In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is psychological testing.
The assorted personality quizzes and things like that you can find online probably come from someone thinking up a few questions, throwing them together, and boom, there you have it. Psychological tests developed by psychological researchers have quite a lot more that goes into developing the tests.
The Simon Fraser University Library describes psychological tests this way:
Psychological tests (also known as mental measurements, psychological instruments, psychometric tests, inventories, rating scales) are standardized measures of a particular psychological variable such as personality, intelligence, or emotional functioning.SFU Library
There are two major collections of psychological test listings, the Mental Measurements Yearbook/Tests In Print and the American Psychological Association’s PsycTests. For people who don’t have a copy or have academic library access, tracking down tests on the internet can be a bit of a production.
Purposes of testing
Besides tests used for clinical purposes, there are achievement tests, aptitude tests, neuropsychological tests, personality tests, and various others. Some tests are mostly for practical clinical applications, while others are mostly for research.
A test’s length may give you some idea of what its purpose is. Short tests may be intended as screening tools, which identify people who might (but don’t necessarily) have a condition. Shorter tests may also be intended to keep track of fluctuations over time in someone who has a given condition. Longer tests that require a psychologist to score and interpret may be useful for diagnostic purposes.
Researchers need to make sure a test actually works. If you look up a given test on Google Scholar, there will typically be multiple papers from different researchers addressing the validity of a given test. A few of the things they’re looking for are:
- validity: If a test claims to measure self-esteem, is it actually measuring that? Is it able to differentiate between similar constructs, like self-esteem vs. self-confidence?
- reliability: If you’re giving someone a personality test, and you give them the same test a week later and a week after that, the scores should be pretty darn similar, i.e. there should be test-retest reliability.
- norms: Tests scores don’t mean much until you have something to compare it to. If you’re testing people for narcissism, deciding where to draw the line between someone who’s arrogant and someone who’s narcissistic comes from giving the test to a bunch of people and establishing normative scores.
Some tests are commercially owned and sold through a testing company. Pearson Assessments is a large testing company, and it has the rights to quite a few tests. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI-2) is one example; it’s useful in clinical and forensic settings. Since the results have important implications and interpretation is more complex than just crunching numbers, PhD or similar credentials are required in order to purchase a test kit. The MMPI-2 test listing linked to above includes some of the details of the norms, including the size, gender, and ages of the population used as a normative sample.
The Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the popular 4-letter code personality type system, is a commercial test, although it’s a pop psychology test rather than a validated test that’s used for research or clinical purposes. The assorted MBTI-related tests that you can take for free online are just an approximation.
How are they useful?
I was thinking about this recently because I was putting a page with a listing of psychological tests. I wanted to track down legit tests, and it surprised me how much hunting around it took. But I guess, like anything else, free stuff is harder to find than the stuff you have to pay for. For me, these kinds of tests are most useful for prompting self-reflection and seeing changes over time. Individual absolute scores probably aren’t all that meaningful in most cases.
My current doctor doesn’t use any tests with me. The family practice clinic I used to go to made me do the stupid PHQ-9 every visit; it didn’t matter if I was going in for something totally unrelated to my mental health. There’s no need for pap tests and PHQ-9’s to be happening in the same visit.
Do your care providers use any tests with you? Are they something you ever do online?
- Simon Fraser University Library: Psychological Tests and Measurements
- Wikipedia: Psychological testing | Psychometrics
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.