The History of Psychometric Testing

Whether you are going through the recruitment process or simply thinking about applying for a new role, you’ve probably come across the all-important psychometric test. Psychometric tests may seem new, in the sense that most employers are now beginning to utilize them in recruitment efforts across the board, but what most people don’t realize is the lengthy history behind psychometric tests themselves, which have developed throughout human history to be the psychometric tests we take today.

From the dawn of human history

Psychometric tests are found throughout human history, appearing across cultures and religions. In ancient China, candidates were required to take examinations in order to obtain prized occupations which involved the need to be competent in areas such as fiscal policies, revenue, agriculture, military, and law as well as tests that determined physical capability of potential soldiers.

Examinations in ancient China

Early forms of psychometric tests were not easy. Rather, they were a test of skill and intelligence, as well as endurance. An early psychometric test required the candidate to attend testing for a full day and night – imagine that next time you are taking a not-so-simple assessment spanning a couple of hours! To make matters worse, these tests were so challenging that they had a pass rate of little more than 7%. You could almost say these psychometric tests were not just about assessing competency; they were about pushing candidates to their limits to find the absolute best.

While it may seem like it would be ideal to be in that 7%, unfortunately being at that elite level did not mean the candidate was successful. Rather, it meant they moved on to the final round of psychometric testing, which had a pass rate of about 3%. The lucky few that achieved this entered the much sought after public official roles. This procedure was eliminated in 1906, and a fairer but still difficult test was chosen in its place, but this type of testing still exists today in modern China, as well as other nearby countries such as the Republic of South Korea.

The importance of accuracy

Interestingly, the Bible[1] also makes a mention of an informal psychometric test, which involved a group of people pronouncing a single word – proving that sometimes just that little bit of preparation is all you need to gain an extra edge. These kinds of psychometric tests exist today, especially when it comes to roles which require exact, clear pronunciation or a type of language specific to one area. It can also be seen in occupations where accuracy is essential, such as the military, and perhaps to a greater extent the medical profession, where accurate and clear communication can be a life-or-death situation.

Although we have evidence of psychometric-type tests coming from ancient sources, researchers agree that the first true psychometric test, in terms of how we identify it today, was developed by Francis Galton, who in the 1880s created a framework of tests to gauge participants’ intelligence based on an examination of their sensory and motor skills. In fact, it was Francis Galton who created the term “psychometric” and his work in developing this efficient sensory and motor skill psychometric test went on to influence noted psychologist Dr. James Cattell, who is renowned for developing psychometric tests further at that time than they had ever been before, when Galton’s work was criticized as not being very useful when it came to predicting educational outcomes.

Toward modern psychometric testing

The modern type of psychometric test we know today has roots in France in the 19th century and was devised to allow physicians to identify and separate patients with mental deficiencies and those experiencing mental illness.

Three renowned psychologists, Alfred Binet, Victor Henri, and Theodore Simon, got together to work on developing a psychometric test that could identify young children affected by mental deficiencies. It took them 15 years to develop their groundbreaking assessment tool, which looked at participants’ verbal skills and then assessed their level of mental capacity. Referred to as “mental retardation” in their day, the test became known as the Binet-Simon test, and remarkably, is still in use today.

Now known as the Stanford-Binet test, it is in its fifth edition, having been updated and released in 2003 in conjunction with Stanford researcher Lewis M. Terman to address the challenges of diagnosing children in the modern era. Terman used the original Binet-Simon Intelligence Scale, but removed problematic cultural assumptions, such as a task which required the child to select the “prettiest looking” person, which could clearly be affected by cultural bias. With significant revision, but based on the heart of the original work, the resulting test is now able to identify developmental deficiencies as well as intellectual challenges.

The roots of personality testing

Psychometric tests include aptitude tests (cognitive, IQ tests, and other tests that assess aptitude rather than knowledge or a skill set), ability tests (tests that assess learned knowledge and skills – this could be a spelling & grammar test, a typing test or an MS Office test), and personality tests. Personality tests are very popular in today’s recruitment, with plenty of employers looking to find candidates’ Myers-Briggs personality type, regardless of the fact that many psychologists no longer believe[2] the results are meaningful.

Before the popular Myers-Briggs, and other in-house personality types which give a better indication of how someone would behave in a team functioning inside a workplace environment, personality tests were rather unfortunate, especially if you weren’t what society termed “an ideal beauty.” The now debunked practice of phrenology assessed candidates’ personalities by looking at their physical features, in particular the face and head. Created by Dr. Franz Joseph Gall, phrenology has long been debunked, but nonetheless would have contributed toward many unlucky candidates losing out on opportunities simply because a candidate with more “desirable” physical features had also applied. Interestingly, researchers at the University of Oxford have put phrenology to the test[3] and found no link whatsoever between a patient’s personality with shape or measurements of their face and head.

Addressing the needs of war

As we have mentioned, ancient China was the first civilization on record to take a psychometric approach when recruiting, and this extended to their military selection. Western armies followed suit, and were able to select soldiers with what was considered the most suitable personality with a test which was known as the Woodworth Personality Data Sheet (1917).

However, rather than being an administered clinical test, it was a self-reported inventory that gave candidates some leeway on how they represented their personality. Initially designed to ensure candidates were not at risk of developing shell shock, the test became popular as a general personality test and paved the way for personality tests used in recruitment today.

The test consisted of 116 questions[4] where the candidate could respond “yes” or “no” and included revealing questions that helped recruiters identify people at risk of stress. Answering “yes” to “Are you troubled with dreams about your work?” may have put candidates into a pool not best suited for military life, as they would be too affected by what they saw and did on a daily basis. Plenty of modern psychometric tests, such as the Symptom Checklist 90, ask questions that have come directly from Woodworth’s diagnostic test.

Psychometric testing today

Most employers make use of psychometric testing to ensure they are selecting candidates with the right mix of skills, knowledge, and capabilities as well as the capacity to learn more on the job, adapt to changes instantaneously, and the ability to function well in the face of stress – which most workers deal with as roles become much more demanding.

The psychometric test industry has evolved to suit the needs of the employer, who is faced with increasing numbers of applications as well as a desire to assess all candidates objectively. So instead of just facing a personality or intelligence test, candidates may be asked to take an aptitude test covering cognitive skill, an IQ test, or another test that assesses aptitude in general rather than knowledge or an established skill set.

Employers can choose to administer an aptitude test alone, or combine it with an ability test which assesses the candidates’ learned knowledge and skills – this could be a punctuation test, a word processing test, or an Excel test. Finally, some employers still choose to use personality tests, which can actually be a good thing for you as a candidate as it helps you determine which environment is right for you. Remember, a job interview is a good time to see whether you want to work in the environment the potential employer offers, so don’t hesitate to use the insight you receive about your skills and tendencies to make a choice that is a good fit for you.

With such a fascinating history, psychometric tests continue to reveal insight into how people work, and with a little preparation, can help you land a role that perfectly matches the unique set of skills you’ve developed over your working life – what could be better than that?

Want to try a psychometric test? Try our free mixed aptitude test.

Psychometric test

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