Assessment and Selection

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Assessment and Selection

There is no such thing as great talent without great will power, (Balzac: Le Muse du Department)

The psychological interview has developed today into what is known as ordeal by house party. The candidates spend a pleasant weekend under expert observation … There is no need to describe this method in detail, but its results are all about us and are obviously deplorable. (C.N. Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law)

Assessing people at work is important for many reasons. The most important is the cost benefit analysis: the benefits of the right decision over the costs of getting it wrong.

The question for assessors is essentially what to assess, who is best suited to do it, when and why. To some extent the ’what’ can neatly be divided into three areas: What a person can do? This refers to their ability. What a person will do? This refers to a person’s motivation or what they want to do. What a person wants to do? This refers to preferences for certain activities over others.


There are, in essence, mainly five different methods to collect data on people — A to E in what follows. Of these, the first three (A to C) are most commonly used.

A: Self-Report: This is essentially what people say about themselves in:

1 Interviews: both structured and unstructured.

2 Personality and other preference tests.

3 The CV, personal statement or application form.

There are however two major problems with self-report. The first appears under various names such as dissimulation, faking or lying. It concerns people giving false information, or embellished information about themselves.

This behaviour has been broken down by psychologists into two further types of behaviour.

Impression Management: this is where the person attempts to create a good impression by leaving out information, adding untrue information (errors of omission and commission) as well as giving answers that are not strictly correct but, they hope, create a good impression in the interviewer’s mind. This is done consciously and is very common.

Self Deception: This occurs when a person, in their own view, answers honestly but what they say is untrue because they lack self-awareness. Thus they might honestly believe that they are a ’good listener’ whereas all the evidence from reliable sources is that this is not true.

The way personality and other preference tests attempt to deal with this issue is to use Lie Scales in the test. These go under various names and many exist. They are generally known as measures of response bias; e.g. do you always wash your hands before eating?

The second is about self-insight. This is primarily concerned with what people can’t say about themselves even if they wanted to. This is best seen with issues around motivation, where people cannot, rather than will not, give honest answers about the extent to which they are motivated by power or security. Indeed, motivation is one of the most difficult topics to assess accurately, and yet, for business people, among the most important.

B: Observation Data: This is what other people say about an individual in:

1 References and testimonials.

2 360-degree ratings (multi-source feedback).

3 Appraisal and other performance management data.

There are also problems with this type of data.

The first is the ’data bank’ of the observer. This essentially means what information the observer has about the candidate. Thus a boss has a different data set than a colleague or a subordinate. A school teacher, or university lecturer, will have a different data set than an employer. The question is what they know: the quality and quantity of data on a person’s ability, motivation, work-style, etc.

The second issue is the extent to which they are prepared to tell the truth about an individual. Some organizations refuse to supply references because of litigation. They can be taken to court for what they did say or did not say. They are told all they can say is that ’X worked here from dates A to dates B.’

Third, people choose their referees because they hope that they will be very positive. There seems to be an etiquette with respect to what people write or rate on references. Many know the power of negative information and therefore try strongly to resist providing any negative information. It is therefore rare to get very useful data on a person’s weaknesses or challenges from references.

C: Test Performance: This refers to how well people do on tests:

1 Power, Timed, Ability tests: These are of maximum performance.

2 Preference, Untimed, Personality tests. These are of typical performance.

3 Behavioural tests, often performed in groups.

Tests differ enormously.

• Group vs. individually administered tests. Some require a one-to-one administration, others can be easily and effectively run in largish groups.

• ’Objective’ vs. open-ended tests. The former requires the choice of several responses; the latter means one has to generate the response.

• Pen-and-paper vs. performance tests. The latter may involve the manual manipulation of apparatus, equipment and tools.

D: Physiological Evidence: This is probably the newest and most disputed of all measures. For some jobs, employees have to go through a ’medical check-up’, which they may have to do on a regular (i.e. annual) basis simply to keep their job. This would be true of such jobs as being a pilot. In other jobs, for instance working in the alcohol industry, it may be a requirement that people go through a liver function test.

Simple blood tests and saliva samples can be used for various diagnoses, including drug taking and stress levels. Every day, it seems, new physical measures are being devised that are claimed to be able to detect such things as whether a person is more likely to get a debilitating mental or physical disease at some later point.

E: Personal History/Biography: This refers to a person’s personal history: for instance where they were born and educated; the family from which they came; and their present family and address. Some information is thought to be very important, such as what was the social class of the parents?; does the person come from a minority race or religious group?; how many brothers and sisters do they have and what is their place in the birth order?; what was their schooling like and how successful were they at it?

This area is called biodata. It aims to determine, through empirical methods, the biographical markers of success in very particular jobs. It has limitations, however.


Chamorro-Premuzic, T., & Furnham, A. (2010). The Psychology of Personnel Selection. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.