How psychologists cope with cheating on personality tests

By Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, PhD. 

Cheating a personality test

Are you cynical about personality tests? Do you worry that they may be a waste of time because the people filling them in are likely to fake their answers? Do you think that you might be able to skew the test results yourself? Does that make you think the results of all tests are therefore likely to be bogus?

Well, don’t worry. The chances are that if you’re given a well designed survey, all of those questions will have been factored in and effectively countered.

personality testPersonality tests have been used for clinical, educational, and employment assessment for more than 100 years – information I provide not only to show that they have a proven track record, but also because during that time the tests themselves have been submitted to rigorous assessment. These studies have produced three key findings and strategies for taking the faking out of the equation:

  1. Most people try to skew their results to the same degree. So, for instance, in high stakes tests such as those relating to job interviews, people tend to inflate the points they assume to be positive by around 10-20%. But because most people bend things in the same direction, it’s easy to see where meaningful differences remain.
  2. The best tests conceal their true intentions: people taking them don’t know what is really being assessed, or why certain questions are being asked. What’s more, plenty of tests can also assess how long people take to answer each question and alert assessors to any unusual response patterns or internal inconsistencies. The net result is that it’s generally better to answer honestly than try to game the system.
  3. There are a few people who are good at distorting their personal results in spite of the two above points. But that doesn’t really matter because 1) that level of ability is extremely rare (there tend to be 80 or 90 people who can’t for every person that can successfully game the system) and 2) there’s a direct correlation between an ability to game tests and success in the kinds of outcomes these tests are designed to predict. If you’re that good at answering personality test questions, you also tend to do well in careers, relationships and health. It is a skill that predicts high levels of adaptation and social functioning in the real world.

Do personality tests reveal the real you?

DataBlog-the-truth-about-cheating-5You’re also probably looking at the tests the wrong way if you’re worried about them getting a mistaken version of the “real you” – or the real anyone for that matter. The tests aren’t designed to reflect how things are, they are designed to predict future behaviour. If your test results suggest you are impulsive that is really an assessment of how you may act in the future – which is to say that you are likely to make spontaneous, irrational, and careless decisions.

And because tests are there to predict, their effectiveness can be easily checked. A good example comes from tests within the financial services sector. If your test scores indicate that you are a risk taker, this inference can be tested against data gathered from your real future behaviour. Here, the success of the test doesn’t depend on whether the answers captured the “real you” but whether it predicted how you might act further down the line. “Honest” in the context of personality tests is simply defined as the relationship between your answers and your future behaviours.

This method of assessment even works with something as apparently subjective as whether test subjects have a good sense of humour. In tests, 90% say YES. They are not technically lying – they actually think they are funny. But the more objective truth is that only 10% of people are generally judged by others to possess the gift of comedy. Curiously, they typically answer NO when asked if they are amusing. Good tests can factor all that in and still predict whether someone will be funny, regardless of whether they answer the questions honestly, or whether they may be slightly deluded.

About the author:


Dr Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is Professor of Business Psychology at University College London, Vice President of Research and Innovation for Hogan Assessment Systems, and a key VisualDNA consultant.

With a portfolio of 120 scientific papers – and eight books – Dr Tomas has been awarded by both the American Psychological Association and the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences. He’s a prolific media commentator, keynote speaker for the Institute of Economic Affairs, and generally regarded as one of the most renowned social scientists of our generation.

Dr Tomas started consulting with VisualDNA in 2012, helping to develop and maintain a psychological understanding of personality and behaviour within increasingly complex work in big data.

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