Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Just when you thought that employers had thought of everything, now there is a new pre-employment test that identifies individuals whose minds might wander while they are on the job. The test developer, Professor Nilli Lavie, of University College London, said that her psychometric test could help weed out people who could be a risk in jobs such as pilots and bus drivers.

Psychometric testing reveals a lot about character traits among potential employees. As a result, many large companies are especially interested in using these tests before hiring someone.

This particular psychometric test relies on a series of similar letter puzzles that are flashed on a computer screen, measuring the response time for each one. Irrelevant numbers and letters also appeared on the edges of the screen in an attempt to distract the volunteer.

“Distraction at work can have serious implications — it is known to be associated with a higher risk of being involved in various types of accidents,” said Lavie. “There are many areas where productivity critically depends on the ability of staff to stay focused.”

I understand that certain jobs should use such tests, but as a job seeker, I have found that the number of irrelevant and invasive personality tests and checks and whatnot go far beyond mere job safety and performance, having become downright invasive and, in my opinion, vindictive — meant to justify keeping the unemployed trapped in menial, tedious, low-paying jobs or left without any job at all. In my opinion, a potential employer should be required by law to reveal which particular tests they are using, what they are testing for, and they then must be required to destroy all test results upon making a hiring decision, regardless of whether or not they decide to hire the recruit. Something tells me this is not the current practice.

Cited story.


  1. #1 Chris' Wills
    May 30, 2007

    Thankfully, it is many moons since I had to fill in a Psychometric test. They extract far too much information for my comfort.

    They should definetely be burnt after being used.

    The worst test I had wasn’t even announced, it involved us (the people going for the job) being watched and assessed when we thought we were safely away from the work site.
    They put us up in an hotel and spied on us, I only found out a few years after I had got the job and left soon after.

    Seems employers want to know what we ate for breakfast and what music we like.

  2. #2 Gork
    May 30, 2007

    These would no doubt be popular with the kind of employer who will have a full-time page idiot — the idiot that will interrupt everybody’s work several times a day with utterly inane and always overly-lengthy useless pages over the public address system.

    I suspect that Dilbert has two kinds of fans, the masses who look for the humor, and the bastards who mine the strip for ideas.

  3. #3 kristi
    May 30, 2007

    Sounds like a torturous test, and one that’s likely to weed out ADD-type folks like myself. I’m not convinced that it will be a good indicator of who should be hired. Performance on the job doesn’t necessarily correlate well with how you did on an annoying computer test.

  4. #4 Hank Roberts
    May 30, 2007

    Wanta bet this is actually an advertising agency study in disguise? After all, they get _paid_ to distract you.

    I know a lot better way to detect people who are prone to distraction. They use Firefox, AdBlock, and Platypus and get rid of the crap.

    Every now and again I use a web browser that isn’t properly set up with AdBlock and Platypus.

    And I’m just amazed at all the tapdancing, farting icons that infest web pages nowadays trying to communicate stuff I don’t want to know. Damned Tralfamadorians.
    (Tip of the hat to Mr. Vonnegut).

  5. #5 llewelly
    May 30, 2007

    I must second Hank Roberts. The results of tthis study will doubtless be used to find better ways to distract targets of advertising.
    In any case, most ‘psychometric tests’ (though not necessarily this one) are derived in ridiculously unscientific ways.

  6. #6 Chris' Wills
    May 31, 2007

    …In any case, most ‘psychometric tests’ (though not necessarily this one) are derived in ridiculously unscientific ways.
    Posted by: llewelly

    If this is correct then their use is even more insidious, people are hired and/or not promoted on the basis of false data.
    Puts them in the same class as graphology, which some companies also use.

    The use of the tests (irrespective of their validity) has always struck me as another way that managers can avoid taking responsibility for their actions. “Well he did so well on the tests; who could have known that he’ld suck at the job” said the boss of ‘surrogate mothers for hire’.

  7. #7 Andrew Dodds
    May 31, 2007

    Chris –

    Yes, not only with these tests but with a whole range of employee performance statistics there is a serious problem that proper analysis is not done; people come to conclusions that are not statistically justified and use these to make real-world decisions. (Or, as you said, use them to remove thinking and therefore responsability from the decision-making process).

    Here in the UK, there are laws regardling fairness in hiring – it would be interesting to see if they could be used to reject techniques that were not scientifically based. Probably not..

  8. #8 Chris' Wills
    May 31, 2007

    ….Here in the UK, there are laws regardling fairness in hiring – it would be interesting to see if they could be used to reject techniques that were not scientifically based. Probably not..
    Posted by: Andrew Dodds

    I agree with probably not; unless the hirers are really stupid and their lawyer is as well, they’ll claim other justifications other than just the test if it came to court.

    I do remember reading that the decision to hire (at least in face to face interviews) is made very quickly and the interviewers then spend the time justifying their decision.
    The faux-science tests are part of the justification, used or not as needed.

    In phone interviews the decision either takes a little longer or has already been made before the interview.

    Having been part of interview teams I admit that this is very likely true. The qualifications and experience are used in the first instance to filter out the obviouslly unsuitable (sometimes I wonder if that works, but I wouldn’t suggest hiring someone without a relevant engineering degree for an engineering design position), but if you have five applicants and two positions first impressions count.

    Luckilly for me I no longer (well haven’t for a couple of years) get involved in those decisions anymore.

  9. #9 biosparite
    May 31, 2007

    Back in the late 80’s insurance companies began giving applicants to be insurance agents an “attitudinal preference test.” One was presented with hypothetical fact situations about things going wrong and asked if the fault would lie wholly or partly with oneself or others. For example, one hypothetical was that you and your spouse have a fight. Whose fault? The best candidates for agents would lay blame 100% on the spouse. Why would such people make the best agents? Insurance agents are told “No” a great deal, and the ones who accept no blame are able to keep going easily despite the fear of rejection. That also means the best insurance agents are sociopaths (what a surprise).

  10. #10 Liz
    June 8, 2009

    I agree that by law a company should tell you what type of test they are using. A lot of companies are using this PEO to give tests. I wonder if the company that is using the PEO knows the type of tests they give potential employees, or if the tests change.

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