result, scores on personality assessments may be radically different from what an objective assessment would reveal. And this isn’t because the respondent is lying, they really believe that they are accurately describing themselves. There are many other factors that distort our valid understanding of ourselves, these are just two of the most common.

An expert in psychology and psychological assessment can identify these, and other unconscious influences on behavior, and consequently, scores on a self-report personality inventory. Sometimes this can be done merely by noting unusual or telling patterns in the individual’s responses to a reputable personality assessment, but frequently it requires the collection of data beyond the single assessment. Psychological interviews are among the best ways to spot potentially misleading information as taken straight from the personality inventory. The content of these interviews can be designed specifically to test questions raised by the instrument.

It’s very important to stress that these types of advanced interpretation of any psychometric assessment are complex. They need to be left to experts who have a thorough understanding of psychology as well as tests and measures used as tools to predict behavior.

In sum: Solid psychological assessments offer great value over less scientifically constructed measures (e.g., typical unstructured interviews). But, as with any other tool, it’s important to know the true strengths and limits of what they offer in the complex task of psychological assessment. As anyone who’s made a regrettable hire can agree, what you see in the interview isn’t always what you get on the job.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.

Psychology button on computer where "Enter" key should be

Technology can fly planes, drive cars; heck, virtually perform remote surgery (pun, not intended). Some believe that literally all jobs will eventually be performed by technology. For them, if a “machine” isn’t already doing it, just wait. (Note: This is an extreme view).

Technology is changing the world faster than ever. If you agree with Moore’s law, it will only continue to increase its impact even faster over time.

Will technology take my job?

Probably so. But don’t quit yet! If you’ve been around a few years, like I have, it’s likely that technology has already “taken” all or much of the job you had 10 years ago. You’ve simply changed to stay in front of the technological evolution.

What does science say?

A recent study looked at the rise of technology in relation to the probability of it overtaking more than 700 jobs catalogued in O*Net, a public database of jobs and the various knowledge, skills and abilities required for their performance. The researchers (Frye and Osborne, 2013) reasoned that the probability of technology overtaking a given job is closely related to the time it will take for this to occur. As such, they created a list rank ordering the probability that these 700 jobs will be overtaken by technology in 20 years.

The study is now a few years old, but seems to have already made some accurate predictions. For example, you’ve probably received a “robocall”, a task once was performed by a person.

The crux of the study is in the researchers’ identification of three key job characteristics they refer to as “bottlenecks to computerization.” The degree to which a job encompasses one or more of these “bottlenecks” predicts the probability (and time) required for technology to be able to perform that job. These three bottlenecks include: 1) Fine Perception and Manipulation, 2) Creative Intelligence and 3) Social Intelligence.

The three bottlenecks were further broken down into seven more discreet tasks. Of these seven tasks, Social Intelligence encompasses a majority of four.

The practical implication is that if your job requires you to “read” people or influence them, particularly in emotional ways, you’re likely safe from seeing a robot at your desk one morning anytime soon.

Specifically, the study predicts that social workers, therapists and teachers should have relatively long careers as far as “automation threat” is concerned. Psychologist, is also in the top 20 of the 700 jobs ranked according to the difficulty of automation.

Although this research is new, the issue isn’t. Psychological assessment has long been a topic of technological debate: Can a personality assessment alone more accurately predict behavior than an expert in psychological assessment?

Continue reading “Psychology by Machine? Not for a While.”

Why are you hiring “can do” when “will do” is what you’ll get?

Superhero or Superzero? True performance is less obvious to predict than you think.

Research confirms what most already know: When it comes to job performance, there’s a real difference between “can do” and “will do.” But how much does "can do vs will do" really influence the way you are hiring? Which person do you think shows up for your interview? Is it possible that we have a significant problem of hiring for “can do” when what we’ll eventually get is “will do?”

