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To the future and beyond: Exploring the origins and future of psychometrics

September 1, 2023

There aren’t many who have never taken a psychometric test. Be it for work, school, or just for fun, psychometrics are widely used today and are touted to have plenty of benefits for individuals and organisations. However, even though they are one of the most effective predictors of job performance, they’re definitely not a new kid on the block. In fact, they have been around, in one form or another, for millennia. That said, they’ve changed quite a bit since then!

So, what is the history of psychometrics? And what does the future hold for these assessments?

What are psychometrics?

Put simply, psychometrics are assessments that try to measure psychological elements. They quantify how psychological traits and behaviours (or ‘constructs’) relate to different factors of human life (for example, job or academic performance), combining psychology, analytics, statistics and behavioural science.

What’s the history of psychometrics?

The field of psychometrics has a vast history that spans centuries and continents, making it the robust scientific discipline it is today.

Ancient, Mediaeval and Renaissance times: The origins of psychometrics

Yes, you are reading that right! Historians have found examples of tests of proficiency and mental aptitude in many non-Western civilisations thousands of years ago, used mainly to grade or place workers. For example, Chinese emperors employed proficiency testing every three years for officials as early as 2200 BC, and a civil service examination designed to assess character was used on a nationwide basis to fill government roles under the Sui dynasty (581-618 AD).

However, a closer version of the psychometric tests we recognise today can be found in 13th century Europe, with universities giving formal oral assessments to students. From the 16th century, the Jesuits introduced written examinations that could be seen as an early iteration of psychometric tests.

19th century: The invention of modern psychometrics

While some form of psychometric tests existed in the ancient world, as well as mediaeval times and the renaissance, human fascination with assessing the mind became particularly prominent in the 19th century.

In Oxbridge institutions, competitive university examinations were becoming commonplace, and by the end of the century, psychometric assessments began to be used in governments and schools to become more scientific in their methods of selection.

It’s no wonder that the 1800s are the birthplace of modern psychometrics. In a time of major scientific breakthroughs, such as Charles Dawin’s theory of natural selection, academia was captivated by understanding humans as a measurable and predictable part of nature.

Sir Francis Galton and Hereditary Genius

This, of course, inspired some outrageous pseudoscientific ideas that have since been debunked, such as ‘scientific racism’, craniometry, and phrenology (the study of the conformation of the skull as indicative of mental faculties and traits of character). These, however, were all part of humanity’s quest to understand our psyche through scientific measurements rather than amorphous concepts.

In this context, psychometrics first entered scientific literature. In the 1860s, inspired by his cousin Darwin’s theory, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) published his seminal work, Hereditary Genius, often regarded as the birth of quantitative psychology. In this book, Galton laid out two main ideas: one, that intelligence was hereditary (the reality is more complex than that, but, seeing as Galton also invented eugenics, you can imagine where this idea came from); and two, that intelligence and personality could be tested by examining how people performed on sensorimotor tasks (tasks that involve the brain receiving a message and responding to it).

Even more importantly, Galton used statistics to explain the psychological data he collected. This was despite the fact that this information didn’t always correlate with his personal incorrect and racist beliefs that head shapes and sizes indicated intelligence. Nevertheless, his methods have formed the basis for modern psychometric testing.

Alfred Binet and the IQ test

We’ve all heard of the IQ test — one of the most prominent forms of psychometric assessments. Its pioneer, Alfred Binet (1857-1911), was a French psychologist who played an important role in the development of experimental psychology. He worked tirelessly at the end of the 19th century and the first years of the 20th to create a standardised test for intelligence, originally with the intention to discover learning difficulties in children.

His assessment revolved around areas that were not explicitly taught in school, but rather attention, memory, and problem-solving. Through statistical analysis, he determined which questions predicted academic achievement, which led him to publish the 30-question test that was recognised as the first ever IQ assessment. It was quickly adapted to the US population in what is now known as the Stanford-Binet Scale.

