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Questions and Answers About Psychotherapy |
SYCHOLOGICAL tests arent magic, so lets get
that clear right at the beginning. They assess
and evaluate information that you give to the examiner, which is why the
formal name of psychological testing is psychological assessment.
You give this information either in the form of answers to interview questions
or as answers on paperor on a computerto specific questions.
Ultimately, a tests accuracy depends on how carefully and seriously
you answer the questions youre asked.
Please note that
you wont find copies of any of the standard professional tests online
because the tests are copyrighted by the test publishers. Also, for professional
reasons, the security of the tests must be maintained, so all mental health
professionals are under ethical obligations (enforced by licensing boards)
to maintain proper test security.
Psychological tests fall into several
and aptitude tests are usually seen in educational
or employment settings, and they attempt to measure either how much you know
about a certain topic (i.e., your achieved knowledge), such as mathematics
or spelling, or how much of a capacity you have (i.e., your aptitude)
to master material in a particular area, such as mechanical
tests attempt to measure your
intelligencethat is, your basic ability to understand the world around
you, assimilate its functioning, and apply this knowledge to enhance the
quality of your life. Or, as Alfred Whitehead said about intelligence, it
enables the individual to profit by error without being slaughtered by
Intelligence, therefore, is a measure of a potential, not a measure
of what youve learned (as in an achievement test), and so it is supposed
to be independent of culture. The challenge is to design a test that can
actually be culture-free; most intelligence tests fail in this area to some
extent for one reason or another.
The concept of
IQ derives from about 1916 when a Stanford University psychologist,
Lewis Terman, translated and revised the intelligence scale created by Alfred
Binet and Theodore Simon. Hence the name of the new instrument, the
Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. In this instrument, Terman used
the ratio of mental age to chronological age. This ratioor
quotientconcept led to the use of the term IQ (Intelligence Quotient).
For example, a six year old child with a mental age of 6 would have an IQ
of 100 (the average IQ score); a six year old child with a mental
age of 9 would have an IQ of 150.
age-chronological age concept works well for children, but what do you do
about adults? Whats the difference between a mental age of 25, say,
and a mental age of 45? Needless to say, the problems here are so complicated
that today psychologists have generally given up the idea of IQ and speak
simply about intelligence. Today, intelligence is measured according
to individual deviation from standardized norms, with 100 being the
Take a quick
intelligence test for free
tests attempt to measure deficits in cognitive
functioning (i.e., your ability to think, speak, reason, etc.) that may result
from some sort of brain damage, such as a stroke or a brain
tests attempt to match your interests with the
interests of persons in known careers. The logic here is that if the things
that interest you in life match up with, say, the things that interest most
school teachers, then you might make a good school teacher
tests attempt to measure your basic
style and are most used in research or
settings to help with clinical diagnoses. Two of the most well-known personality
Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), or the revised MMPI-2, composed
of several hundred yes or no questions, and
(the inkblot test), composed of several cards of inkblotsyou
simply give a description of the images and feelings you experience in looking
at the blots.
clinical tests attempt to measure specific clinical
matters, such as your current level of anxiety or
tests are usually administered and interpreted by a
because studies in psychopathology, along with academic courses and supervision
in psychological testing, are an integral part of the doctoral degree in
clinical psychology. A
who has had the appropriate academic courses and supervision may administer
occupational tests or achievement and aptitude tests, but most
counselors have not received the training to administer personality tests.
Academic courses and supervision in psychological testing are usually
not a part of a
medical training, so most psychiatrists can ethically administer only some
specific clinical tests that are straight-forward check-lists of
Of course, ethics
is one thing, and the desire to make money is another thing.
Therefore you will often find individuals offering
to do all kinds of psychological testingespecially on the
Interneteven when they lack the professional training to administer
and interpret such tests. So, as in all things, buyer
psychologist who runs a clinic or has a private office will use legally
registered assistants (in California these persons are called
psychological assistants or
registered psychologists) or student
interns to administer and score psychological tests under his or her direct
supervision. As I have seen personally (as a result of my own training),
this supervision can vary from highly concerned and ethical
involvement with assistants to nothing more than a rubber stamp
signature on the final report. Theres no way for the consumer to know
how much the psychologist has actually been involved in the whole process.