In scientific literature this is referred to as “Maximum” vs “Typical” performance. One of the most clever studies published illustrating the difference between Maximum and Typical performance came about partly by accident. The researchers, led by Paul Sackett, were interested in designing a valid way to assess and hire cashiers in a retail grocery store. For simplicity’s sake, I take the liberty of referencing the actual study from a story-teller’s perspective instead of a researcher’s. (Researchers, please cut me a little slack)

A given number of cashiers (say, 10) were instructed to do their best in terms of speed and accuracy when “checking out” the exact same lot of groceries. They knew they were being assessed; heck, their “supervisor” stood over them with a stopwatch! After all 10 of the cashiers had completed checking out the same items, these ‘subjects’ were thanked, business went about as usual and the study was concluded.

Or so they thought.

Later, unbeknownst to these cashiers, they were measured again for their speed and accuracy under identical conditions to the original assessment, except this time they did not know they were being assessed.

Once completed, the results from the first measurement (Maximum Performance) were compared with the results of the second measurement (Typical Performance). What would you guess the correlation to be between the two?

Almost zero!

The study found that the correlation, or relationship, between what people can do vs what they will do was a mere .14! Interestingly, this is about the same as the correlation between the typical selection interview and job performance. Coincidence?

Stop for a moment and consider the implications of this simple, but profound study. Essentially, there is very little in common between what a person “can do” versus what they typically “will do.”

So I ask again: Which person do you think shows up for your interview? And next, what are the implications for your carefully screened team?

Uh, Houston, ….

Experts in the science of psychology at work are well aware of this challenge. As for myself, I tell my clients that I assess for what people “will do” in addition to what they “can do.” Obviously, this requires special expertise since almost all job applicants want to make the best impression they can. It’s not easy to see through the “Sunday Best” they can maintain for a full day of interviewing or assessment.

However: It is possible for a trained and experienced expert in psychological assessment at work to distinguish the difference between can do and will do. But this is still something that many have a hard time doing – even experts.

So, for your next hire, ask yourself: “Am I really measuring this person for what they can do, or what they will do?” You might just find that an expert in psychological assessment can help.

Psychology at work: It really makes a difference.

What vs How: Which is more important and why we don’t act accordingly.

Little boy playing violin

If you really want to know who a person is, would you rather know what they’ve accomplished, or how they’ve performed?

You may already have an answer in mind, but how sure are you?

Two stories from my childhood may shed a bit of light on the controversial issue of knowing what vs how.

Childhood Example #1 : “Sour notes”

When I was in third grade I picked up my Dad’s violin and began playing a few simple songs. Noting that I could make the ole fiddle produce recognizable tunes, and desperate to find something I was good at (neither academia nor sports were my thing in grade school), my folks signed me into violin lessons.

By my fourth year of lessons it was time to demonstrate my virtuosity to the rest of the school. For this grand debut, my instructor suggested I play a duet — WITH MY MOTHER! Had smartphones been around, this would have warranted a classic, “OMG” text — or worse. But I’m committed to keeping these posts at or below a PG-13 rating. {Note: That isn’t me in the picture — but that’s how I felt.}

My mother was an accomplished pianist — and she can still play — but some of the virtuosity of her material has ‘frayed’ a bit with disuse. Nevertheless, her part was easy for her (even today). As for me, despite the fact that I’d be: playing a violin, in front of my classmates, with my mother — my part was a real stretch for my skill level.

Continue reading “What vs How: Which is more important and why we don’t act accordingly.”

Emotional Intelligence: Breakthrough or Been Through?

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional Intelligence.

Unless you’ve been ‘hiding under a rock’ for the last 30 years, you’ve heard of this term. And, unless you’ve been in grad school for the same amount of time, you’ve probably used it. (Just kidding — sort of)

EI, as it’s commonly abbreviated, charged into mainstream popularity following Daniel Goleman’s, 1995 NY Times bestseller, “Emotional Intelligence.”

Generally referring to behaviors reflecting the awareness and management of one’s own and others’ emotions, EI was picked up by consulting firms faster than a lonely $100 bill on a casino floor. Today, EI is a multi-million dollar industry served by hundreds of consulting firms and assessed by nearly as many different psychological tools.

How did EI get so popular? Continue reading “Emotional Intelligence: Breakthrough or Been Through?”