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18 Dec 2014

Personality Tests Fairy Dust in Hiring

Believing in what personality tests do for us is more important than what they actually do.

Personality tests produce better hires largely because we believe they do. They increase our belief in our employees. That belief produces better performances.

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.

In medicine, researchers must account for the placebo effect. This occurs when patients feel or improve from a fake treatment. Placebos can take many forms.

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.

14 Responses

  1. Quoting: “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.” Glad to see the second sentence!!! Because, for me at least, I cannot believe any personality test would impact my belief in an employee (or a neighbor, a friend, a store owner, a family member, …). It’s the connections between the two individuals that matter. How can a personality really make that determination??? How does one PASS a personality test by the way?

    1. Agree with John. And yet, yes, there have been very convincing studies not least in education showing that a teacher who believes a pupil has outstanding promise will behave in such a way that the pupil concerned achieves outstanding results. This, although the researchers picked the student’s name at random before ‘whispering’ it to the teacher.

      Unfair? Well yes. I wish we could all treat all our employees, colleagues, students – family members – as though they had outstanding capabilities. Because, as it turns out, they do. We do.

      1. Mike Lehr

        Yes, Marilyn, I’ve heard of those studies. If there is one you particularly value, I would welcome hearing about it. You’re so right about outstanding capabilities. So many times we give personality tests to find people who will “fit in.” In actuality, the best thing could be finding those who don’t fit in.

    2. Mike Lehr

      John, I would suspect that they would not impact you, but they do others. There is much evidence supporting that we like things simply because some authority told us to do so even if we don’t. That authority could be many things, including a personality test. One passes a personality test if his answers correspond to what the one giving the test wants to see. In my post, it’s the employer. It’s disingenuous to tell job applicants that there is no right answer, when there is.

      1. By your words, it’s not that there are RIGHT answers but the EMPLOYER’S CHOICE of answers. Of course, an employer has the right, I guess, to choose the “right” answers. But, I’ve always seen personality tests much more as formative discovery than as summative selection. So yes, the employer can use the test to find the “right” employee – of course. But to me, it’s best used to further the honest efforts to further the success of the employer’s organization.

        1. Mike Lehr

          Well, John, it all depends how you define honest efforts. Almost all companies who use them will claim they are using them honestly to further the success of their organizations. That often means screening out personalities who don’t help and accepting those who do even if all other objective factors are good. From the standpoint of the job applicants though, they have failed the personality test when the employer screens them out.

  2. If it’s true that personality tests don’t really have very high predictive power for workplace success but instead they work because people believe in them, then the logical conclusion of that is:

    a) Personality tests should not be questioned as that dilutes their value.

    b) Cheaper, simpler and less invasive options should be considered. Another commenter mentioned the possibility to use “random” as a choice mechanism. That probably won’t gain much headway… But consider “horoscopes”. A lot of people already believe in them. They can be computer generated at very low cost. They have no predictive power.

    Joking aside, there is a cost for basing our decisions on a counter-factual or non-factual basis…

    1. Mike Lehr


      Well, since you are joking, I’ll pass on sharing the many better logical conclusions that we both know exist.

      There is cost to facts too though. My brother once said to me, “But Mike, the facts are the facts.” To which I said, “But facts are interpreted and there are many ways to interpret facts.” Statistics are facts but yet we have the common saying, “Statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics.” The true cost of facts is that we believe they support the truth we wish to see and forget that they support the truths others want to see.

      Facts don’t concern me. Who’s interpreting the facts does.

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving your insights, Greger.

  3. Mike, There was a remarkable study in (I think) the 1970s where the teachers of new groups of students were told in confidence by researchers that one person in each class (named) showed remarkable promise. In each case the student ended up getting the best marks AND being voted the most popular person. In reality no pre-tests had been carried out, the names had been chosen at random by researchers who knew nothing about the students.

    I’ve been looking for the reference without success. My own articles from that period are only on *paper* and would require some digging, to say the least.

    When it comes to personality tests, I have found no reason to ‘believe’ in any of them – having looked at many. Some are of course better than others; but almost all are based on the misconception that each person has one, static personality.

    1. Mike Lehr

      Marilyn, it seems we agree on personality tests. About twice a year, I get approached to sell personality tests. I question the methodology and “proof.” I even had one vendor concede some points only to counter finally with, “But Mike, you can make a lot of money selling these.”

      The biggest problem I see with these is that they don’t really give models for adjusting management styles. For instance, if you have an extrovert and introvert working together on a project, how do you as a manager manage to encourage them to work best together?

      You’re right they are static. They don’t account for different circumstances and moods.

      By the way, my wife is a retired school teacher. At one time, she was having problems with a particular child in her class. He was very disruptive, and she didn’t find a pure reward/punishment approach worked with him. So, without telling me who the child was, she asked me to present to her class (3rd grade) so she could see how I would react to him. It did not take long to notice him. Even though he was disruptive, I could tell he was extremely bright about it. I could also see why teachers would be quick to reprimand and punish his rudeness and profanity. As he did these, I asked him questions about why he thought or felt certain that way. Gradually, I incorporated him into the discussion and he contributed. Fortunately, some of his disruptive remarks dissipated as this occurred so he was no longer violating any school rules.

      Nevertheless, my wife saw enough to know what to do from there. The child eventually became a class leader to whom my wife could trust and assign responsibilities.

      The same thing happens in the workplace with employees whom I’ve worked with and managed . . . regardless of personality.

      1. Mike, the more I read the comments, the more our views seem similar. A manager can do anything her / his manager supports, choose any employees … Better, for me is to use better criteria than personality tests to choose them and then lead the employee efforts to improve outcomes, knowing full well there’s no fully best approach that will obviously work.

        Oh, and by the way, this provides the experience and learning opportunities to work with those other people that are there – cannot be selected!!!

        1. Oh yes Mike I know the one about how much money one can make by manipulation… Love your school story. And it’s nicely illustrative of my main point – Greger and John:

          If we (whether as teachers, managers, colleagues, friends) were to learn sufficient humility and respect for our fellow humans to be able to recognize the individual genius of each, then everyone would bloom. And by extension: such insight comes not from the brain and analytical methods but from the heart and, in particular, through self-knowledge.

          We will of course never know everything about ourselves, any more than we will know everything about another person. But that in itself is an insight that helps set us on the path.

          I suspect all 3 of you understand this very well. And, I wonder whether it’s not one of the key issues of our time.

          1. Absolutely with you on these thoughts. Really sad that there isn’t more effort to assist when possible everyone in their efforts to improve. A “mentor from afar – sadly now deceased,” Stephen Covey, talked about the “Law of the Farm” – no matter how much more everyone contributes, there is always more that can be contributed!!!

          2. I agree with your point about the genius in everyone. I like to say that everyone has a super power, all I have to do is discover it. But more importantly than that. We very rarely get to choose the people we work with. We have to do the best we can with the people we meet instead of dreaming of other people who might not even exist.

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