But as a consumer you have the right to be fully
informed about the training and credentials of any assistant with whom you
Psychological tests were created for three main reasons,
all of which are interconnected:
easier to get information from tests than by clinical
interview. Most people wont talk about
this, but, believe it or not, many psychologists are rather inept at dealing
with people, and so its a great relief to them to be able to administer
a test rather than conduct a competent interview. Thankfully, such psychologists
tend to specialize in testing (or research, or teaching) rather than
Think about this if ever you find yourself sitting in front of a steely-eyed
psychologist while being given a battery of psychological
information from tests is more scientifically consistent than the information
from a clinical interview. If a psychologist
is simply trying to arrive at a
to help determine the course of psychotherapy, an interview is just fine.
But when decisions have to be made about
matters, disability issues, and so on, then the standardized information
from tests allows one person to be directly compared with others, and it
makes things more fair.
harder to get away with lying on a test than in a clinical
interview. Many tests have multiple
alarms that go off when a test taker tries to
lie. And some tests, such as the Rorschach (the
inkblot test) dont even give a clue as to what preferred,
or healthy, responses might be, so its pretty much impossible to make
yourself look good by fabricating deceptive answers to a test
The overall problem with psychological tests concerns their
ability to measure what they are supposed to measure.
or usefulness, of a test is known as its
validity. For example, suppose you wanted
to develop a test to determine which of several job applicants would work
well in a bank. Would an arithmetic test be a valid test of job success?
Well, not if the job required other skills, such as manual dexterity or social
Validity refers to the ability of a test
to measure the psychological construct, such as depression, that it was designed
to measure. One way this can be assessed is through the tests
convergent or divergent validity, which refers to whether a test can
give results similar to other tests of the same construct and different from
tests of different constructs.
Validity refers to the ability of a test
to sample adequately the broad range of elements that compose a particular
Validity refers to the ability of a test
to predict someones performance on something. For example, before actually
using a test to predict whether someone will be successful at a particular
job, you would first want to determine whether persons already doing well
at that job (the criterion measure) also tend to score high on your proposed
test. If so, then you know that the test scores are related to the
The ability of
a test to give consistent results is known as its
reliability. For example, a mathematics
test that asks you to solve problems of progressive difficulty might be very
reliable because if you couldnt do calculus yesterday you probably
wont be able to do it tomorrow or the next day. But a personality test
that asks ambiguous questions which you answer just according to how you
feel in the moment may say one thing about you today and another thing about
you next month.
Consistency Reliability refers to how well
all the test items relate to each other.
Reliability refers to how well results from
one administration of the test relate to results from another administration
of the same test at a later time.
Note that without
reliability, there can be no validity. A thermometer, for example, may be
a valid way to measure temperature, but if the electronic thermometer you
are using has bad batteries and it gives erratic (that is, unreliable)
results, then its reading is invalid until the batteries are
Note also that
no psychological test is ever completely valid or reliable because
the human psyche is just too complicated to know anything about it with full
confidence. Thats why there can be such uncertainty about a case even
after extensive testing.
A classic problem with validity arises when someone uses
a test for a purpose for which it was not designed. The MMPI, for example,
was designed to measure pathological personality traits, yet it (or the MMPI-2)
is often used as a screening tool for law enforcement, seminary students,
firefighters/paramedics, airline pilots, medical/psychology students, and
nuclear power facility workers. Many persons therefore wonder if this is
an appropriate use for the test.
For example, common
sense can tell us what personality characteristics make good police officers. They
should have good self-esteem, yet not overvalue themselves.
They should be energetic, yet not be so involved with so many activities
as to be ineffective. They should have good impulse control and be able to
tolerate insult without becoming irritable. They shouldnt hold personal
grudges but should be fair, and kind, and objective. They should be obedient
to authority and yet be able to make good judgments independently. They should
have stamina when under threat. And so on.
But these are
complex qualities. How do you measure them?
you could ask a person if he is honest, and he would likely say,
Yes. But real honesty is discovered under temptation to be dishonest.
If hiding a detail of a case could save your career, what would you do under
that kind of pressure? Well, theres no psychological test that can
measure any of this. The real test is in the
with life itself.
So, when trying
to select good candidates for police officers, if its too difficult
to select in good traits, then the next best option is
to select out obvious negative qualities. And thats
where the MMPI-2 comes in. This psychological instrument measures levels
of psychopathology. It can tell if someone is always depressed, has bizarre
ways of thinking, is always complaining about health problems, or is socially
inhibited or overly aggressive, and so onthose sorts of
Now, anyone with
common sense can tell that someone who is free of obvious negative traits
wont necessarily make a good police officeror be good
at any specific career, for that matter. Theres a lot more that
goes into any career than a freedom from psychopathology. Still, the MMPI-2
can be used as a rough screening device to eliminate some obvious
However, if the
MMPI-2 alone were used for candidate selection, its validity would
be stretched way beyond reason, and some serious mistakes would be made.
