When we set realistic goals for employees, we improve their performance. When we believe in them, it improves too. Personality tests convince us to believe in our employees. Our belief more than the test itself accounts for the better performance of hires passing it.
For example, the article, “Think Yourself Better” (The Economist, May 21, 2011 edition), cites research in which patients improve even from fake surgeries. Thus, to see the true effect of a treatment, the researcher must conduct a blind trial. Still, patients can feel and see results even if they know a placebo has been used on them.
If placebos can make us feel better about our bodies, they can make us feel better about many things. This includes how we feel about our employees. Personality tests do not go through a blind trial. Their primary evidence is that employers say that hires who pass the test perform better than those who do not. Patients who take placebos say their bodies are better than when they do not take them.
OkCupid, the dating site, ran a test to see how much weight their word carried in making two people believe they were a good match. Their word inspired bad matches to exchange nearly as many messages as good matches did (“Make Me a Match,” ([The New Yorker, August 25, 2014 issue]).
As a founder of OkCupid, Christian Rudder, wrote in his book, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), “When we tell people they are a good match, they act as if they are. Even when they should be wrong for each other.” If belief in personality tests can make us feel good about whom we date, it can make us feel good about whom we hire. Good feelings yield good results.
It is authority that makes these placebos work. It is highly persuasive. This is true even if we know authority is selling something. Fairy dust will deliver better performance as long as we believe it does. Authority is critical to that belief.