What Is… Psychological Testing

head with cogs inside

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.

Psychometric validation

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.N
  • Norms: Test scores don’t mean much until you have something to compare them 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.

Commercial tests

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 together 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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

21 thoughts on “What Is… Psychological Testing”

  1. Tests can be fun to do like ‘when will get married’ over on Buzzfeed. When you have nothing else to do and want to ‘zone-out’ 😁
    Real psychological tests that is something else. They are very useful but need need need to be interpret and taken by someone who is skilled in that. I’ve seen people read results of testing and not knowing what they were reading.
    I guess the fact that those tests aren’t available online for everybody could be to prevent everybody ‘interpreting’ them wrong and drawing the wrong conclusions.
    No written tests were performed on me. Just one time where I fell into the burnout category instead of the depressed state due to one question! (but I’ve said that already like a million times, but I’m still perplexed about it).

  2. What’s weird about the MBTI is that neither Myers nor Briggs was formally educated in psychology or psychometric testing. It’s popular in pop psychology, not in “serious” psychololgy.

  3. Ashley the only time I remember taking any tests was the first admittance here to the Mental Health Ward. Some were done in the presence of my Psychiatrist, others with nurses, and also some where I could sit at a table to work on my own.
    I do not remember most of them, but the test they give to you when they think you may have had a stroke. It is just a simple test. I guess though that it does gives them a look at how you are doing. I had one back in July because of fear that I may had suffered a stroke.

  4. Psychological testing is what I spend a huge chunk of my time doing, but not the Myers-Briggs, instead the standardized type of testing that’s normed on a representative sample and is used to make educational decisions. It’s very interesting trying to interpret those results and honestly there’s still so much we don’t know about how certain broad abilities of intelligence predict future learning.

  5. Personality tests and personality ‘types’ have always made me uncomfortable, especially the number of them and the detail that they go into. I’m hesitant about categorising things in general, because most things don’t categorise well despite the attempts. And whether or not personalities are categoriseable, it feels horribly clinical to me! And lastly, I hate putting myself in a box, so if there is an objective personality type which you could assign to me, I don’t want to know it! No way, urgh πŸ˜†.

    I’m guessing the main purpose of them is for therapists to save time in understanding the main personality features of a person?

    And I guess so you can quantify/digitise personality aspects so that you can then do data processing/analysis on that.

    Anyway, for everyday life, they seem pretty pointless to me!

      1. To use the introvert/extrovert example again, understanding that introversion is an actual thing can be helpful in framing what someone has experienced but perhaps not understood or been able to be self-compassionate around.

    1. I think there’s a mix of pop psychology and tests that are clinical/research oriented.

      Tests like the MBTI and the enneagram are popular but don’t necessarily accomplish much.

      Measuring the extent of different personality traits can be useful in research and sometimes in clinical practice. If someone is going to do a study on how levels of introversion or extroversion influence the mental health impact of lockdown-related social isolation, there needs to be a way to measure introversion. and extroversion.

  6. I used a lot of CBT testing tools like the BDI (Becks Depression Inventory). I worked a lot with patients who had schizophrenia so used tools like PANSS (Positive, the Negative Syndrome Scale) for schizophrenia or BPRS (Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale).

    I found them to be useful and patients quite often had a ‘lightbulb’ moment like “Ah. This is me, this is what’s happening to me.”

    And follow-up testing was always interesting, never knowing if there was a clear improvement/change. Most patients enjoyed monitoring their symptoms over a period of time, particularly after therapy.

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