On the one hand, many candidates without obvious psychopathologybut
who still dont have all the right stuffwould be accepted
anyway. On the other hand, candidates with some scale elevations could be
eliminated even if they may have been functioning well in life so far; in
fact, moderate elevations on some scales can be good things in certain
situations. This is why a competent psychologist has to make an interpretation
of the overall MMPI-2 profile and consider the profile in light of other
historical information, such as previous job performance, academic performance,
letters of recommendation, and so on.
decision-making process brings up one final issue.
and False Positives
The sole reason
for using psychological tests is to help answer the question, Do we accept
this person or not? Moreover, because psychological tests arent
magic, mistakes will be made. Even when a qualified psychologist makes a
decision based on all the available evidence, there will still be doubts
and shadows of doubts. Thus a false
negative mistake occurs when a person truly qualified for a job
is rejected; a false positive
mistake occurs when a person not truly qualified for a job is
to simple logic, if you try to minimize false negative mistakes, you maximize
false positive mistakes, and vice versa. Most employers, therefore,
try to make their decisions so that the false negative mistakes are minimized,
especially when good employees are hard to find.
But for some
individuals, such as law enforcement officers, seminary students,
firefighters/paramedics, airline pilots, medical/psychology students, and
nuclear power facility workers, the risks are too great for any false positive
mistakes, so false negative mistakes are freely tolerated. In plain English,
this means that some applicants to certain jobs who have been rejected as
a result of psychological testing may feel that they have been treated
unfairlyand maybe they have. Such is the human price of
When you are
disqualified from a job application for psychological reasons, it means that
there are things about your behavior and attitudes that are of concern to
the psychologist evaluating you even though you may not be aware of them.
Therefore, you do actually have one recourse, but it may not be pleasant
You can enter
psychotherapy not because you have any specific disorder but simply to explore
your unconscious attitudes. If you really get to some
deep issues, then ultimately your MMPI-2 profile will change. And so will
your interview behavior.
You have to think
of this, however, as an investment in a career so as to make the time and
expense of psychotherapy seem worthwhile. It will take a whileanywhere
from six months to a year or two of weekly sessionsand it will be
expensive, and there are no guaranteesso, as I said, it wont
be convenient. But its your only recourse. You may have tried everything
so far according to your best ability, but your best ability may not be enough;
you need the help and guidance of someone else who can see things about yourself
that you, at this time, cannot see. Once you see them, though, then even
the psychologist evaluating you will see you differently.
The lie detector has a certain mystique about it because
it is often used in criminal justice or high security settings. Moreover,
even though it is not a true psychological assessment instrument, it does
utilize some psychological principles. In fact, these principles are the
same as the principles used in
The typical lie
detector, like a biofeedback instrument, simply measures many different
physiological processes such as heart rate, respiration, blood pressure,
skin temperature, and skin conductance. Hence its technical name, the polygraph,
a word composed of poly- (from the Greek poly, many) and
-graph (from the Greek graphos, writing) in reference to the
instruments multiple recording channels. In biofeedback, these various
physiological processes are fed back to you as sounds or
computer-generated displays that you can use to learn to alter your overall
physiological experience in the direction of deep relaxation. But a lie detector
does something different: it doesnt tell you a thing about your
physiological reactions. The reactions are measured and recorded, all right,
but the test administrator sees them, not you.
So how does a
lie detector detect a lie? Well, the test administrator simply asks you various
questions and watches your physiological responses as you answer the questions.
Some questions are neutral questions, such as What is your name?
