Originally Published April 16, 2019 by Aspiring Minds, now SHL
Personality tests have become a significant part of the recruitment process for most companies in almost all sectors. A personality test helps understand the recruiters the candidate’s fitment for the job/ profile/company. While most personality tests are not used as elimination criteria, they are definitely an important tool for selecting the right candidate. Most tests are essentially designed to assess an individual’s habitual behavior (e.g. whether a candidate is agreeable or aggressive) as well as how an individual deals with certain situations (remains calm and composed in crisis or gets all shaky).
History of Personality Tests
Earlier people started using personality assessment for job fitment analysis, evidence for it correlating with job success emerged with the Big Five theory in 1991 based on the paper by Barrick and Mount. Soon after personality tests started appearing in the selection process of companies. Thus began a tradition of multi-scale personality tests like MMPI (Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory), CPI (California Psychological Inventory), 16 PF (16 Personality Factor), NEO (Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness), HPI (Hogan Personality Inventory), etc. Continued research showed that primarily there five factors that determined the personality were of any person. These five factors came to be known as the Big Five Factor and today they are widely and successfully used for personnel selection in companies around the world. The Big Five Personality traits are – Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, Openness to Experience, and Agreeableness.
Types of Personality Tests
The early personality tests were what we call today Normative Tests. Normative personality tests would measure personality characteristics on individual scales and the end score measures a specific characteristic against confirmed patterns of normality (i.e., a bell curve of other people’s scores). A Normative test would allow employers to compare a candidate’s results with other job-applicants, particular groups, and/or populations. A Normative test is based on the Likert Scale. A typical question in a Normative personality test would present the job-applicant with a statement (Ex- ‘ I like talking to new people at parties and then provide rating options (e.g., from a scale of 1 = strongly agree – 5 = strongly disagree)).
However such questions may lead to employees responding according to social desirability. In a job selection context, social desirability responding refers to the situation where a job-applicant would attempt to respond to personality-related items in a psychometric test in such a way that would reflect him positively but not necessarily accurately. Even though there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers in a personality test, job applicants would obviously want to be seen to possess the personality traits that they consider would be favoured by the potential employers. That is, the job applicant will be motivated to select ‘good’ answers in order to increase his chances of being hired. One might also call it ‘faking’ the personality test. Thus a Likert-based scale can be easily distorted due to social desirability and motivation.
This gave way to the development of Ipsative tests or Forced Choice test as the test items are based on forced-choice questions and responses. In the case of Ipsative tests, each choice is scored and scores represent the relative strengths of the person being tested and cannot be compared directly to any other individual. Personality items constructed with an Ipsative approach present job-applicant with options that are equal in desirability so that his choice will not be influenced by social desirability. In this type of test, the job-applicant is forced to choose/ rank among two or more equally positive or negative options. He would be asked to indicate which items are ‘most true’ of them and which are ‘least true’ of them in their everyday behavior. An example of the two formats of a Forced Choice question would be:
In the above question both choices, A) and B), are equally desirable from a job point of view. Choice a) indicates the person is outgoing and lively while b) indicates the person is hardworking. Thus, by asking a candidate to endorse one of the two options, the item forces out, per se, the true inclinations and traits of the candidate. Since the candidate cannot make him/herself look good on both the statements, the faking tendency is reduced (Zavala, Albert (1965)1, Jackson, Victor R. Wroblewski & Michael C. Ashton 20002). It is quite evident that Format 2 will give more flexibility to the test-taker to rate the two options and provide higher granularity in response as compared to Format 1.
Even though Normative and Ipsative Personality Tests check the same thing, the results are not completely correlated in a faking environment. The correlation between the two tests comes out to be 0.4 – 0.5. Apart from personality, the Forced-Choice Personality Test has also shown correlation to the logical ability of a candidate, but there is only enough evidence of it being a useful measurement of personality and provides a significant incremental correlation with performance over cognitive measures like Logical Ability.
Even though Ipsative tests have proven to have shown high criterion validity with on-job performance; constructing an Ipsative scale can be quite a challenge. Scales are internally correlated and so scoring mechanisms for such tests have to be specialized and designed by experts. Also since the job applicant is forced to choose one out of two options, Ipsative tests would invariably result in losing on one scale.
Comparison of General Personality Test and Forced-Choice Personality Test
It is often a debate on which of the two tests is better. Truth is both of the tests are suitable for different situations. If you are taking a psychometric test for self appraisal or self evaluation then a simple normative personality test is more suitable as it is simpler to understand and there are less chances of confusion. Similarly for recruitment and selection process, a simple personality test is suitable for entry level fresher hiring.
However if a company is looking at a sophisticated personality test for selection process of mid managers and senior managers, then a Forced Choice Test is much more reliable and shows high correlation with Job Success. This has been shown multiple studies including a comparative study of Normative and Ipsative personality tests by Christiansen, Burns & Montgomery (2005)3. However a safe approach would be to embed both tests into a criterion validity study and choose the one that shows highest correlation with job success.
It is often debated which tool works well, Normative or Ipsative; both have advantages and disadvantages as have been demonstrated in real-world setting. Normative Tests are simple to construct and easy to understand, but are also susceptible to faking and error due to social desirability. On the other hand Forced Choice personality tests offer a much more accurate measurement of candidate’s personality but it is difficult to construct and leads to losing in scale. The tests need to be used independently depending on the situation. Forced-choice would be more suitable for assessing higher management or those with high cognitive skills and a simple personality test would be ideal for freshers.