The (mis)use of psychological tests?

Psychological tests have been around for a very long time. They are often used in personality psychology, such as the Meyers-Briggs, Big-5, etc to determine what underlying traits individuals differ from each other on.

However, what happens when an academic personality scale is used by business or government to make decisions? This American Life has an excellent episode on The Psychopath Test, inspired by the relate book The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson.

The summary:

  • The scale devised by academics for research is extremely predictive of who will commit crimes, especially when calibrated on prison populations.
  • That scale is adopted by prison review boards as a litmus test for parole. Governors have no political upside to releasing prisoners ahead of time, so if the test is positive for psychopathy, your staying!
  • But who administers the test significantly influences the results.
  • When the general population is tested:
    • less than 1% are classified as psychopaths;
    • but 5% of senior management are classified as psychopaths;
    • only 4% of prison populations are.

The episode is excellent throughout, and a real though-provoker. 

  • If a test does have high predictive validity, how much can we use it in making decisions?
  • How much do we trade-off the false-positive/false negative outcomes? If someone comes up positive, how much weight should we put on that?
  • How do people & organisations adapt to the test, for better or for worse?

As someone who uses such assessments in research, these are very important questions. 

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