and your response in answering these questions should be quite relaxed. Then
the administrator throws in the real questions. Are you really a double
agent?things like that. If you can truthfully answer
No, then your physiology will likely remain relaxed. But if you
lie while saying No, then those little recording needles will
jump all over the place simply because all the
conflicts you experience in telling a lie have subtle physiological
So on the one
hand its all quite simple. But on the other hand, its more an
art than a science. Just how much do those needles have to jump around to
indicate that youre lying instead of just nervous? Well, theres
no clear-cut answer; the test administrator has to make a subjective judgment
based partly on science and partly on experience. That is why lie detector
results can be so controversial. Mistakes can be made. When does anxiety,
for example, get mistaken for lying? When does someone with nerves
of steel get away with lying? The only one who knows for sure is the
one taking the test, and scientific psychology has not yet learned how to
In its original sense, science (from the Latin
scire, to know) simply meant the state or fact of knowing, as compared
to intuition or belief. The current technical sense of the word, however,
refers to knowledge obtained from systematic observation, study, and
Now, as I said
above, psychological tests arent magic; most of them have been developed
through sound scientific principles. In fact, anyone who wants to become
a psychologist must learn all the scientific principles of
test construction; even if a psychologist
has no desire to create a new test, he or she must be competent to evaluate
the scientific value of any specific test before using it
there are many psychological tests in wide use that are accepted as being
scientific just because they are called tests. For example, the
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram, often used in
educational and corporate personnel settings to assess personality
types, are based in pseudoscience and psychobabble and have about
as much worth in clinical settings as astrology. Any competent psychologist
can use intuition to get as much information as these tests
is the classic Rorschach test that uses inkblots to assess a
persons inner psychological experience. Several methods for administering
and scoring the Rorschach have been developed, and although some of them
are surrounded with a considerable amount of published research, it would
be surprising if any two independent psychologists could administer the Rorschach
to the same person and achieve identical findings.
tests such as the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which asks a person
to tell stories about various pictures of social interactions, and the
Draw-A-Person and House-Tree-Person, which ask a person to
draw pictures, give results of questionable validity.
to pseudoscience tests, then, their usefulness depends on whether you are
seeking subjective impressions or
What is the
difference between subjective impressions and objective
Well, if someone
asks you for a piece of string, you might inquire, How long should
it be? What thickness should it be?
You might be
told, I just want it to tie up this bundle of papers. You would
then use your intuition to decide what length and size of string to use.
That would be a subjective judgment.
But if you were
told that the string should be 1.25 meters long, 1 millimeter in diameter,
and of a precise tensile strength, then, if you provided a piece of string
that accurately fit those criteria, you would be making an objective
end, then, psychological testing can, in some ways, be both valid and reliable;
yet, in other ways, it often does not achieve much more than an impressionistic
evaluation of a person. Sometimes all that a psychologist needs is an intuitive
impression of a person, and pseudoscience tests can be useful.
But if the science and the pseudoscience are quietly mixed together in one
scientific report, then subjective impressions have been deceptively
mixed with objective facts, and a grave injustice has been inflicted on the
person being evaluated.
Psychological test scores can be very useful under the
proper circumstancesand when the limitations of psychological testing
are properly understood, respected, and made plain.
that the score you get on any psychological test is nothing more than the
score you have gotten on that test. Lets say you took an IQ test
and got a score of 126. Well, your IQ test score may be 126, as measured
by that test, at that time, under those circumstances. But what is your
real IQ? Well, no one knows. And thats a fact. So what does
an IQ test really measure? Well, again, no one knows. And thats another
Note also that
every well-known and widely used psychological test in the US was developed
and standardized in English. This might not seem very important, but just
consider what happens when someone needs to be tested who doesnt speak
English fluently. Some test translations have been made and validated through
extensive scientific research. But if the test is translated spontaneously
into another languageeither in print or through a translatorall
kinds of problems can occur. English words with multiple meanings cannot
be adequately translated. English idioms cannot be expressed in another language
without changing the entire sentence structure along with the underlying
logic of the sentenceand when that happens standardization,
and the guarantee of fairness it promises, is lost.
So, even though
translated versions of tests might be used, and even though you might be
given a score that appears to be official and scientific, that score
is nothing more than the score you have gotten on that test at
that particular time and under those particular circumstances. This might
not seem very significant to some people, and it might even seem like
philosophical quibbling. But what if your life depended on that
If ever you find yourself being given a psychological test,
remember that you have all the rights of a
as well as the right
to know the purpose of the
to know the names of, and rationales
for, the tests being used;
to know the results of the testing
(you even have the right to read the psychological report itself);
to determine, through your
signed release of information, who will have access
to the testing information (interview information, raw scores, test reports)
in your chart.
that in some settings you may be required to waive your rights in
regard to psychological testing. It may not be fair, but its legal.
No agency can force you to give up your rights, but, if you dont comply
with the demand, its agents can refuse to consider you for what you want
from them. In this case, you will have to choose between your rights and
what you want the testing to accomplish for you.
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to Psychology and its Practice
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Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
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