A Guide To Psychological Testing

A Guide To Psychological Testing

Posted November 2019 by M.S. Broudy, B.A. English, B.A. Psychology; M.A. Social Psychology; Ph.D. Psychology; 6 updates since. Reading time: 8 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on psychological testing? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

Psychological testing sounds a bit scary. If you have never undergone a psychological assessment it is easy to picture yourself hooked up to some machine with electrodes attached to your skull. In reality, psychological testing is very helpful and not all that intimidating. Let’s take a deeper look into psychological testing and find out why people may undergo psychological testing, what types exist, and what are some of the most common tests utilized.

What Is Psychological Testing?

Quite simply, a psychological test is given to find out more information in a certain area of human functioning, such as personality and behavior. Testing can vary in its administration. Some tests are self-report, while others involve activities including drawings and computer activities. Individual tests are often given as part of a larger psychological assessment. For example, a person may undergo a comprehensive psychological evaluation that involves multiple tests given over a few separate days. For validity and reliability reasons, psychological testing must be performed by a professional—usually a psychologist—who has received appropriate training. So, when you see those internet IQ tests, take them with a grain of salt.

Why Does Someone Undergo Testing?

A psychological test can be given for multiple reasons. It may be performed because something is wrong with you or your child and you want to find out exactly what is going on. A school or agency might require it for admission or employment. Further, a court might require an evaluation for safety and competency reasons. Sometimes people just want to know more about themselves. Whatever the reason, psychological testing aims to inform and often point the way toward appropriate recommendations and treatment options.

Types Of Psychological Tests

There are numerous types of psychological tests but they primarily fall into the following four categories:

Clinical Interview

Although it may not seem like a test per se, a clinical interview provides one with a wealth of information. It is used by almost all mental health professionals in the intake phase of treatment or assessment. The objective of an interview is to get a comprehensive picture of a client. Some interviews are structured, or standardized, and have a fixed set of questions that are designed to pull for specific types of information. For example, the Structured Clinical Interview for DSM-5 (SCID-5 ) is a semi-structured interview designed to help professionals obtain information to assist in the diagnosis of psychological disorders. Most interviews that are performed, however, are not as structured and have questions guided by the predilections of the particular mental health professional.

IQ/Achievement Testing

Testing for Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and achievement are some of the cornerstones of psychological testing. They can be particularly valuable when trying to tease out the particular deficits that may be affecting a person’s academic progress. In a neuropsychological evaluation, the results of IQ and achievement testing can help psychologists pinpoint strengths and weaknesses in brain function.

IQ Test

An IQ test is almost always performed in any comprehensive psychological evaluation and provides a lot more information than just overall IQ. Although this may not be widely known, an IQ test measures verbal and non-verbal ability by asking the individual to perform a series of subtests that have a particular focus. For instance, a person may be asked to remember a series of numbers forward and backward in order to test for attention and short-term memory. Although many people are interested in overall IQ, valuable information is gained about particular aspects of brain function by examining the results of the subtests and how they compare with other areas. Some of the most common IQ tests are the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC-IV) and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV) as well as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales (SB-5).

Achievement Testing

When we talk about achievement testing in psychology we are usually referring to tests that measure achievement in a clinical population as opposed to the achievement tests a child might receive annually in school. These are tests that measure achievement compared to a normalized population of people that same age. Popular achievement tests are the Woodcock-Johnson Tests of Achievement (WJ-IV) and the Kaufman Test of Educational Achievement (K-TEA). Like IQ tests, they provide considerable information about a person’s cognitive strengths and weaknesses.

Personality Assessment

Tests that measure personality are quite varied. When used in a clinical setting, psychologists are usually looking for symptoms that aid in the diagnosis of a psychiatric disorder. Some of these tests are highly structured (objective tests) but some are intentionally vague (projective) and rely more on the interpretation of trained mental health professionals.

Projective Tests

The point of a projective personality measure is to allow an individual to project meaning onto somewhat ambiguous stimuli. It is then the job of the person conducting the test to interpret its meaning (sometimes with the help of more objective scoring measures).

The Rorschach

One of the most famous projective personality tests is the Rorschach Inkblot Test. An individual is shown some inkblots and asked to provide thoughts as to what the inkblots represent. Interpretations of its results are used to assess possible psychopathology and psychosis. Although a more standardized scoring system has been developed for the Rorschach, it was originally conceived for only subjective interpretation.


Another well-known projective test is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). In this measure, a client is shown a picture on a card and is asked to develop a story about what happened before during and after the time of the picture. The story is then interpreted for meaning by the professional. The pictures tend to pull for information about relationship dynamics and can be useful in discovering more about family and relationship issues.

Projective tests have somewhat fallen out of favor in the past 25 years. They are often criticized because their interpretation is somewhat subjective. Of course, it could be argued, that is also what makes them a powerful assessment tool.

Objective Tests

Objective personality measures have set questions and true/false or multiple choice answers. Results are given a number score which results in a definitive conclusion. These tests tend to be well-studied and have much stronger psychometric properties than projective tests. As a result, they are considered more accurate and are more often used in an official capacity, such as court proceedings.


One of the most respected objective personality tests is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). It consists of 567 true/false questions that aim to measure comprehensive aspects of psychiatric disorders. For example, there are scales for measuring depression and schizophrenia. Scores on its scales yield a definitive outcome that can be interpreted by computer analysis. One of the strengths of the MMPI is that it is difficult to figure out the “right” answers, making it ideal for individuals that may try to lie or exaggerate for various reasons. It has been found to have a high level of validity and reliability when compared to most psychological assessment measures.


The MMPI is primarily geared to measure mental illness. For a personality analysis of a more healthy individual, the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF) may be more appropriate. It consists of 185 multiple choice questions aimed to reveal where a person stands on 16 personality factors, including warmth, sensitivity, and perfectionism.

Behavioral Assessment

Behavioral assessments generally measure observable behavior. These types of tests are usually given when some sort of maladaptive behavior has been noticed. It is quite common, for example, for a child having behavioral difficulties in school to be given a behavioral assessment to figure out what may be occurring. These tests are usually self-report and may be completed by a child, adult, parent, and/or teacher. One of the weaknesses of behavioral assessments is that self-report is subject to personal bias and people may respond in a disingenuous way.


The Beck Depression Inventory is one of the more famous behavioral assessments. It is used to measure levels of depression. It consists of 21 self-report items that represent symptoms of depression as postulated by Aaron Beck’s cognitive theory of depression. The overall score indicates the severity of the depression.


The Child Behavior Checklist (CBCL) is a 120-item behavior checklist used to measure common problems of childhood, such as somatic difficulties, anxiety, and aggressive behavior. In addition, it can help identify behavioral disorders, including ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder. The CBCL can be completed by anyone who serves in a caregiver capacity, which is useful because children may present with different behaviors in contrasting settings.

When a person presents with complicated questions, psychological testing can be a great aid in evaluating the aspects of an individual’s personality, behavior, and cognitive processing. Through psychological assessment, a mental health professional can tease apart the areas that might be causing emotional and behavioral problems and put their client on a path to get the necessary help.

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