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Personality Testing in Sports: Should We or Shouldn't We?

by Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
"If sports teams found that athletes with serious mental disorders, drug problems, or criminal tendencies are a detriment to the team, they may find that using personality testing...can be helpful."

Personality testing has been used for many decades by industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists to select appropriate candidates to fill certain job positions. In particular, police departments and fire departments often require personality testing of applicants. Even many seminaries require testing of students desiring to become ministers or priests. More recently, some professional sports teams are using personality testing to help select from the draft choices. Is this a good idea and what kind of problems can we expect in this process?

The history of personality testing for job applicants and students has been rife with controversy due to the many problems inherent in the process of personality testing. We can expect many of the same problems to occur when sport professionals use personality testing to select athletes. Such problems that generally occur in using personality testing in the selection process include the difficulty of defining personality variables, issues relating to the validity of tests and lack of predictive research, and the number of incorrect predictions. In addition, selection of athletes may involve other issues including the use of tests designed for other purposes, the application of the Profile of Mood States and the “iceberg profile” to personality, the importance of personality testing relative to physical skills, and increased predictive validity problems.

Prior to using personality testing for selection purposes, we need to be aware of what we mean by personality and how it relates to performance. Generally, personality is considered traits or characteristics that describe an individual which are not readily changeable. Therefore, sadness is considered a mood state that is temporary whereas negativity may be seen as a personality characteristic. One major problem with the definition of personality is the idea that it is unchangeable because many of the descriptors we use to describe others are often quite changeable; even the example of “negativity” used previously can be changed either due to circumstances or effort. Given the difficulty in developing an agreed upon definition of personality, it is even more difficult to measure the construct of personality since measurement requires operational, or concrete, definitions. This leads to problems with test validity.

To understand the problems the validity problems in using personality testing for selection, it is important to understand the nature of validity and, in particular, its application to personality assessment. Validity is whether a test is measuring what it intends to measure. For instance, “honesty” tests are frequently used in personnel selection; however, sometimes these tests may measure something other than honesty such as a person’s ability to decipher the appropriate responses to an “honesty” test which is actually a type of deception. To determine whether a test is measuring what it purports to measure, research must be conducted comparing the test to other variables such as behavior and future performance. The predictive studies in which a test is given and then performance is examined at a later time are the most important studies for using tests in selection. However, these studies are less frequently undertaken due to the time and expense involved.

A major practical problem with test validity is that tests with low predictive validity will have a significant number of false positives and false negatives. This means that numerous capable performers will not be identified and that individuals who should not have been selected will be selected. In the area of I/O psychology there has been significant problems with the tests being racially biased because the tests were developed on a primarily Caucasian population and those minorities were disproportionately not selected on the basis of the tests.

All the above problems and more exist with using personality testing to select among draft choices in sports. First of all, most personality tests were developed on other populations and have been co-opted by sports professionals. Therefore, there are increased validity problems when these tests are used on athletes. In particular, the Profile of Mood States has been extensively used in sport psychology. However, even as the name of the test suggests, it is not a personality test but a test of a temporary emotional state of being. Since it is capable of changing rapidly, it is not a good predictor of future performance although it may be able to classify present performing capability. Although successful athletes generally score higher on the Vigor subscale and lower on the other scales of Tension, Depression, Anger, Fatigue, and Confusion, it is possible that their profile changed because of their career rather than the profile causing the success. Research is not clearly determining the direction of causality in this area since most of it is correlational.

Due to the lack of predictive research, any attempts to use the personality tests and other tests for selecting athletes has great potential for being inaccurate. Another problem with validity of these tests for selecting athletes is the issue of truncated range which is that when dealing with an elite population, a test’s predictive validity decreases because the members of the population are so similar to one another and it is difficult to discriminate the minute differences.

Given all the above problems, it may be possible to use personality testing in a very limited way with the selection process of athletes. Police and fire departments and seminary programs have found personality testing that assesses dysfunctional personality and the presence of mental disorders can be useful in weeding out inappropriate candidates. Generally, the validity of personality tests for this purpose is stronger and does not tend to falsely identify many individuals as dysfunctional although it may inaccurately classify individuals as healthy. For this reason it is important that testing be conducted by a psychologist and include more than one test and an interview. If sports teams found that athletes with serious mental disorders, drug problems, or criminal tendencies are a detriment to the team, they may find that using personality testing in this manner can be helpful. However, otherwise, personality testing may create more problems than it solves.


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