Early to mid-20th century: Psychometrics and the First and Second World Wars

The 20th century saw tumultuous times, with the First and Second World Wars presenting new challenges for humanity. Both the US and Britain incorporated personality tests into their recruitment, usually to assess which soldiers were more likely to suffer from ‘shell shock’ (PTSD). The US military alone tested over 1.7m soldiers within two years of joining the First World War using the Psychoneurotic Inventory, utilising the information gathered to predict who would be a poor fit for the front lines.

Personality was not the only type of psychometric assessment incorporated into military procedures. The rush to recruit millions of fresh soldiers, screening, and classifying them, created a behemoth of a task, and psychometric IQ assessments named the Alpha and Beta tests were used to make this simpler. These were specifically designed to determine which roles individuals would suit, which made them popular in civilian contexts, too, including as entrance exams for universities.

Personality models

During the Second World War, one of the most recognisable personality tests of the modern age was created — the Myers-Briggs assessment (MBTI). Developed by mother and daughter Katharine Briggs and Isabel Briggs-Myers, it used a large set of questions to sort individuals into 16 personality types. It was later refined by Raymond Cattell and his team, who published the 16PF Questionnaire, which used linguistic analysis in several languages in an attempt to better reflect humanity’s full range of psychological diversity.

Their studies influenced many other psychologists in their attempt to categorise and assess personality. Military psychologists Ernest Tupes and Raymond Christal were two of the most prominent ones: they narrowed the traits down to five primary qualities. Their theory formed the basis of Lewis Goldberg’s Big Five model of personality, which is still considered the most accurate when it comes to predicting business performance.

Further reading: The Big Five model — overview, origins, and use in human resources

How are psychometrics used today?

Fast forward to today, while the concepts at the core of psychometrics have remained pretty much the same as their counterparts from the mid-20th century, the introduction of more advanced technology enhanced their accuracy and efficiency. Instead of having to take a test with a pen and paper, now individuals can access it from their mobile phone! Beyond that, we are now capable of assessing thousands of data points with the click of a button, which means we can make assessments more reliable than ever before, and make them generalisable to a far better extent.

This has made psychometrics ubiquitous, used for a variety of purposes, from fluffy Buzzfeed quizzes asking which TV character you are most alike, to more reliable university entry exams and business selection processes. In fact, 80% of Fortune 500 firms use them in recruitment, as well as 75% of The Times’ Best Companies to Work.

When psychometric assessments are easier to access, cheaper, and more accurate, it’s no wonder that businesses swear by them. However, this only strengthens the need for businesses to fully research their psychometric providers, as the prevalence of assessments means many aren’t updated or don’t follow acceptable scientific methods.

What is the future of psychometrics?

The digital revolution hasn’t ended, though. In the last few years, the use of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and gamification has already started impacting psychometrics, and it is safe to assume it will continue to improve. Linguistic research will become even more full-bodied, not to mention our ability to incorporate countless data points from everyday life through social media, in a way that has never been possible before. For example, Thrive’s assessment already uses the data from 12m candidates. Focus on cross-cultural research is going to increase to better apply psychometrics to global audiences and adjust for bias.

The introduction of AI into our working lives on a massive scale will not only provide more capabilities and data for psychometrics, but will also call for a modified emphasis for assessments. Today, psychologists are struggling to assess creativity in a far-reaching way, and it is likely to assume that this will be a new focus of psychometric research.

Psychometrics will also be more easily integrated into job searches in general. A recent LinkedIn study shows that 90% of job ads in the UK between 2021-2022 did not require a degree, with recruiters five times more likely to search by skills rather than academic background. This trend is set to increase, and it’s not far-fetched to believe that future CVs will assimilate psychometric scores to accompany this. In fact, Thrive already offers this option, so the future is not as remote as it may seem — however, we believe this is going to become the norm.

Want to learn more about how Thrive’s psychometric assessments and how they can help your business catapult into the future? Book a demo with us today.

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