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Who's More Motivated to Fake It on a Personality Test

Work & Careers | Human Resources

September 20, 1998|Sherwood Ross

NEW YORK — Applicants frequently lie on pre-employment personality tests to get jobs they aren't qualified to hold, to the detriment of competitors who tell the truth.

"It is the less-qualified applicant who is most able to take advantage of faking because highly qualified applicants don't have much room to improve their scores," said Joseph Rosse, a management professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Rosse compared the test scores of 197 job applicants at an Aspen, Colo., ski resort with those of 73 employed workers who had no motive to lie in order to get hired.

The applicants presented a much more favorable picture of themselves than the employed workers--and they also had "substantially higher scores" on questions inserted by test publishers to detect faking, Rosse said.

Thirteen percent of the applicants engaged in "extreme fakery," Rosse said, contrasted with fewer than 1% of employed workers.

Ellen Shuck, a psychologist with Hagberg Consulting Group in Foster City, Calif., said: "Usually, a high faking score is correlated with a high desire to be socially appropriate for this job. I don't think it indicates that it is an indication of dishonesty but of someone wanting to put the right image forward."

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Shuck said psychological assessment tests are widely used in the pre-hiring process, particularly "at the lower levels, when people are being hired for jobs like bank tellers, and a lot of it is about being honest."

Mary Lamia, a clinical psychologist with the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute, said job applicants might lie in replying to a test statement such as "Sometimes I think I hear voices." They believe that "If I tell them the honest answer, they might not hire me," Lamia said. She says such questions have no place in screening job applicants.

"Certain types [of individuals] are very good at fitting in with groups and have almost chameleon-like social skills and can fake it" on the tests, said Steven E. Markham, professor of management at the Pamplin College of Business at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

By contrast, "objective, straightforward, decision-making types who don't particularly empathize well can't fake it. It's very difficult for them to pretend they're another person," Markham said.

"I believe that people try to beat the tests, and they can be very successful at it because, with most personality tests, it's fairly obvious" what employers are looking for, said Michael Harris, management professor at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.

"So if you're applying for a sales job and the question is, 'Do you like to interact with people?' you're going to say, 'I love to interact with people' even if you don't really like to," he said.

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The way test publishers attempt to detect fakery, Harris said, "is to ask you a question like, 'Have you ever crossed the street to avoid somebody?' So if you say 'No,' you're probably not telling the truth," he said. But he said he does not believe that those "trick" questions unmask all of those trying to beat the test.

Rosse said that a test-takers' faking score "could reflect the ability to be socially appropriate." An individual who does some modest faking on a test could also give a customer "a socially desirable reaction" and thus make a good hire, but an individual who "lies to the extreme" would not.

According to Joseph Weintraub, organizational behavior professor at Babson College, in Wellesley, Mass., "if you've got somebody checking off all fives [on a scale of one to five], that's usually a flag [that] the person is portraying themselves as walking on water or leaping buildings in a single bound. It's pretty unrealistic to find a candidate who is good at everything."

Penn State psychologist David Day said that when "people try to skew their profiles to appear more normal than they really are" to get hired, "it's like shooting themselves in the foot."

Why? Because they might lie themselves into a job for which they are not suited, he said.

Sherwood Ross is a freelance writer who covers workplace issues for Reuters.

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